How do we farm without land?

UntitledOne of the most difficult hurdles in farming is access to land. If you live in a rural area, a spread-out city like Houston, or a blighted city with many vacant lots it is apparent that there is no lack of land. The problem is that the land belongs to someone else. It is possible that the new program for farming does not include owning the land.
Governments, corporations, and wealthy land owners sit on land that is unused, save the occasional criss-cross of a lawnmower, costing the owner money and increasing greenhouse gasses. A much better use of that land would be to give some of the many people who would like to farm the opportunity to use it. The government, corporation or land owner would benefit from the bragging rights of presenting an organic garden and the farmer would make some money with the produce. The problem arrises when we bring up the word profit. Governments and large corporations, in particular, do not like for-profit entities on their property unless they are getting a cut. And we all know that the profit in farming does not leave a lot to share.
A solution to this would be to form a non profit organization that helps promote organic food, gardens, children in gardening, etc. This organization could pay the workers in the garden a modest wage, pay themselves a modest salary, and donate the rest to gardening education which they would do on a Saturday or a field trip, etc. Of course, like most business owners, they are taking on the risk, not knowing if they can make enough to make it worth their while. All proceeds would end up in the hands of the people who did the work, and that would not be a lot. Being a non profit, if you got to the point that you were making too much money, that would be used to expand–work more land and hire more people.
The land owner could be assured that the sign at the garden, introducing a nonprofit organization, would reflect an atmosphere of altruism. People farming would make money, unused land would be made productive and the people/governments/companies would feel pride in their reallocation of resources. The land owners would be responsible for paying water and taxes, but they were already doing that.
If one company turned a small lot into a beautiful garden the competing and neighboring companies would follow. Of course the farmers would have to keep their gardens looking better than my gardens in order to please the owner who is used to an accepted view of landscaping. This might require fund raisers to make beautiful fencing and mulched paths.
A model of land leasing is already in use with livestock that graze power company easements and farms. These typically lease for $1.00 per year and give a land owner the opportunity to apply for agricultural valuation on their real estate taxes after five years. Maybe the tax authority in counties and cities could work on such an incentive for urban land. Multi-year leases would be necessary because of the work involved in improving the soil.
Such an enterprise would require a business plan and all the bookkeeping forms that go along with getting a non-profit off the ground and approved by the IRS, but it could be a game changer. Just look at what Growing Power has done in Milwaukee. It has companies asking them to take unused land. They do a fundraiser to provide a greenhouse (it is cold in Milwaukee unlike Texas) and use paid untrained labor under the direction of knowledgeable employees to build and maintain the facilities. They get lower unemployment, better land use, and provide farmers markets in underserved areas.
These land owners have spent a lot of money on landscaping that is not providing food for people, chickens or sheep. Turning these into farms could help the land owner, increase local employment, improve the environment, and give opportunities to farmers. It would also help the dietary health of a community at little to no cost.
We need new solutions when land ownership is beyond the financial reach of farming. If your business plan does not allow for enough profit to buy property you should not be excluded from farming. We need more farmers, particularly younger enthusiastic ones. And it does not take a lot to be younger than the average farmer in the United States. I have heard figures ranging from 55 to 65, and rest assured I am one and I welcome the company of younger colleagues.


2 thoughts on “How do we farm without land?

  1. Doug Barhorst May 31, 2014 / 4:17 pm

    I agree with you whole-heartedly, but for me, the title would be “How Do We Farm Without Quality Soil”.

    Unfortunately, as someone farming in the city, I have not been able to overcome the primary barrier to a community project. The Soil. The time, labor and cost of renewing or overlaying poor, contaminated, and dead soil (most urban soil) usually diminishes the enthusiam of the good and interested people involved. Too many decades of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, improper waste disposal, compaction, poor drainage, etc. has taken the life out of most urban soils, especially in utility right-of-ways. The grass is not even good for the livestock eating it (why they bring in hay) and I doubt you ever see hay gathered from urban easements when they are mowed. Its just a cheap way to manage a bunch of livestock with no concern for the soil.

    Developing good soil can take years to see results, building and applying adequate compost, remineralizing, encouraging beneficials, etc. Its all about time, unless you have lots of donated bucks to purchase new soil or amendment materials to throw at a project. Regardles of the land cost, I don’t believe land is the major concern. Growing Power was developed and built its reputation in an old vacant nursery and garden center with existing greenhouses, not on a vacant lot or utility easement.

    A non-profit is the way to go, but getting IRS approval as a 501c(3) is not easy and takes time. Most non-profit efforts need a sucessful history to attract funding and usually depend on the initial group of committed folks to provide the labor and funds to get it off the ground. They must make a substantial investment (in their time and money) and then be willing to gift that investment to the non-profit. The start-up funding, if not adequately forecasted and achieved for full soil remediation (or top-layed/raised-bed new soil), will delay the results necessary to develop and maintain an adequate volunteer labor pool and encourage future donations.

    Those willing to donate funds usually don’t want to wait several years to see the outcome of their gift. Even though a corporation may donate funds, it is the current CEO or board members who look forward to the reward, not their possibly unconcerned replacements. We are a society which thrives on immediacy or we loose focus. Its the ADD world we live in. Too many decades of bad, hormones and antibiotics added, gmo, processed food. Few folks are willing to wait two years or more for their first decent head of cabbage or tasty,vine-ripened tomato from the garden they worked in or donated to.

    This is why I am starting to feel such projects should start with hydroponics – to get quick results and maintain the interest of a volunteer labor pool and those who donate funds while such a project builds the soil for the future. Build an inexpensive greenhouse, get some leafy greens, tomatoes and cucumbers growing while the soil is being built (and everyone learns how to build it), plus eveyone gets to learn about hydroponics in the mean time – and have some great salads. If electricity is unavailable, do a bunch of Kratky Method tubs for greens and a bunch of containers for tomatoes and cucumbers. Harvest rainwater from the greenhouse roof to minimize carrying in water and educate about the importance of managing our water resources. At least get something growing to build and maintain interest.

    One thing I know for sure. The sooner people eat, the sooner they feel rewarded for their efforts (or their donation). Once everyone feels rewarded, the sky is the limit.

    I did it all backwards. I spent 5 years building the soil, then adding greenhouses and rainwater catchment and raising worms for castings. The first few years were a disappoining harvest as I developed the soil. I just didn’t feel rewarded for all my effort. Now that everything is growing great, tastes great, sells great, and is a source of pride, I am finally transitioning to hydroponics for my leafy greens. I think I should have started with hydroponics because I almost gave up. I probably needed that quick reward.

    Cities and school districts have tons of land set aside for future expansion. City parks and recreation departments thrive on new programming and have lots of land, plus they are fantastic support for marketing and maintenance. The same holds true for school districts with the added benefit of potential educational program tie-ins. There is no lack of land. There is no lack of interested people. The problem is a lack of immediately available quality soil. Man has spent the past century destroying our most important resource which, without our focused attention, will lead to our starvation.

    Doug Barhorst
    Urban Farm Outlet
    Pasadena, Texas

  2. The Laughing Frog Farm June 2, 2014 / 3:23 pm

    I totally agree with the soil issue. Most of the groups I have worked with have brought in soil for at least one raised garden to provide some immediate success and amended and planted legumes or something that helps the soil in the other parts. Of course, if you are dealing with severely contaminated soil that is a longer story. And what is contamination? pesticides? herbicides? ammonium nitrate? arsenic? The aquaponics can provide immediate fertility to the system and to the old used soil by pumping water on the gardens when it becomes overly nitrated, but every option takes time. Farming should be a profitable enterprise. After all we start with a penny seed and end up with lots of vegetables. It is all the other issues that bankrupt the business. Thanks for the feedback

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s