Urban farmers who are turning vacant lots into fresh food sources say they’re here to stay and are out to convince the real estate industry and city planners they represent a beneficial, long-term change in the land-use patterns of the core cities.

Seeking to address shortages of healthy, fresh vegetables in urban “food deserts” as well as answer the booming demand for locally sourced foods in restaurants and on store shelves, growing operations are expanding in mostly low-income neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the foreclosure crisis resulted in hundreds of house teardowns and pockmarked the landscape with vacant lots.

Many of these lots are owned by municipal housing and redevelopment authorities, whose ultimate goal is to sell them to housing developers. Others are held by private landowners who may be waiting for the housing market to rebound to build on them anew.

Urban farms are also springing up on former industrial lands, many of which are officially awaiting redevelopment into residential or commercial uses.

But rather than being seen by real estate professionals and planners as an “interim” land use at best, leaders in the urban farming movement are taking the offensive in promoting the idea that farming is indeed the “highest and best use” for these lots because of the serious social benefits they provide.

Two such advocates brought their urban farming education campaign to a meeting of the Minnesota Commercial Real Estate Women (MnCREW) industry trade group this week, including Katya Pilling, economic development director for the Landon Group, a St. Paul-based real estate consultancy specializing in affordable housing.

Pilling, as a former official with nonprofit developer Seward Redesign, was instrumental in the establishment of the Growing Lots Urban Farm, located within the Bystrom Brothers redevelopment site near the Franklin Avenue LRT station.

“We were inspired by Will Allen in Milwaukee and his ‘Growing Power’ urban agriculture movement,” she said. “When Seward bought this abandoned industrial land in 2008, the idea was we’d hold it and phase its development over time. But we saw what Will Allen was doing and teamed up with [Growing Lots operator] Stefan Meyer to instead turn this site into an urban farm as an interim use.”

As a pioneering urban agriculture operation, Pilling said it was a challenge to work out city permissions on an “ad hoc” basis — dealing with big quantities of compost, getting permits and other thorny issues.

“But the beauty of Allen’s ideas is that it allows you to do urban farming on ‘brownfields,’ which makes new uses for abandoned industrial sites possible and really changes the equation for redevelopment,” she said.

Also speaking to MnCREW this week was Caroline Devany, community liaison for Stone’s Throw Farm, a collection of 16 small-scale sites scattered throughout the Twin Cities, concentrated mainly in the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis and the Frogtown area of St. Paul.

Devany said her message to real estate professionals is that the urban agriculture movement is becoming “a player in thinking about what constitutes the ‘highest and best use’ of urban land.

“Events like the foreclosure crisis brought this to the forefront and created an opening for people to rethink land uses,” she said. “What I want to do is keep this conversation going and create other ways to find permanent sites for urban agriculture without there having to be a tragedy like the foreclosure crisis, which of course affected low-income communities disproportionately.”

Stone’s Throw, which unlike many urban farmers is a for-profit operation using a business model adapted to inner-city sites, has 2 ½ acres in production, which last year produced $50,000 in vegetables per acre — far exceeding the rural farm average of $5,000 to $10,000 per acre.

It shows the intensive urban farming techniques and a pressing need for locally sourced foods justifies the elevation of urban agriculture into ranks of “best uses” for urban land, Devany said.

“What we’re trying to convey is that it’s really not an alternative to development, but its own form of development,” she said. “A lot people think of it as an interim use, but the potential public benefits of urban agriculture as a permanent use are considerable.”

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.