When urban farming entered the mainstream thinking of community and economic developers, many prospective farmers envisioned a quick payday selling their products to high-end restaurants and other retailers.
The reality hasn’t been as bountiful as they hoped.
Increasing property values, notoriously thin margins — a common thread most conventional, organic and urban farmers share — and a lack of high-end buyers stifled what many thought to be a hot market.
That’s not to say urban farmers haven’t found a niche in West Michigan over the past five years. Instead of driving dollars to the bottom line, urban farmers have switched their models to focus on community revitalization, public health and youth welfare.
“Urban farming isn’t just about producing food,” said Levi Gardner, founder and director at Grand Rapids-based Urban Roots GR, a four-year-old farm that operates a half-acre of land located at 1316 Madison Ave. SE. “People normally say you’re producing a product for market but it’s about education, community revitalization, and public health. I think that’s one of the things that needs to be delineated. … It’s more about creating community and livelihoods around agriculture.”
However, even with the shift in focus, challenges remain for the small-scale growers. To maintain their staff and programs, many urban farmers rely on grant funding. They also struggle with zoning regulations and city officials who don’t understand the benefits of opening up municipal land to be farmed.
That’s something Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., plans to address with new legislation to extend federal dollars and resources to more farmers operating in urban environments.
The Urban Agriculture Act of 2016, which was formally introduced on Sept. 29, aims to expand financial programs under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to include urban farmers. The bill would also extend dollars toward urban farming research, create an urban agriculture office at the USDA, and provide other programs and resources to support urban farmers.
“The fastest growing area of agriculture is really organic and small farm production, and with that, more production in urban areas,” Stabenow told MiBiz. “Having a focus to support small growers and the jobs that can be added with urban agriculture I think just broadens support for what we’re doing in agriculture.”
Stabenow also sees the legislation as a continuation of the work accomplished in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.
“This last (Farm Bill) had more support from farmers markets and organic agriculture and small farms than we ever had before,” Stabenow said. “This is just the next step at looking comprehensively at urban agriculture.”
Growers such as Gardner of Urban Roots hope the legislation will help urban farming gain some validity in the larger agricultural community.
“The Farm Bill, as a $1 trillion omnibus bill, has not done a whole lot to acknowledge the value of urban agriculture other than it’s a thing that happens,” Gardner said. “The thing that I appreciate is trying to get urban agriculture on a level playing field with all the other elements of agriculture and in doing so, helping it gain some notoriety and legitimacy in the national conversation.”
For Lance Kraai, who serves as the farm director of Grand Rapids-based New City Farm, the bill would also open up additional avenues for funding. Despite grossing $80,000 per year from its 3-acre farm at 1226 Union Ave. NE, New City Farm relies on grant dollars to fund its mission of providing youth employment opportunities, Kraai said.
“It’s exciting that they’re thinking about urban agriculture specifically in this act,” Kraai said. “In the past, for those kinds of funding sources, we had to go around the side door. … When we’re seeking funding, we have different priorities than a more rural situation. With urban agriculture, you have social outcomes that are intertwined with the production of things.”
Currently, many urban farmers do not qualify for financing programs under the USDA and are subsequently not eligible for loans from creditors such as GreenStone Farm Credit Services. The new legislation aims to open up those federal financing programs that would help qualify farmers for other capital.
However, Gardner questions exactly how much the legislation would help expand funding, given that urban farming does not represent a lucrative business model — especially when coupled with a social mission.
“Urban farmers don’t need financing because there’s no money to be made,” he said. “Traditional financial institutions are going, ‘Hey, urban farmers need startup capital so we’ll get them the $50,000 in capital they need.’ (But) that’s not how urban farming works, because it’s trying to solve a myriad of issues at the same time.
“I didn’t get paid for two-and-a-half years and now I get paid because we wrote grants. That’s not something that a traditional lending institution will be able to understand. Land prices are higher (and) labor is different, so there’s no way a traditional financial model is going to support many farmers.”
For her part, Stabenow believes the opportunities for urban farmers to grow their businesses will come as the industry establishes itself with more farms, local food hubs and urban agriculture-based organizations.
“The market has to be established through consumer demand, but right now, it’s the chicken or the egg because if there’s no product, there’s no consumer demand,” she said. “When we develop new product, I think we’ll see consumer demand go up just like we’ve seen with organic growing and the local food hubs.”
When it comes to funding, Kraai of New City Farm would like to see a system that compensates urban farmers for enacting social change. As it stands, New City Farms writes grants just so it can afford to pay the 18 high school students it employs over the course of the year, Kraai said.
The farm pays roughly $28,000 in wages to the students for work during the planting and harvest season, along with other year-round farm work.
Kraai said the opportunity for urban farmers lies in improving the communities where they are located, whether that’s through employment, offering healthy eating options or effecting other positive social change.
“You can read books on urban agriculture, and it’s like, ‘You can make $100,000 on an acre.’ I’m a little skeptical of that in West Michigan,” he said. “It’s possible if all I was growing is green onions and radishes for high-end restaurants, but you’d have to identify a market willing to consume that. … For me, youth employment makes the most sense when you look at how young adult unemployment in Michigan is like 40 percent. That’s a huge societal loss.”