Access to land is a crucial issue for small scale farming, both urban and rural, and as we’ve previously talked about here, insecure land tenure has been one of the biggest obstacles we’ve come across in our three years of operating this farm. Running a successful, financially sound business has been particularly challenging without a reliable long term lease, as it has greatly limited the kind of investment we can safely make, both physically (in the form of long term perennial crops, thorough irrigation setup, and necessary infrastructure like hoop houses and cold storage) as well as personally (how we are able to commit to and shape our lives around this project). Because the land we farm is currently owned by a developer, we never quite know when our month-to-month lease will be terminated, or when our rent will suddenly spike in order to more adequately cover the owner’s rising costs. Also, in our particular case, the property we’re using is ill-suited for development due to it’s irregular orientation (a long, narrow lot surrounded on three sides by backyards) and a very high water table. Unfortunately, these factors are negligible when it comes to the property’s market value, and the property taxes are exorbitant. It’s hard to imagine commercial farms thriving in cities, providing food at prices comparable to their rural counterparts, when urban land is exclusively and without exception valued in terms of its potential real estate.
For the past year or so, a group of urban agriculture activists here in SF, Brooke and myself included, has been working to push forward the idea of incentivizing urban property owners to sign long term leases with farmers by offering an adjusted property tax rate. If a property owner agrees to put their land into long-term agricultural use (10 years or more), the county could opt to assess the property at a lower rate based on it’s agricultural use instead of its market value. Over the year, we’ve had countless meetings discussing the idea, brainstorming its implications, and researching similar models (there are few, but a helpful starting point was California’s Williamson Act). Fortunately, State Assemblymember Phil Ting (former SF Tax Assessor), looking for ways to promote urban agriculture at the state level, has recently adopted the idea and has officially introduced statewide legislation known as Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (AB 551).
You can find the current draft of the legislation here, along with a comprehensive FAQ about the bill here. It should be noted that the legislation is still in draft form, and our group of SF urban ag activists is strongly pushing for a few key changes to the draft before it’s finalized. We’ll post updated language to the draft as it unfolds.
This legislation could directly affect the sustainability of projects like ours, and even more importantly, could generate opportunities for more self-sustaining commercial farms to sprout up in cities throughout California. I think this could be a promising step toward the viability of urban farming, as well as toward widening its accessibility by lowering a significant financial barrier. And, more broadly, if this legislation passes and is put into use, it could help bridge the gap between urban and rural food production and consumption, and California’s cities could be on a path to becoming stronger and better-informed allies in advocating for a healthier agricultural system overall.
For more, Jason Mark of Alemany Farm just wrote a great article that sums up the implications of the legislation.
A public hearing is currently scheduled for April 17th, and we are trying to collect as many letters of support as we can ahead of that hearing. If you are an urban farmer, a supporter, or a property owner who supports this legislation, please consider sending a letter! Letter templates and instructions on how to submit can be downloaded here: