John C. Jones, MPA, PhD

Category: Urban Farm

Enterprise Profile: Farming a Former Football Field

The We Over Me Farm in Dallas, Texas may be the most innovate use of space in urban farming I’ve yet seen. The 2-acre organic farm is located on the former football field of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college (HBCU). In addition to in-ground and hoophouse vegetable production, the farm also raises chickens, bees, and tilapia. According to their website, farmers have grown over 55,000 pounds of vegetables since their inception in March of 2010. The school closed its football program and launched the farm in 2010 as one way to respond to the food swamp plaguing the community surrounding the Paul Quinn campus. (Click here to listen to Paul Quinn’s president speak about the history of the farm’s development.) The non-profit farm both sells produce to local restaurants but also donates food to local charitable organizations. Student-employees form the farm’s workforce and professors have incorporate learning at the farm in several courses.

I have not visited this farm nor contacted its staff, however I can speculate about several unusual characteristics to farming on such a site. First, the site presumably already possessed both the water and electrical infrastructure, both of which are key characteristics in determining potential success in urban farming. Additionally, it is likely that site contains one or more unused buildings that could be used for storage of materials and harvested produce, as well as washing and packing. I could not find any written or pictorial documentation of this on the web. Finally, an important characteristic of any football field is parking and access to major roads. These characteristics are also important characteristics for successful urban farms. Satellite imaging from Google Maps indicates the farm has ample parking and road access (pan slightly right/East).

Follow this link to a USDA produced video that shows some elements of the farm’s built environment, including extant goal posts, scoreboard, and lighting rigs. (More pictures are available through this USDA profile.)

Enterprise Profile: Guided by Mushrooms

Guided by Mushroom is an informal-scale urban food enterprise that specializes in mushroom farming that, as of late November 2018, has operated for less than one year. The farm is located a family-owned, six acre campus bordered on three sides by an elbow turn in the Stillwater River in the City of Clayton, Ohio. Elsewhere on the campus are several other single-family homes and associated outbuildings. The entire property is wooded and is not visible from any nearby public roads.

The owner-operators, a couple, have adapted parts of a multi-car garage, that their extended family renovated to create a space for their operation. Their growing operation uses three spaces: a) a small seeding room containing their seeding operation and a Laminar Flow Hood, an industrial-strength homemade air filter chamber; b) a growing space in a temperature and moisture controlled tent in another wise unheated large single-car garage; and c) an outdoor space with a 41-quart All-American Pressure Cooker, a 55-gallon drum substrate steam sterilizer used to prepare their saw dust and soybean husk growing medium.

 The owners report selling roughly 20-30 pounds of mushrooms per week to two farm-to-table restaurants in the greater Dayton, Ohio region. The owners said that demand is high for their mushrooms, and believe that they could easily sell more mushrooms, to either new or existing customers, if they could maintain a greater level of production. They believe that part of this high demand is due to their product’s quality and uniqueness, as well as the niche they fill in a marketplace that otherwise relies upon farmers from out of state.

The owners indicate that scaling up their production volume is their greatest challenge. Part of this challenge was due to need to test various production techniques, growing mediums, and growing environment conditions. Several online communities of hobbyist, informal, and micro-scale mushrooms producers provided much of this information to the owners. Despite these early hurdles, the owners have only spent several thousand dollars in start-up costs. As of our conservation, they now believe they have determined best practices for their operation and expect to improve their production capacity in the coming months.

They report no contact with local regulatory officials, but do not expect any conflict with local or state regulations. Despite this lack of contact, the owners still wish local officials were more aware of various examples of urban food entrepreneurship in their region and wish that that local governments would make micro-grants available to urban food entrepreneurs. In the near future, they hope to incorporate either as an LLC or a worker-owned cooperative. As of late November 2018, they had no specific plans to become a formal enterprise.

Follow these links for more information on Guided by Mushrooms:

Guided by Mushrooms uses part of multi-car garage renovated to create extra living space.
A look inside the temperature controlled growing tent that is located inside a unheated garage.
The seeding room. The device on the right is a DIY air filtration chamber used in the seeding process to ensure only mycelium is introduced to the growing medium.
Shelf space in the growing room. Once harvested fully, bags are turned over for a second harvest and then discarded.  

Identifying Public Land for Transitive vs Transformative Uses by Urban Agriculture

One of my dissertation’s major themes is that the local and state governments need to act intentionally regarding urban food enterprise development. My research found many examples of how local and state policies unintentionally negatively affected the ability of entrepreneurs to grow their operations. One example of these unintentional policies I commonly observed is when local and state governments provided urban farmers access to publicly owned, vacant land under less than ideal conditions. In these cases, government officials sought to utilize urban agriculture as a short-term stop-gap for a piece of land until development pressure for a higher and better use (e.g. an residential or commercial building) for that land returned. Often this manifested as short-term leases (e.g. six month or one year leases), which farmers noted prevented them from investing in infrastructure, such as soil improvement or water access, to improve their farm’s economic viability. However,some officials I spoke with said they would like to provide longer-term access to publicly owned land that faces less development pressure in the short-term so that farmers would have more flexibly to develop infrastructure.

I believe that urban agriculture generally, including both commercial farming and non-commercial gardening, can play a role in providing short-term uses for land that will be developed in the near future. I refer to this as a transitional use. However, I also believe that urban agriculture, specifically commercialized farming, can potentially have a transformative effect on the surrounding neighborhood if farmers have the proper infrastructure and time to develop their farms. I refer to this as a transformative use. Government officials seeking to engage urban agriculture for either use should intentionally identify public land that would be well suited to short-term land access as well as long-term land access. However, to avoid potential accusations of being arbitrary or capricious through land access programs, officials should utilize an empirical system to determine which land should be targeted for transitional use and which land could be targeted for transformative use. Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) is a spatial analysis technique that uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to generate a score for all potential land in a given community or neighborhood based on a number of variables. Officials could then make land that scores high for transitional or transformative uses available to urban farmers. The score produced by a LESA can also include physical or spatial characteristics of land that are likely to encourage urban farmers to succeed in developing economically.

I have recently thought about what variables might be important for such a LESA. Here are a few examples:
a) soil type (assuming original soil)
b) land slope
c) access to water infrastructure
d) road distance to closest food hub or regional aggregation point
e) likelihood of development pressure in next 3-5 years

I found Tulloch, Myers, Hasse, Parks, & Lathrop (2003) provided a good overview of the general LESA technique, but others likely exist as well. If your jurisdiction or organization is interested in this type of LESA for your community, I am capable of performing this analysis on a consultant basis. Please contact me for more details.

First Post!

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