Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 4, Issue 1 - June, 2011


Leasing County Owned Land for Urban Farming: Developing a Protocol

Olsen, S.H., Extension Professor, Utah State University Extension
Peck-Dabling, J., Open Space & Urban Farming Program Manager, Salt Lake County Mayor's Operations


In the past decade, there has been a surge of interest in local food, including rapid growth in farmers' markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. In many urban settings, a scarcity of farmland is a major barrier to increasing local food production. In 2009, Salt Lake County started an urban farming program to lease unused parcels of land to farmers. Some goals of the program were to preserve agricultural land near cities, support local farmers, and provide agricultural based economic development. Much of the land in the program is slated for future park development while some land is part of the county's open space preservation program. A technical advisory committee was appointed to help develop the procedures to lease the land and to recruit farmers to consider participating in the program. Initial efforts were focused on leasing parcels five acres or more in size to commercial farmers. Parcels less than five acres will be leased to smaller-scale growers and used for community gardens. Applicants for leases were evaluated on farming experience, willingness to provide a public benefit, business plan, diversity of crops to be grown, and financial capability. In the first year of the program, a total of four parcels covering 50 acres were leased for the 2011 growing season. Two community gardening sites were also selected. All produce grown on county leased land is to be distributed in the local Wasatch Front area.


Salt Lake County, Utah owns various parcels of land for open space preservation, future park development, and other future use. Because of growing interest in the local food movement, County Council Member Jim Bradley suggested in 2009 that some unused parcels of county land be leased to farmers who would grow produce for local distribution. He also suggested that smaller parcels be made available for community gardens to increase the supply of locally grown food. The 2009 estimated population of the county was 1,034,989 people and yet there were only 283 acres of vegetable production according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (Census, 2007).  Many farmers in the county do not have access to additional cropland to meet the increasing demand for local food.
In response to the need for more local land to be used for fruit and vegetable production, Salt Lake County developed an urban farming program  ( whose goals are to: 
  • Preserve agricultural land to meet the nutritional needs of present and future generations
  • Support local farmers
  • Protect the food supply
  • Promote the use of biofuel production on non-traditional agronomic lands
  • Provide agricultural-based economic development opportunities
  • Preserve vistas and landscapes
  •  Promote a healthy lifestyle and improved nutrition along the Wasatch Front
Literature Review
With the urban farming goals in mind, a literature review was conducted to find information on similar trends and programs in the U.S.   Sharp, Imerman, & Peters (2002) indicate that land is the scarcest requirement of production in rural-urban interface settings. Timmons, Wang, & Lass (2008) indicate that many parts of the United States have seen a surge in local food interest during the past decade, as reflected in part by the rapid growth of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Further, the growing demand for local food is expected to provide opportunities for many farmers to improve their profitability through local markets.
Patel (1991) defines community gardens as neighborhood open spaces managed by and for the members of the community. Typically, the garden is divided into individual plots and planted with vegetables by landless gardeners. Some of the socioeconomic benefits of gardening were fresh vegetables, improved diet, money saved, socializing, and improved neighborhoods.
The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (2004) recommended that city land be set aside and developed for agricultural use. In 2005, the Chicago Park District established the Grant Park Urban Agriculture Potager, a 20,000 square foot urban farm. On the farm, youth interns cultivate vegetables, herbs, and flowers that are marketed at small community farmers’ markets. At the Jackson Park Urban Farm, gardeners have the opportunity to farm their own plots on the half-acre site (Chicago Farms and Projects, 2011; Chicago Park District, 2011). 
One of the best examples was in Philadelphia where the City Harvest Program supports forty-two community gardens and is launching an entrepreneurial urban food growing program that will encourage urban gardeners to sell produce for supplemental income (Roy, 2010). In Cleveland, a program called City Fresh was started to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in urban neighborhoods (Ohri-Vachaspati et al., 2009). Part of this program was a Market Gardener Training Program for residents who wanted to start a for-profit urban agriculture program. The major barriers for market gardeners in Cleveland were access to land, access to water for irrigation, and start-up capital. 
In June 2009, representatives of Salt Lake County, Utah Open Lands, Rio Tinto Development, and University Extension visited seven sites to evaluate their suitability for farming. Some observations were:
  • Noxious weeds are a major problem on most of the sites and will need to be managed better.
  • To ensure success, the urban farming program should be assigned to a county administrative person who is passionate about urban agriculture.
  • Liability issues surrounding the operations of farms or community gardens on public land must be addressed.
  • Most commercial agriculture and CSA operations will want a lease commitment of more than five years.
  • By subsidizing the land lease rate, the county should expect that policy directives regarding the program are achieved, such as: organic techniques used, surplus food donated to food banks, etc.

In the fall of 2009, a technical advisory committee was formed to help develop procedures to implement the urban farming program. Representatives from a variety of groups were asked to be on the committee to provide a broad spectrum of expertise and input. These groups included:

  • Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
  • Rio Tinto Land and Development
  • Salt Lake City Sustainability Office
  • Salt Lake County Council
  • Salt Lake County Community Development
  • Salt Lake County Refugee Services
  • Salt Lake County Mayor’s Open Space and Urban Farming Office
  • Salt Lake County Parks
  • Slow Food Utah
  • University Extension
  • Utah Open Lands
  • Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF)
  • Wasatch Community Gardens
  • Welfare Services Department, LDS Church
The county parks department identified 36 different parcels that could be leased. Some criteria used in selecting the sites were: land may be suitable for crop production, land is underutilized, land is accessible, and irrigation water is available. Parcel sizes ranged from ¼ acre to 40 acres. Irrigation water at the sites was available from culinary sources, canals, or wells. The initial focus was on parcels over five acres that would be of interest to existing commercial growers. Parcels smaller than five acres were determined to be more suited to micro farming or community gardens. Some larger, non-irrigated sites were felt to be best suited to biofuel production. 
The committee met several times to address issues such as lease rates and terms, suggested production practices, pest control, etc. It was felt that lease rates should be relatively low to encourage leasing of the sites. Current commercial farm lease rates in the area were reviewed. An application form was developed. It was determined to evaluate applicants according to the following criteria:  relevant farming experience (25%), willingness to provide a public benefit (25%), farm business plan (20%), diversity of crops to be grown (20%), and financial capability (10%). Lessees were asked to demonstrate a public benefit through the payment of an annual lease fee as well as providing an educational or charitable component (Salt Lake County RFP, 2010).
Once the basic framework of the urban farming program was developed, an open house was held in January, 2010 for interested farmers. Mailing and email lists from Extension, NRCS, Salt Lake County, and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food were used to invite farmers as well as interested members of the public. At the open house, people could see the location and size of the lease parcels and ask questions.
A contract form was developed by the committee and was then formalized by the County Division of Contracts and Procurement and sent to interested growers.  The lease requirements asked lessees to do the following:
  • Plant cover crops or rotate crops to maintain soil tilth.
  • Take a soil test each fall to determine compost needs for each field.
  • Control weeds by mulching, mowing, hoeing, cultivation, and torching. Chemical herbicides can be used in the first two years of the lease.
  • Control insects using integrated pest management practices and keep a record of pest control practices.
  • Provide all equipment, material, and supplies needed for the operation.
  • Where applicable, lessees may use water shares owned by the county for no cost.
  • Distribute produce only to the Wasatch Front area via farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture shares, faith-based organizations, schools, and businesses.
According to county ordinances, lease preference would be given to lessees who lived in Salt Lake County and who offered catastrophic health benefits (at least) to their employees during the time covered under the contract. Lessees were required to comply with all federal, state, and local environmental laws.
In April 2010, interested lessees were encouraged to attend a pre-proposal meeting to discuss the urban farming program and ask questions. A total of 22 people attended. Those selected to lease the ground would be required to enter into a contract with Salt Lake County. The original request for proposals was for commercial farming only on seven different parcels.   The committee suggested interviewing potential lessees but the county decided this was not necessary due to the limited number of applicants.
Lessees were asked to submit the following in their proposal:
  • Name and contact information.
  • Organizational structure of farming business.
  • Three references who can describe lessee’s farming capabilities.
  • Any contracts with the county in the last five years.
  • Plan to finance commercial farming operation.
  • Description of management and farming experience.
  • Plan of work including crops to be grown, sales outlets, marketing plan, and equipment.
  • Public benefit proposal including lease fee and educational or charitable component.
Proposals were evaluated and ranked by a selection committee using the criteria developed by the committee and the county purchasing department. The lease rate was determined based on the lessee’s proposal and negotiation with the county. In their proposal, lessees were asked to specify any trade secrets or proprietary information that needed to be protected from public disclosure.
Results and Conclusion
A total of 4 parcels totaling 50 acres were leased for the 2011 growing season. The initial lease period was for three years, with an option to renew for two more years. Leases were kept short because the parcels may be developed for recreation in the next few years.    The lessee is responsible to pay a privilege tax on the use of the property. The final lease agreement was signed by the farmer and the county mayor.
Farmers who leased property anticipate several benefits from the urban farming program (Stetler, 2010).  Cottage Greens Farms will produce lettuce, spinach, and chard very close to their Salt Lake area markets rather than 140 miles away.  Tagges Famous Fruit will grow fruit on five acres that is very close to their home in addition to an existing orchard located 60 miles away.  Bell Organic Farms will grow vegetables and fruits for their restaurant business and 300 member CSA.  Schmidt Family Farms will farm 17 acres to supply their roadside stands and farmers' market outlets.
In addition to the larger parcels that were leased to farmers, two county parks were selected for community gardens in partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens (WCG), a nonprofit group. Currently, there is a five year wait for community garden plots through WCG.  At one site, the South Main Health Clinic envisions that locally grown food will support its nutrition and anti-obesity programs.  At both sites, the goal is to create opportunities for citizens to engage in healthier lifestyles and more sustainable food options.
As part the urban farming program development, a 200 acre piece of non-irrigated property owned by Salt Lake City was identified as a location for biofuel production.  In 2010, twenty acres were planted to safflower. Biosolids from a wastewater treatment plant were applied as fertilizer. Due to a lack of summer rain, the yield was lower than expected. The biofuel production pilot project was still considered a success.
The urban farming program has been successful in putting productive ground to use in a highly-urbanized area and will increase the amount and variety of produce available at local farmers markets, CSA programs, community gardens, and restaurants,. Some of the keys to success were: support of a county council member, a dedicated staff interested in the project, a broad-based technical advisory committee, and interest from local farmers and gardeners willing to participate in the program.
Thanks to the committee members from University Extension for their work on this project:
Chuck Gay, Associate Vice President for Extension, Ralph Whitesides, Extension Weed Specialist, Larry Rupp, Extension Horticulture Specialist, & Dallas Hanks, PhD student in Plants, Soil, and Climate Department.
Census of Agriculture.  (2007).  Salt Lake County profile.  Available at:
Chicago farms and projects. (2011). Available at:
Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council. (2004). Community food security inventory of the City of Chicago, November 2004. Available at:
Chicago Park District. (2011). Community gardens. Available at:
Ohri-Vachaspati, P., Masi, B., Taggart, M., Konen, J., & Kerrigan, J. (2009). City Fresh: A local collaboration for food equity. Journal of Extension 47(6). Available at:
Patel, I. (1991). Gardening’s socioeconomic impacts. Journal of Extension 29(4). Available at:
Roy, M. (2010). City Harvest is growing. Public Garden 25(1).
Salt Lake County RFP.   (2010). Request for proposals for the operation of commercial farming entrepreneurships at the various Salt Lake County properties. Salt Lake County Contracts & Procurement Division.
Sharp, J., Imerman, E., & Peters, G. (2002). Community supported agriculture (CSA): Building community among farmers and non-farmers. Journal of Extension 40(3). Available at:
Stettler, J. (2010, September 28). Urban farms sprouting on government land.  Salt Lake Tribune
Timmons, D., Wang, Q., & Lass, D. (2008). Local foods: estimating capacity. Journal of Extension (46)5. Available at: