Potential Pitfalls of Urban Farming

Sep 24, 2021  | 7 min  | Ep4706

The battle for land is a large and small acre issue. Just this month in Iowa at least three tracts of farmland sold for more than $22,000 an acre. 

Once abandoned city lots that were transitioned into urban gardens have become hot commodities as well as cities look to reclaim property to develop or sell. 

Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story on the challenges for those growing food in cities.

Monika Owczarski cultivates her inner-city community from the ground up through urban farming.

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa:  “Where we are standing was a redlined neighborhood.”

After moving into a historically underprivileged location near downtown Des Moines, Iowa, the young wife and mother also started the city’s first community fridge and pantry – kept afloat by volunteers who share her commitment to eradicate food insecurity. 

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa:  “The main differences between urban farming and gardening are probably scale, succession and selling.”

The former social worker says fresh, chemical free produce should never be considered a luxury item.  Her Sweet Tooth Farm accepts food stamps and other assistance, shares farm implements with neighbors, and operates, primarily, right next door.

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa “When we moved here, this was Royal Park.  The parks department actually still owns this space.  We are stewards of this lot.”

Her push to convert the rundown spot to small-scale agricultural use impressed the city’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Ben Page, who says it’s a first in his department’s 125 year history.

Ben Page/Director – Parks and Recreation/City of Des Moines, Iowa: “She’s helped so many people.  And I think it wouldn’t be a surprise if I tell you Des Moines is not a wealthy city.  I mean, we talk about 80 percent of our kids on free and reduced lunch.  Another goal of the city was to find ways to stop these food deserts, and to help people find local produce and healthy food.  And you point to this as probably one of the successful things we started that movement with was Monika.”

Despite local accolades, Owczarski’s plan to expand from 1 to 3 acres was nipped in the bud this summer when another city division informed her they would not renew leases on 2 other parcels of industrial land she’d acquired - both unused since the 1970s. 

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa:  “It’s quite a precarious position to be in.  The explanation we were given is that the City of Des Moines just doesn’t have enough undeveloped land available for people.  So they want to have it ready in case someone ever wanted to build on it.”

In a June email to the Mayor and City Council, Des Moines’ Director of Development Services stated efforts to redevelop, expand the city’s tax base and employment opportunities were behind the decision – reiterating such properties are intended for development purposes in the long term.  Owczarski says officials offered up another piece of land, but she found it inadequate for various reasons.

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa:  “This might sound forward or blunt, but it is very easy to make a graphic or a hashtag about supporting local farms, or shop local, or even about healthy eating.  It’s much more difficult to kind of put your money where your mouth is…and make decisions that potentially are not as lucrative, financially, for the city, but could be exponentially better for the community in real terms.”

While her initial model is rather unique to the area, nationwide many urban gardeners have run afoul of what they call myriad hazy provisions as local governments adapt. 

Jennifer Zwagerman/Director – Agricultural Law Center/Drake University/Des Moines, Iowa:  “When we talk about the laws and the policies that impact how we produce our food, who produces our food, urban agriculture is definitely a growing part of that discussion.”

Jennifer Zwagerman is the director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines.  In addition to educating the next generation of attorneys, Drake publishes research and information on issues impacting food and farm production. 

Jennifer Zwagerman/Director – Agricultural Law Center/Drake University/Des Moines, Iowa:  “Zoning is probably the biggest thing.  And you’re also going to need to look at tax issues.  You need to look at business issues.  How are you planning to operate?  What changes if you expand?” 

Just a few miles away lies a pocket of unincorporated county land, and another neighborhood farm – Dogpatch Urban Gardens – which also felt blindsided by bureaucracy in the recent past.

Jenny Quiner/Owner – Dogpatch Urban Gardens/Des Moines, Iowa:  “Frankly, the hardships we faced, we almost shut down the business.”

Former high school science teacher Jenny Quiner now sells fresh, organic produce to restaurants, grocers, and at her farmstand.  She says though diligent and proactive about local regulations, two years after startup, she faced around $75,000 in commercial storefront compliance requirements when Polk County officials updated her assessment.

Jenny Quiner/Owner – Dogpatch Urban Gardens/Des Moines, Iowa:  “Initially we were deemed a farm stand, which kind of checked the boxes.  My gut says the county probably thought that this will be a small thing that, you know, we’ll just kind of float…  But we ended up being more successful and getting a lot of people through the door, which got more eyes on our business.”

Ultimately, Quiner was able to rally with community donations covering a portion of the funds via a wildly successful online fundraiser.

Jenny Quiner/Owner – Dogpatch Urban Gardens/Des Moines, Iowa:  “That really was an uplifting experience.”

In a statement, the Polk County Board of Supervisors commended local food producers, particularly during the pandemic, and said they’re open to discussing unnecessary barriers to entry while maintaining fair rules to protect resident health and safety.

Jenny Quiner/Owner – Dogpatch Urban Gardens/Des Moines, Iowa:  “The problem we dealt with was when we asked initially if we needed these things, we were told no.”

Quiner says those following in her footsteps should exhaust all legal advice before breaking ground.

Efforts in recent years by Iowa’s General Assembly to address urban farm zoning issues may have lost steam, but cities coast to coast have turned urban decay into bountiful harvests with support from federal grants through USDA.  Others counter land issues which can be micromanaged at the homeowner association level are best dealt with locally.

Jennifer Zwagerman/Director – Agricultural Law Center/Drake University/Des Moines, Iowa:  “The cities that have really worked to encourage this type of activity - they set clear definitions for what they expect.  What’s an urban garden versus a commercial enterprise?  They’re going to define that, so that when you’re thinking about entering this market, or becoming part of this movement – you know what it is that you need to do.”

In the meantime, Owczarski is faced with a setback in production, and may have no way to recoup the $10,000 she spent rehabbing soil on lots the city is reclaiming.  But she says she’ll make it through with support from friends and neighbors. She plans to do her best avoiding similar issues in the search for new properties, but offers a word of caution.

Monika Owczarski/Owner – Sweet Tooth Farm/Des Moines, Iowa:  “Unfortunately, bureaucracy moves a lot slower than the growing season.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.


Producer Contact: josh@iowapbs.org 

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