How To Farm a Vacant Urban Lot

Posted by Alex on May 14, 2020

How To Farm a Vacant Urban Lot. Photo credit: TOPSOIL

Are you living in the city but find yourself aching to farm? Urban agriculture may be just the right fit for you! But wait…how do you even find enough land to start a farm in the city? That’s where vacant lots come in to the picture. This post is all about how you can find a vacant lot and things to consider when starting an urban farm!

So, what is a vacant lot?

A vacant lot is classified as a registered lot (serviced or unserviced) that contains no permanent structures at the time of inspection. It generally does not include land development for parks, transportation or utility purposes. (City of Edmonton)

How To Farm a Vacant Urban Lot green sister gardens

Photo credit: Green Sister Gardens

Okay, but why grow food on vacant lots?

An urban farm looks better, is healthier for the environment, and is more beneficial for the economy of a neighborhood than a vacant lot. As an urban farmer, you are also close to your customers so transportation is minimized – many urban farmers don’t even own a car! Check out this great post by the Urban Farmer about what urban agriculture is and why we need more of it.

I’m convinced! How do I find a vacant lot?

The Garden Share category on the YA U-Map is a great place to find urban land – scroll through the gardens being offered, and create your own listing that you’re looking for a space. (If you have garden space to offer, please add a listing too!)

Another tried and true method is to use your own two feet (or two wheels) and wander through your neighbourhood to find a good vacant lot. You can also use social media to spread the word that you’re looking for urban land. Facebook gardening groups would be a good avenue to try.

Photo credit: Sara Dent

Sounds like a plan. What should I look for in a vacant lot?

Well that will depend on what you’re going to grow! Here are some things to consider:

  • Light. Consider how much light your crops or animals need. For example, most vegetables need decent sun exposure so look for a lot with little shade. If you have mushroom crops they will need lots of shade and cool, moist conditions. There are paid and free apps such as Sun Seeker that show the path of the sun throughout the year on your phone.
  • Soil. Bring a shovel and look at the soil profile in various spots on the lot. Consider the soil composition and topography. Note that some urban soil has elevated levels of heavy metals, hydrocarbons, or other contaminants. Make sure to test your soil!
  • Water. You will likely need to rely on your neighbours for water. Either set up a rain water harvesting system to collect the water that runs off their roofs, or work something out with neighbours to access water from them. Some may offer water for free, or some may require payment or a share in the produce. In-line water meters may mitigate any potential future conflicts on water usage. It is expensive to get hooked up to the city supply by other means and trucking in water is also costly. Contact your municipality for more information, and check out our Water Use & Drainage Manual
  • Zoning. Keep in mind that local zoning codes may affect the size and type of urban farm that is allowed.  If you’re in Edmonton for example, an ‘urban farm’ (allows for sale of farm products on site) typically requires rezoning but an ‘urban garden’ (no market stand) is allowed in more residential areas. Many larger cities will have online maps that you can use to learn about zoning (like this interactive zoning map put out by the City of Edmonton).

Photo credit: City Beet Farm

Great news, I found the perfect lot! Who owns it and how do I contact them?

The short answer is…it depends. There are several situations that you could encounter:

  • If the lot is owned by a developer (typically the lot will be fenced off in this case) then they are required to have a sign on the fence with their name and contact information
  • If there is no obvious sign then you’ll have to connect with your municipal government to determine the owner. Try reaching out to a local city councillor for help.
  • You can also try knocking on the doors of properties adjacent to the vacant lot. Those residents may be able to put you in contact with the lot owner.
  • Another avenue is to look at provincial land mapping. In Alberta the provincial government uses Spin2. To use this map select ‘search by map’, then click on the lot in question and you should be able to buy the title. The title includes the owner’s name and address and will cost $10 to obtain. You can then search their name to find a phone number or send a letter to the address provided. 

Okay, I found the owner! What do I tell them?

It can be daunting to reach out to a lot owner, but do not fret! YA has put together a list of topics to discuss with a lot owner. Check out that list and feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions or need support.

Photo credit: City Beet Farm

Awesome, the lot owner and I have settled on an agreement. Do I need a permit or anything?

Well that will depend on your municipality so you’ll have to contact your local representative for more information. In the meantime, here are the rules for the City of Edmonton:

Depending on your project, you may need to apply for a development permit, a building permit or a business licence. These permits and licences will come with additional costs. Other permits that may be required depending on the nature of your project include electrical, signage, or plumbing permits.

  • You will need a development permit if any of these apply to you:
    • You are growing a fruit or vegetable garden in an industrial zone
    • You plan to sell produce on-site
    • You are growing fruits and vegetables indoors, inside a commercial or industrial building
  • You may need a building permit if you have a structure on site that is over 10 square metres
  • You may need a business permit if you plan to sell your products. Contact Open Window for one-on-one support for small businesses

Some lot owners may also require that you have liability insurance to be on their land. Since urban farming is not that common (yet!!) many insurance companies might not want to create a policy for your situation. If you’re having trouble finding insurance, reach out to other urban farmers in your province to see if they can connect you with an insurance company.

Photo Credit: VEG in YEG

I have all the permits I need and am ready to grow food! How do I start a farm?

Here are a few things to consider before you dive right in (list inspired by the UC ANR Urban Agriculture Team):

  • Create a Business Plan. It is important for farmers to grow and/or create products that can easily be marketed or are in demand. To do this, talk to restaurants, grocery stores, farmers’ market managers, local food producers, and community members to find out where there are gaps or marketing opportunities. Consider value-added products and the role they might play in your business. Learn about the process and costs. Create a business plan that includes marketing strategies and a budget. Check out the great business resources we have on our website, and if you’re in Alberta, reach out to Business Link for help with creating a business plan.
  • Finances. Ensuring that you have the startup capital and knowing how to keep track of expenses and sales is essential!
  • Infrastructure. On-farm infrastructure – from high tunnels to cold storage to on-farm solar energy – can be a key part of a successful operation.
  • Learn the Basics of Production.  Learn as much as you can about soil, planting, pest management and watering. If you plan to raise animals or bees, learn the details of how to care for them.
  • Market DevelopmentHow will you find customers? Market development can take many forms and will evolve over time. Explore different ways to reach customers, observe their effectiveness, and hone in on what is working.
  • Ensure Food Safety. Learn about how to make sure that the crops you grow are harvested, stored, and processed safely, according to best practices. Look to your provincial health authorities for rules and regulations.
  • Connect With Other Farmers. The best advice is local advice! Connect with other young agrarians in your area and contact local farmers for advice and mentorship. Join our provincial and regional Facebook groups to connect!

Farm on friends!

By starting an urban farm you are contributing to the resilience of our food system, which is amazing! The work will be immensely challenging and rewarding, so know that you are not alone in this adventure. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Young Agrarians at any time and for any thing on your journey.

And if you’re looking for inspiration, check out this amazing list of urban farmers from across Alberta and BC:

Photo credit: Sole Food Street Farms

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