Making vacant land work for the city with urban farms

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

(photo credit: Doug Wheller)

More than a year ago, the California Supreme Court upheld the dissolution of the 400 or so Redevelopment Agencies (RDA’s) throughout the state. The decision was a devastating blow to cities which used the RDA money for projects, including housing.

For many cities and counties, the problem has only gotten worse with time. Many of the projects started through the RDA’s are now vacant lots. Those properties and buildings are now dilapidated and big eyesores creating a problem for local governments. Some cities are looking for innovative ideas to make the land productive while those projects remain in limbo.

The City of San Marcos just might have one answer. Why not use vacant city property to grow fruits and vegetables? It’s an idea proposed by the city’s director of housing and neighborhood services, who recently saw success stories from other cities like Long Beach, CA and Cleveland.

“We have vacant lots in the city. Some of them have been sitting vacant for over 10 years and the city manager said, ‘Can we come up with ideas to make revenue or put them to good use?'” said Karl Schwarm. “The City of Long Beach had purchased property and then tore down the dilapidated structures. Redevelopment was killed, so these buildings were just sitting vacant. Farmers approached the city and asked if they could use the land to farm. So they started leasing these lots out.”

Subscription farms, often called community supported agriculture, from which customers agree in advance to buy weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables, aren’t new ideas. They’re popping up in many cities and they’re usually owned and operated privately. In this case, the City would be the sponsors and coordinators of the effort.

“It’s putting our vacant lots to use until they can be developed. That’s what my idea was and I’m exploring all options to do that,” said Schwarm.

To gauge the response with citizens, the City created a survey. So far, the response rate hasn’t been high, but the folks who have responded are extremely excited. In fact, Schwarm is already getting calls from farmers and gardeners.

“On one of our biggest properties, we had a grower, who’s growing sunflowers, in this case not for use of agriculture, and who is now going to start farming 17 acres of vacant land.”

Schwarm said subscription farms could bring in money as well as clear out the eyesores.

“If we can make some money, great. But we actually, on a lot of those lots, we pay for water meters and electrical meters. On some we’ve actually paid property taxes. So there’s a cost going out and there’s nothing coming back in. So we said, ‘Let’s make them cost neutral to the city or if we can make a little money on them, by renting them or finding temporary use that we can make a little bit of money on, great.'”

Those in the agriculture business believe San Marcos is onto something, but could face some challenges.

“I think it’s absolutely a wonderful idea, if it’s done in the right way,” said Daniel Hofshi, manager, Eli’s Farms. “It really depends on how the city goes about doing this. This could be a really good thing for the city. It could be a really good thing for the community. It could be a good thing for the local agriculture or it could go really bad as well. Farming isn’t easy. It took my brother a long time to figure out what works and what doesn’t–how to get the fruit to produce.”

“Where I think it’s going to be hard is selling people on subscriptions. I’ve been doing this a year with my brother and we’ve been trying to make it really flexible for people. This program doesn’t work for everybody,” said Hofshi.

“Farming them would keep the weeds down, put them in productive use and benefit the community. We think it’s a win-win,” said Schwarm.

Encouraging efficient land use that promotes the health of a city or regional ecosystem as well as raising awareness of the importance of working landscapes as economic, environmental and social assets are key priorities for the Working Landscapes Action Team of the California Economic Summit. The 2013 Summit is in Los Angeles on November 7-8.


Cheryl Getuiza

All stories by: Cheryl Getuiza