Imagine dozens of "working farms" flourishing in neighborhoods throughout Buffalo, where urban growers harvest fruits and vegetables that are sold to stores, restaurants and farmers' markets.
It's happening more and more in cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington. Even Rochester is making headway in promoting urban agriculture, experts said. With the number of vacant lots and empty buildings in Buffalo expected to double in the next decade, the city is plotting a long-term blueprint for managing fallow land.
One unusual strategy was discussed at a recent City Hall brainstorming session as officials reviewed Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's Vacant Land, Building and Facility Asset Management Project. Some want to explore the possibility of turning empty lots into small-scale urban farms. These plots could provide high-quality produce for local vendors and new income streams to part-time farmers, advocates insist. Working farms in the middle of city neighborhoods are becoming more common nationwide, said Jac Smit, president of the Washington-based Urban Agriculture Network.
"In city after city, the availability of vacant land is being recognized as an asset. Some of that land is being farmed," said Smit. "There's a lot of potential in a place like Buffalo."
Smit, who will speak about urban agriculture at a national conference next week in Wilmington, Del., was contacted to comment on an idea that Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk pitched to local planners.
Noting that there are about 12,500 vacant lots in Buffalo, including 4,000 owned by the city, Franczyk agreed that a detailed plan is needed for finding new uses for the parcels. Making matters worse, according to estimates by experts, is that ongoing demolitions and other factors will add thousands of vacant lots to the current inventory in the next several years.
"You're not going to be able to put a house on all these lots unless this population hemorrhage somehow turns around," Franczyk told staffers overseeing the asset management project. "We have acres of lots with nothing in between them."
Franczyk thinks urban agriculture might be a small part of the solution. He painted a picture of city residents carting bushels of produce to Broadway Market stands or other vendors.
Franczyk said some residents already have turned lots into impressive vegetable gardens. In addition, Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo has been widely commended in recent years for its work in turning neighborhood eyesores and other abandoned land into vegetable and flower gardens. One of the goals spelled out in the group's mission statement involves making communities more self-reliant in providing their own food.
Harvesting produce on plots of land not much larger than many private gardens wouldn't generally fit most people's definition of farms. But Franczyk said it's surprising what could be done with a small tract of land, noting that he owns a lot next to his East Side home. "I could start up a farm if I really wanted to. I could have an orchard and everything else," he said.
But growing fruits and vegetables is one thing, Smit cautioned. Creating a profitable marketing network that generates significant volume is a bigger challenge. He said ventures in other cities have succeeded by forging alliances between small-scale growers and local vendors. For example, a group of restaurants in Washington, D.C., has been working closely with 22 urban farmers. Smit said they decide on crops that should be planted each season, agree on compensation and work cooperatively on distribution.
"You really need to have a marketing cooperative association of some sort," Smit said. "You can't produce at a small scale and sell it. You need to have some links."
Masiello has been working with planners and volunteers on devising a comprehensive "reuse strategy" for vacant properties. In May, he accompanied more than 30 planners, community leaders and developers on a three-day excursion to Pittsburgh to examine preservation and conservation strategies.
Some returned saying Pittsburgh focuses on rebuilding neighborhoods, as opposed to just saving individual buildings. They said the city also emphasizes pedestrians over traffic by developing unobtrusive parking and abundant green spaces.
In the coming months, local experts hope to create a new system for assessing and monitoring vacant lots and buildings.