It’s surprising that the US city with the urbanest farming activity has just recently started the process to create their own urban agriculture regulations. New York City, with its numerous rooftop farms, indoor farms, and vacant lot growing operations began work on a comprehensive urban agriculture plan this summer. Some will see this as a problem, a roadblock with a negative impact on the emerging local food system. However, there are important reasons why serious urban farm businesses might welcome them.
It’s not easy being a pioneer in the 21st century. The lack of urban agriculture regulations means that they’re operating in a gray zone. No one knows what to do with them, which causes all kinds of problems that aren’t helping establish food security or increase locally grown food availability.
For one, without urban agriculture regulations, getting your urban farm business up and running is excessively costly, frustrating, and time-consuming. Why? Because city planning, zoning, ordinances, policies, and laws exist for everything BUT agriculture. This is the reason that big indoor farming operations like BrightFarms are not growing inside their market cities. You can make a much more immediate impact on food security by growing in an agriculture-friendly location an hour or two away. They are close, the food is super fresh upon arrival in stores, but without the red tape nightmare.
It also makes more sense financially, because you need deep pockets to drag out opening your growing operation for 2-3 years, while you pay a host of lawyers and specialists who can help you find a way to make City Hall approve what you want to do. Which means, that unless you’re independently wealthy at the start, you need grants and/or investors.
Applying for grants is a lengthy process in itself, and one that requires another type of specialist. And getting investors seriously interested in your pioneer business will also be difficult because, without urban agriculture regulations, wise venture capitalists will steer clear of the increased risk your gray area startup presents. As EdenWorks’ Jason Greene told the Wall Street Journal, it’s a barrier to entry. In fact, a standard business bank loan may prove difficult, even impossible to get, because they don’t like big risks either. And then there’s the guarantee for upfront capital repayment… something loan officers and investors will definitely require!
Doing anything as a business requires insurance on your property, equipment, products, and materials against theft and uncontrollable damages. Floods, blackouts, high winds – all can cause an urban farm failure. It’s the reason that there is this thing called crop insurance, and an urban farmer needs this as much as a rural one. But as Michael Laing at Farm.One in Manhattan discovered, agriculture underwriters only quantify risk and premiums in acres. They don’t know what to do with a crop covering a few hundred square feet. It’s a gray area, and there are no urban farming regulations to support changing that in New York.
So, yes, cities need urban agriculture regulations. It removes the new industry from the gray zone, making it more feasible to reduce food insecurity and allow residents access to truly fresh food. That is unless they get carried away and make it less accessible to startups without a huge bankroll, but a huge hunger to grow local food. That would defeat the purpose of building a local food system that strengthens a community, barring all but big pocket corporations and increasing the cost of eating well. Unfortunately, we are talking about bureaucracy. At least home gardens won’t be affected by these regulations for commercial and nonprofit growers.
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Other Cities’ Urban Farming Regulations
I’m sure there are others, but as you can see, NYC is a bit late in establishing a comprehensive policy for urban farming. Especially since The Big Apple is one of the modern frontiers for urban agriculture, with farms there being used as a model worldwide for at least a decade.