Land for SLC Urban Dwellers 

Salt Lake County offers empty land to urban dwellers with a green thumb.

click to enlarge JOSH LOFTIN

Diane and Jerry Jones own Cottage Greens Farm in Roosevelt, but they live in Salt Lake City. In the summer months, the Joneses sell heirloom and other unique produce at the weekly Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park and make trips to Roosevelt about twice a week—an expensive and time-consuming business expense. They’d like to find land to farm closer to Salt Lake City, specifically a parcel in Draper that will be available this year through Salt Lake County’s Urban Farming Initiative.

The Joneses and other prospective farmers attended a Jan. 21 urban farming open house at the Salt Lake County Government Center, where more than 30 parcels throughout the county were unveiled for possible farming, ranging in size from less than a quarter acre to 40 acres.

Getting access to farmland, however, may be the easy part. While the Draper parcel they are eyeing is probably for planting, many of the plots, Jerry Jones says, “will take at least a month of hard work, and that’s if you worked every day and did nothing else.” That’s why they’re hoping the land will be available early this spring, so they can get the soil prepared and crops planted. That seems unlikely, however, because the processes for applications, screening and leasing are still being worked out by county officials.

Salt Lake County’s Urban Farming

The county’s Urban Farming program owes its start to Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley, who began advocating for land to produce locally-grown food and fuel in summer 2009. The Parks & Recreation Department first looked at surplus lands, including their soil viability, which is probably the biggest concern for many aspiring farmers.

That’s where Utah State University extension agent Shawn Olsen comes in. He’s been working with farmers for 25 years, recently consulting for the Urban Farming Initiative on possible land to use. “Some of the areas I looked at had some real perennial weed problems, so [farmers] may have to grow wheat or barley to control the broadleaf weeds. But, some of those that we looked at, the soil did look good, like parcels of Wheadon Farm [located in Draper]. It’s been cultivated land for a long time.”

Olsen acknowledges farming is a difficult job. There’s a steep learning curve to mastering watering, fertilization and pest control; it’s also hard physical work. Add to that marketing and transporting produce, and there’s a lot of different hats that farmers wear to be successful. “It’s not for everyone,” Olsen says.

Regardless of the toils involved, Olsen says that many aspiring farmers he has met are eager and positive.

Farmers involved in the new program receive land and water with their lease. Despite a high turnout at the open house and predicted demand, Salt Lake County Open Space program manager Julie Peck- Dabling, who will oversee the initiative, can’t imagine that all of the parcels will be taken quickly—only the most optimal parcels will be spoken for, based on location, demand and fertility. Many of the smaller properties will go through Wasatch Community Garden, but she predicts those will move more slowly since they require funding and infrastructure that start-up garden communities don’t have.

County officials heading up the new initiative are hoping to encourage new farmers by providing smaller plots, which are more manageable and less cost-intensive. “I heard the average age of farmers in Salt Lake Valley is [older than] 59 years old. We need to get more young people farming,” Peck-Dabling says. Yet, beyond small independent farmers and community gardens, she says, they also want the program to be a success, and to do so, they need experienced farmers, too.

A plot fee or leasing terms has not been determined, although it will not be prohibitive. “This is not a money-maker for the county. The reality is, that’s not what happens in farming. Generally, farmers lease the land for a nominal fee from former farmer families. I’m sure if we wanted to make a lot of money, the program would not succeed,” Peck-Dabling says.

Peck-Dabling hopes to have applications to lease land available in the spring, ideally by the first of March and also hopes to have as many as a dozen farms flourishing by 2012. Prior to sending the applications, Peck-Dabling says the county needs to create evaluation criteria that is fair and equitable to distribute the land.

For more information, visit UrbanFarming.SLCo.Org.

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