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Photo from the University of Minnesota-Extension website. 

After gardening on balconies and in some small raised beds in a city lot for the past decade or so, I moved to a new place this year with abundant gardening space. In fact, I ended up with a bit more land than I needed.

My new home has a south-facing, flat area that would be perfect for a garden, but I already had a garden that was as large as I could use for myself, so this perfect gardening space was just being mowed and maintained as a lawn. This got me thinking about the role that I (and folks like me) could play in facilitating land access for beginning and aspiring growers.

While land access conversations tend to be confined to farmer circles, many gardeners have land that they may not be using, or that could be used differently. Especially for gardeners close to cities, there are important opportunities for gardeners to facilitate land access for beginning farmers and folks who have limited space to garden.

I wanted to learn more about what these opportunities might look like, so I connected with Katie Kubovcik, an urban farmer who grows food from her own, as well as her neighbors’ yards. Katie is also a Farmland Access Navigator in the Twin Cities with Renewing The Countryside, and so she has invaluable experience and knowledge about farmland access. I’ve summarized the key points of my conversation with Katie below, in the hope that some of our Yard and Garden readers could draw some inspiration from her situation.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to renting or sharing your land, but rather a case study to inspire gardeners to think about opportunities for expanding land access.

Farming in the neighborhood

Katie spent much of her life working on and managing vegetable farms. When she moved back to Minnesota after living away for a while, she and her family wanted to keep growing food, but for various reasons decided to stay in the Twin Cities. They were lucky to find a home with a large yard, but they needed a bit more land to grow food for their emerging neighborhood-supported agriculture venture (like a CSA, but on a small, neighborhood scale; Katie’s family supplies vegetables to 10 families in her neighborhood).

Her neighbors also had a large yard, and so as they expanded their gardens, they talked to their neighbors about using some of their land in exchange for assistance with a native planting and produce from the garden. 2021 will be the third season of growing on their neighbors’ land, and they’ve learned a lot throughout the process about how land-sharing relationships can be successful.

Questions to ask before getting started

Setting shared expectations is critical for the success of any type of project or relationship. Katie shared some key questions that landowners and seekers should discuss as they explore what their relationship might look like.

What is a valid exchange?

While the most common approach to renting farmland is to look up the value per acre and charge growers accordingly, there are so many creative options for setting up a fair land exchange. In Katie’s case, her neighbors wanted some help installing a garden with native plants and Katie had the expertise to help them do this. In my case, the little plot of land that’s so perfect for gardening is surrounded by buckthorn, and so the folks using the land are planning to help us remove buckthorn a couple of times throughout the summer.

Another option is to simply allow a farmer or gardener to grow on your land in exchange for vegetables, or free of cost. Keep in mind that gardening is hard work, and having someone garden in a particular space means that you don't have to maintain that space.

The first year Katie used her neighbor’s land they didn’t have a formal agreement. She often felt like she wasn’t sure whether she was doing enough to make it worth it for her neighbors to share their land with her. Having a clear agreement up-front can help to reduce this type of anxiety.

What are the parameters for use and privacy?

It’s also important to set clear expectations about land use and privacy from the beginning. Are there times during the day that you do not want a gardener visiting your land? Are there any other boundaries you would like to set?

Conversely, take time to understand the needs and goals of the gardener or farmer so that you can respect their boundaries. While most growers would be more than willing to share some vegetables with the people they are renting or using land from, showing up and walking through the garden any time can feel like an invasion of privacy, especially if they are growing plants as part of a business.

How long will your agreement last?

Practices like adding compost and cover crops take time, and so growers are more likely to be able to do these things with a bit more long-term security. While you may want to do a one year lease for the first year as you navigate your relationship with the grower (especially if you do not already know each other), offering longer-term access to your land can help to provide the grower with the security to invest more in the land.

In general, it’s a best practice to put your agreement in writing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal contract, but a written email following a conversation to make sure everyone is on the same page is a good idea.

Benefits of land-sharing relationships

I asked Katie about some of the unexpected benefits of her land-sharing relationship beyond the obvious benefits of being able to grow and provide vegetables to her community. She said that the garden has added beauty to the neighborhood.

Kids in the neighborhood stop by to learn about plants, and neighbors feel more connected knowing that their food comes from nearby. She and the landowners have learned from each other, and her plot has inspired the landowners to try new things in their own garden.

Would your land be attractive to a farmer or gardener?

One of the first questions I had, when I started thinking about my extra land, was would anyone actually want to grow anything here?

I asked Katie what kinds of land the growers she works with as a land navigator are looking for. She said that as long as it’s flat and sunny, someone will likely want to grow food there. It would help if the plot were at least around 20 feet x 40 feet, but if your area is smaller, don’t write it off automatically. Access to irrigation also helps, but plenty of farmers grow vegetables without access to a well by bringing in water tanks.

Many beginning growers do not have tools to clear land, so having a cleared area would make it a lot easier for someone to get started. This can be as simple as putting a tarp down to kill grass, or as complicated as tilling the land ahead of time.

Providing as much information as you can about things like potential pest pressure (are there a lot of deer or rabbits around? Are you open to a temporary fence?) can help set growers up for success.

Connecting with growers who are looking for land

If you have extra land and are curious to explore the idea of sharing that land with farmers and gardeners in your area, there are a few places you can start:

  • Renewing the Countryside has a land access navigator program. They work directly with farmers who are seeking land, many of whom are small-scale growers looking for small plots in urban areas. Their land access navigators may be able to connect you directly with an aspiring grower.
  • Connect with local schools, churches and other organizations that have community garden programs. Gardeners are often interested in expanding their plots, but due to limited space may not be able to do so at the community garden. By writing to the garden organizer, they may be able to connect you with a grower who has requested more land access.

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