Control of Farmland, City Style

I have thought a lot lately about the issue of land ownership for farmers, and the barriers they face to buying land so they can plan for growing their business and serving more food consumers.

This issue really matters on the edges of metropolitan areas, where farmers can find lucrative markets for their products and yet, with ever escalating land prices, face daunting odds in securing land to grow on or even to get started. Many farmers settle for a lease instead, which sometimes only lasts a couple years before the relationship between owner and farmer sours.

It’s interesting to see that control of land for farming is an issue in urban agriculture, as well. At a recent farming conference in Richmond, Va., a board member of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (UACC) talked about a city-sponsored plan to redevelop her neighborhood, which would include relocating the farm she and her neighbors have worked on for seven years.

Community gardens have fallen victim to a lack of land tenure before, notably in New York City where former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took many neighborhood gardens back for redevelopment in the late 1990s. (Successive mayors have carried on the trend he started.) Many politicians (and their developer friends) see agriculture as merely a cute placeholder until the time is ripe for construction.

In Charlottesville’s case, the area proposed for redevelopment was renewed once before, in the 1960s, during the height of Urban Renewal across the country. The new plan calls for mixed-income housing rather than affordable housing, which naturally has long-time residents worried that the fabric of their community will be destroyed. Their concerns were magnified when the city made what to them was a token effort to involve them in the public process.  The interesting twist is the presence of the farm, which, though it has a farmer who came from somewhere else, has a board made up primarily of neighborhood residents. The farm has succeeded in gaining community buy-in in a couple of ways. First, the resident-led board directs the development of the farm program. Second, the group created a system in which residents contribute to the garden in exchange for fresh produce. Rather than paying for vegetables, residents can volunteer a half-hour or more of their time. For this they get tokens which they can use to get food that would be worth $10 to $20 at the grocery store, according to Todd Niemeier, the farmer, who was on the panel at the conference.

Niemeier downplayed the political significance of what he and the neighborhood residents are doing. He said his goal is to, “just grow some food together, rather than try to solve [a problem].”

Nevertheless, about a year ago as the plan to transform the community was published, Niemeier wrote on the group’s blog that their activities were likely to change as a result. “Because we are a community-led group, UACC is in a unique position to help raise public awareness about the … plan both among our constituents and within the broader community. It is our hope that by sharing information about the plan, and helping to raise the voice of unheard residents, we can inspire positive action.”

Though the residents of this neighborhood are unlikely to become owners of this patch of ground, in a way they have claimed control of it already. Unlike during the days of Urban Renewal, when it might have been quickly swept aside, the farm is likely to play a significant role as planning moves toward implementation.

(Photo credit: Flickr user crfsproject, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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