Organic Broadcaster

Urban farmers face unique challenges to certification

By Claire Strader, FairShare CSA Coalition

Voss Organics is a certified organic sub-acre urban farm on Madison’s north side, marketing to farmers markets, Willy Street Co-op, and several restaurants in Madison. Photo submitted

Urban agriculture means different things to different people. Community gardens, backyard plots, and educational youth gardens seem to be the most common associations with the term. These types of gardens are popular and easily accessible to the broad community of home-scale food producers. But they are only one part of the picture. Urban agriculture also includes rooftop gardens, aquaponics, hydroponics, and vertical farming systems that require significant infrastructure for everything from growing medium support to water cycling, heat, and even artificial light. These systems tend to be less accessible because of both the costs associated with the infrastructure and the specialized growing techniques that are required. They also start to cross over from purely household production to production of crops for sale.

A third piece of urban agriculture consists of market farms using in-ground production and selling those products for profit. This last slice of urban agriculture has fairly low barriers to entry, and has the potential to contribute a significant volume of food to urban communities while earning significant income for urban farmers.

My own interest in urban agriculture has long been within that third category. I have grown vegetables for market at four different farms across the country, and have been exposed to various scales, philosophies, and techniques of organic vegetable production. Within the vegetable world, as in other agricultural sectors, there is a certain pressure to increase efficiencies through mechanization and economies of scale. Though they require skill and dedication of the farmer, those pathways are familiar and common. Less common are resources on how to stay small, achieve similar efficiencies, and earn a reasonable profit. In urban centers where land is limited, those are the challenges of the urban farmer.

Reasons to Grow in the City

More and more farmers are taking on those challenges for a few key reasons. Proximity to urban markets, access to affordable land, reduced capital requirements, and consumer demand for local foods are some of the main drivers in the growth of urban market farms. As one indicator, the SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming system lists 94 established farms in 86 different cities throughout the U.S. and Canada on its website. These are all commercial farmers serving local markets from small plots (generally less than 1 acre). They, like other urban farmers, are using neighbors’ lawns, public parks, and other open plots at no or low cost for hand-scale commercial food production.

Their techniques involve tight spacing, intensive composting, multi-crop succession planting, and very little mechanical assistance in their work. When it all comes together, these farms can gross $50,000 or, in some cases, much more per acre.

Direct markets and the higher prices those markets command are vital to the success of these small urban farms. They are serving the increasing demand for local foods and catering to a clientele that wants to know the people behind the farm stand. Their proximity to markets saves them time and money; and being an urban farm can make for a unique farm story that is attractive to customers. In this setting, both farmers and consumers
may question the need for organic certification. Often there is an assumption that when the customer knows the farmer and can ask about their production practices, that relationship is enough to assure that the food is “clean” or “chemical-free” or “organic.” There is a perception, true or not, that each customer is equipped to be his or her own certifier by interacting directly with the farmer.

Farmers’ markets and CSAs are not the only markets where urban farmers wish to sell their products, however. Restaurant and grocery store accounts can fetch good prices with less uncertainty in sales than farmers’ markets and with less demand on crop diversity than CSAs. Those accounts, once established, also generally require less time spent on marketing and can be an important component of a strong business plan. Organic certification for these accounts is not only valuable, but often required. Without it, those establishments cannot label the food as organic. For some urban farmers I know, it is often a desire to sell to these direct wholesale accounts that sways them to certify their farms.

Though the requirements for organic certification in the city are the same as those in the country, urban farmers face three particular challenges that many rural farmers overcome with greater ease.

Buffer Zones

The first of those is establishing adequate buffer zones. Urban farmers using lawns in residential neighborhoods do not have enough space to set aside the usual 20 to 25 feet that MOSA, for instance, prefers. According to section 205.202(c) of the organic rule, the purpose of buffer zones is “to prevent the unintended application of prohibited materials.” The prohibited material of most concern in residential neighborhoods is the standard “weed and feed” lawn application. When used according to directions, these products are applied on a calm day to a moist lawn in order to help the product stick to weeds and grass, minimizing the possibility of drift. Where certifiers are willing to consider more narrow buffers and/or physical barriers such as shrubs and fences that can both meet the goal of the rule and minimize the loss of land to buffer zones, this requirement is certainly achievable for urban farmers.

Non-Contaminated Soil

The second challenge is ensuring the farm is established on non-contaminated soil. In section 205.202 (b), the organic rule requires that the land “have no prohibited substances…applied for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop.” In an urban setting where lead, other heavy metals, solvents, and other pollutants are more commonly found in the soil, farmers may need to go a step further. Research into current and prior uses of the area can reveal if a gas station, dry cleaner, or factory may have contaminated the soil—in which case, the site should be avoided. Soil tests for lead are common, affordable, and easy to do on all residential land where lead paint or proximity to roadways could result in high lead levels in the soil. Where contaminates are found, urban farmers may need to avoid those plots, remediate the soil, and/or use raised beds.

Land Tenure

The third challenge is not about a requirement for organic certification, but rather about the particular difficulty urban farmers may have with land tenure. In both urban and rural settings land is valuable not only for food production but also for homes, businesses, and other forms of development. Where urban farmers are using land that is owned by neighbors, businesses, or municipalities, there is always the threat that the land will become unavailable to the farmer. For example, neighbors sell their homes, businesses need more space for parking, and municipalities always have new uses for land. While farmers renting land in rural areas also face difficulties with land tenure, the risk of losing access to established urban farmland can be quite high. This increased risk is due to development pressures in the city, and also simply to the fact that urban farmers are often working multiple plots of land owned by different entities with various priorities for the land. Excellent communication between urban farmers and landowners is essential so that farmers can anticipate and plan for moving their farms to new plots as needed—where again they will need to test for contamination and establish buffers.

In order for urban farmers to find it worthwhile to go to the trouble of certifying their farms, the benefits of doing so must be clear. The ability to sell organic food to direct wholesale accounts is one clear benefit. A marketing edge at a farmers’ market or in a CSA may or may not be perceived as another. Is there a benefit to the farmer in inviting the oversight of an organic certification agency and the education and possibility for improvement that may be part of that relationship? As a certified organic vegetable farmer, I always thought so.

Meanwhile, urban agriculture of every type is growing. From the community gardener, to the kid raising cherry tomatoes in a school garden, to the new organic grower raising market vegetables on her neighbors’ lawns, food production is returning to a central place in more and more people’s lives. As a result, many of these people are also interested in and educated about agricultural issues. And for the most part, they all want “organic” food. One of the challenges for the organic community will be to convey the importance, benefits, and achievability of organic certification for urban market farmers. Now is the time to think about how organic certification and urban agriculture will work together.

Resources for Urban Farmers

Tips from the 2014 MOSES Conference workshop “Farming in the City.”


Claire Strader is the Small-Scale and Organic Produce Educator for Dane County Extension and the FairShare CSA Coalition. She was the Farm Director at Troy Community Farm in Madison, Wis. for 12 years, where she grew four acres of certified organic vegetables for CSA and other direct markets.

From the November | December Issue

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