There is no shortage of vacant lots and empty buildings in Kansas City’s urban core. For Jason Holsman, the abandoned properties look like fertile ground.
Over the last three years, the Democratic state senator from Kansas City has championed legislation that would put those properties back to use, although probably not in a way most city dwellers envision.
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He wants them to become farms.
“We have buildings that have had no economic activity in them for, in some cases, years,” Holsman said. “At the same time, we spend millions of dollars importing food from around the country and the world. Instead of importing food, why not spend that money investing in our own communities to create jobs in areas that desperately need them?”
Legislation sitting on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk aims to spur growth in urban farming. However, Holsman’s bill isn’t trying to re-create the types of massive farms most are familiar with. He foresees companies using recent advances in technology to transform small parcels, and even abandoned warehouses, into more ecologically friendly farming operations.
“You could literally take a five-story building that is sitting vacant in the West Bottoms, and each floor could grow a different seasonal produce,” he said. “Then you process it on site and sell it in a market on the bottom floor. There’s no transportation costs, no pesticides, no preservatives, and you can grow year-round. Imagine the amount of jobs created at a center like this.”
Nationwide, small farms, farmers markets and specialty food makers are popping up and thriving as more people seek locally produced food. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to increase access to urban land for agricultural or livestock production.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer and retailer, has gotten into the act, launching an ad campaign centered on the company’s decision to buy fruits and vegetables directly from local growers.
Earlier this year, New York-based BrightFarms Inc. announced plans to build a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse on five acres in Kansas City just east of the Heart of America Bridge. The hydroponic farm, which is expected to begin operating this year, plans to grow a million pounds of tomatoes, lettuce and herbs annually.
Holsman said his bill aims to create more development like BrightFarms in blighted areas. The legislation allows local governments to designate areas as “urban agriculture zones.”
Redeveloped properties in the zones would have their property taxes frozen for 10 years, regardless of improvements made to the land. After that, their taxes would go up, but they would continue to pay a reduced rate for an additional 15 years.
The zones also permit cities to provide water to these businesses at a discounted rates.
“This is the state recognizing a new dimension to agriculture,” said Katherine Kelly, the executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit group that is working to grow food, farms and communities in urban neighborhoods. “Growing food in the city can and should become a part of our overall agricultural profile.”
Kelly said the goal isn’t to supplant traditional farming but rather to complement it.
“We can grow significant amounts of food in the city,” she said, “but it won’t be enough to feed every city resident.”
The bill also pertains to local schools. When food is purchased from a vendor in urban agriculture zones, the sales tax would go into a state fund designed to provide grants to schools to integrate agriculture into their curricula and start growing their own food.
Instead of frozen, processed foods, schools can begin serving fresh produce, which is healthier, Kelly said.
“Schools across the country are starting to look at the question of fresh food, fresh produce, and starting to connect the dots around obesity,” she said.
Holsman hopes his bill would spur development similar to what is taking place in some parts of the country. He pointed to Milwaukee, where Sweet Water Organics provides fish and produce for restaurants, grocery stores and consumers.
“They took a warehouse that hadn’t been touched for 20 years, and now they have turned it into a thriving business,” he said. “After I visited them, I thought, ‘I’ve seen the future.’”
The benefits are many, Holsman said. The zones would be in high-poverty areas where residents don’t have access to affordable fresh foods.
“In these neighborhoods, there are plenty of places to get trans fat chips and cheeseburgers, but if I wanted to get a fresh tomato, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “If you get the food locally, it’s going to be fresher, it will have more nutrients, and it’s going to use less pesticides and preservatives. Plus the carbon footprint is smaller, since you’re not using a big diesel truck to transport it across the country.”
Kelly said the legislation mandates that vendors accept food stamps, ensuring the food would be available to those living in poverty.
Kelly said that by bringing down start-up costs, and therefore encouraging investors, the legislation would allow for blocks of vacant properties to become clusters of businesses, some growing food and others opening storefronts to sell it.
If the governor signs the legislation, Holsman hopes Kansas City can be at the forefront of a national movement toward more locally grown foods.
“We want people looking at our community and saying, ‘That’s somewhere I want to be, because they’re doing it right.’”