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City plows effort into urban farms

Vacant land to battle food deserts

– City officials hope you could see cornstalks – and cabbages and carrots and other produce – growing in some of the city’s most urban areas.

The city’s Community Development department is working on a project to create urban farming within the city, starting with a pilot project in the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood, formerly known as Hanna-Creighton.

An urban farm, cautions Community Development’s Heather Presley-Cowen, is not to be confused with a community garden.

A community garden is one site with many people farming it for themselves, Cowen said. An urban farm is a farm – one farmer raising a crop or two – that happens to be in an urban area.

“They’re focused on things like yields per acre,” Cowen said.

Why would city officials want actual farming in urban areas?

“The question is, what is the highest and best use of vacant, publicly owned land?” Cowen said. “It might be to redevelop it, it might be to make a pocket park, it might be to convey it to the next-door neighbor who’s been taking care of it for years anyway, or maybe the best use is to farm it.”

That’s especially true given that much of Fort Wayne’s urban area is considered a “food desert,” where those without private transportation have difficulty being able to purchase nutritious food, she said. The idea is that this land would be farmed by a nonprofit that would not only grow crops, but also teach neighbors how to farm, how to handle and cook the produce grown, and maybe sell at a local farmer’s market.

Cowen said it has taken a while to get off the ground because officials wanted to develop policies on how urban farms should operate, and had to examine everything from zoning issues to sanitation and building issues.

There was also a false start that caused yet more problems: City officials were hoping to partner with a group on an urban farm at Victoria Acres, near Anthony Boulevard and Paulding Road, but it fell apart when officials discovered that Burmese immigrants had created a community garden on publicly owned land, akin to planting corn in Forest Park Boulevard or Foster Park. Worse, though, there was no running water on the site, so residents were gardening in a drainage ditch, which was a public health issue, and the final blow came when officials tested the soil and found arsenic.

What officials want, Cowen said, is a public-private partnership, where the city will provide the land and a non-profit will be allowed to farm it in return for meeting criteria such as the education component. Ideally, the farm will become a center around which community can be built, she said.

“We’d love to see things developed like a neighborhood cookbook,” Cowen said. “So people can see it grown, taste it, learn to prepare it, and then take it home and cook it. It’s a pretty holistic plan.”

dstockman@jg.net

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