Members of a local organization are hoping to turn a vacant lot on North Blount Street into a small urban farm.
About a year and a half ago, five like-minded individuals had a vague idea of starting a farm in downtown Raleigh that would provide locally-grown food to residents and businesses and act as a teaching experience to those more interested in farming, gardening and the origins of their produce.
The group, Raleigh City Farm, is in the middle of a rezoning application that would allow the 1.3-acre parcel across from the Peace College softball fields to be used as urban farmland.
Raleigh City Farm co-founder Laura Fieselman said the farm would demonstrate how food grows and offer different levels of education from identifying a potato to learning the proper way to grow it.
The farm itself would be run by an experienced farmer and the fruit of their labor would be sold in local stores, restaurants and farmers’ markets.
The project differs from that of a community garden because of the commercial – albeit non-profit – component. The farm will also be tended to by an experienced farmer rather than community members or volunteers.
City planner Ken Bowers said that this is the first time they’ve ever seen an application of this type. More often, residents are looking to create a community garden, which currently doesn’t have a defined use in the city code.
Fieselman said that the goal is to have the property ready to begin planting next growing season.
With positive reviews at the zoning public hearing on July 19, Bowers said he thinks that their zoning application will be very straightforward. The group is applying to lift a condition that restricted agriculture on the property, which is zoned for a shopping center.
Because of the heavy community-involvement element of Raleigh City Farm’s mission, members of the organization began reaching out to the Mordecai Neighborhood in the beginning of the process.
“My first reaction was that something useful, exciting and vibrant [would be done] with a vacant lot, which is doing our neighborhood no justice,” said Reid Serozi, co-chair of the Mordecai Citizen’s Advisory Council.
Serozi said he was impressed with the group’s outreach and transparency about the project. Along with mass emails and Google groups, Raleigh City Farm held two neighborhood meetings with the residents that would be adjacent to the property.
“The neighborhood, to my knowledge, has given 100 percent support,” said Dwyane Beck, who lives within 100 feet of the site.
“I like the business concept, in which they hope to teach other people to grow other goods,” Beck said. An avid gardener, he had already been working with his neighbors to locate areas for community gardens.
One of the major concerns from residents, said Beck, were the aesthetics of the farm especially in the winter when the plants die and the land is barren.
Fieselman said that the group is working with an architect to make sure that the farm will be a beautiful sight in the summer and the winter. She said the wanted the farm to “be productive yet beautiful.”
Chris Gunter, a vegetable production specialist, said that most of the time the biggest challenges for an urban farm operation are the neighbors. “A basket of produce can help,” he laughed.
Gunter, a professor in the horticulture sciences department at North Carolina State University, said that some other concerns or challenges could be the history of the site itself. Knowing what kind of possible toxins in the ground would be important.
Residents might also have concerns with pesticide use, even at minimal levels, water access and runoff.
It’s also possible for urban farms to have animals, like chickens, which are already popular with downtown residents. “Animals have noises and smells that neighbors that may not be used to,” said Gunter.
If the farm will be operating a market, there may be traffic issues.
Overall, Gunter said he believed these were small concerns and are outweighed by the benefits. “If you can get an aesthetically pleasing environment, that’s also producing food, that’s already a double win,” he said.
Urban farms help put more fresh local produce into the hands of buyers, many of whom might live in food deserts, or areas that lack convenient access to fresh foods. While it would be hard to quantify, Gunter also said he believed that urban farms would have a positive affect on the local economy as well as fostering community relationships.
Joanna Lelekacs from the Center of Environmental Farming Systems at NC State, has been doing nation-wide research on incubator farms, which help grow new farmers by accessing land for different projects.
“There is a big movement toward increasing urban agriculture,” Lelekacs said. Part of that trend is the economy, as people grow their own food to save money, but also an increasing push to teach children healthy eating habits.
Cities throughout the United States have been experimenting with different ways to bring farming in a traditionally urban environment, said Lelekacs.
Boston, Mass. recently released a request for proposal for commercial farm enterprises for some public land. Special consideration is given to companies with some kind of benefit component, like a food bank or selling produce at a lower price for lower income residents.
Cleveland, Ohio has been working on a database listing land that is suitable for urban farming.
In Portland, Ore. city officials are using fruit-bearing trees to line their streets instead of more traditional street trees, like the ones found in Raleigh.
With the city revising the comprehensive plan to promote local food production, Bowers said he thinks that uses of property like this will happen again.
“Everyone will be looking at this,” said Bowers. “And [the city] will be looking at it too. You can’t get any more local than this.”
To her knowledge, there aren’t any urban farms in North Carolina, said Fieselman, who has only heard rumors of farms cropping up in Asheville and Charlotte. “It makes it really exciting that Raleigh may be the first,” she said.