Urban Farmers Rally for Secure Access to Land 

Most urban farmers don't own the land they work, and they want some assurances

Casey O'Leary (left), of Earthly Delights Farms, leads a rally advocating more land security for urban farmers.

James McLeod

Casey O'Leary (left), of Earthly Delights Farms, leads a rally advocating more land security for urban farmers.

It was a somber scene in Boise's Catalpa Park Oct. 6. A crowd of about 30 people had gathered to pay their respects to local crops lost well before the first fall frost.

"A week ago today, we lost 73 crops that were in the ground because our landowner paid the neighbor to come over and mow them down before we were able to harvest them," said Casey O'Leary of Earthly Delights Farm, her voice cracking into a portable microphone.

Behind O'Leary, a graveyard of foam-board headstones rose from the grass, bearing epitaphs like RIP Alice Elliot Okra, RIP Feherozon Paprika Pepper and RIP Genovese Basil.

But O'Leary didn't organize the rally merely to mourn--she wanted to start a discussion about improving land security for local urban farmers, who often lack legal rights when it comes to the parcels of property they farm.

"Almost every person who farms within the city of Boise doesn't own the land. ... Everyone's had some problems," said O'Leary.

In this particular case, O'Leary made a verbal agreement to grow a portion of her crops on a half acre near the Collister neighborhood in exchange for a CSA share worth $468.

"I didn't have a written agreement with them about what could and couldn't go on. There was a disagreement between us about exactly who was going to do exactly what at the end of the season; they didn't want us to come back next year. ... But instead of making a rational plan, they just went ahead and bulldozed everything. It was a third of my farm," said O'Leary.

According to landowner Brian Blosser, O'Leary had agreed to leave the property "the way she found it," which he insisted meant tilling the field and replanting it at the end of the season. When O'Leary disagreed, the conversation dissolved.

"We thought that she was gone and not coming back so we thought it was up to us to go ahead and take care of what was left," said Blosser. "So we pulled up all the fencing and all the posts. ... Our neighbor happened to be looking over the fence and said, 'What are you guys going to do with all those plants?' And I said, 'I guess we're going to have to cut 'em down and pull 'em out, put them in a trailer and take 'em to the dump.' He said, 'I could save you a lot of trouble and it would also provide some nutrients for the future if we just mow it down and till it in.' It seemed like a good agricultural process, so that's what we did."

But in that process, O'Leary lost a good portion of her locally adapted retail seed crop, which she sells at North End Nursery, Edwards Greenhouse and the Boise Co-Op.

"We lost 24 seed crops--that was a serious part of how we make money on the farm and that's work we've been doing for the community, storing locally adapted seeds year after year. ... I was able to get a few plants out in front of the mower as the mower was coming through plowing down the garden," said O'Leary.

According to O'Leary, even small urban farms like Earthly Delights require significant time and infrastructure investments, which makes it difficult to pick up and move year after year.

"That's the problem with those of us who do this in the city without security. ... When you set up a garden, you cut your irrigation line to the exact size of the field; you cut your row cover to the exact size of the field," said O'Leary. "All this stuff goes into it, you make your system for that space and then it takes you years to get to know the soil, it takes you years to build the soil. ... So, to have to move, you lose all that."

But O'Leary wasn't the only one at the rally lamenting the volatility of local land available to urban farmers. Parting the crowd, Dan Meyer stepped up to the microphone to tell his story.

"I own the business Morning Owl Farm; I do not own the land. So it's a very similar situation that so many young farmers find themselves in," said Meyer. "Mary Rohlfing started the farm 10 years ago. ... I apprenticed there years ago and through sheer dumb luck, I had a great opportunity and was able to buy the business. She's moved on to a different job and is moving off the property ... so it was really up in the air this whole season of whether or not I was going to be able to stay. A developer could've bought it just as easily as somebody who wanted to farm it. And if somebody wanted to farm it, maybe they wouldn't want me around."

Luckily, a local beekeeper purchased the 7-8 acre property and asked Meyer to continue farming it.

"I just got super, super lucky again," said Meyer.

O'Leary hopes that her unlucky loss this season will inspire the local farming community to insist on securing written, long-term agreements moving forward.

"If they think they can make a go of it, let's get them a 20-year lease, something where they can build their livelihood and they know they're not just going to get kicked off when someone decides to sell or gets mad at you," said O'Leary.

Blosser agrees with O'Leary on this point.

"Our gut feeling all along was we should have more stuff in writing, there should be a written contract, for both sides, so everyone understands what's expected and what's going to transpire," he said.

O'Leary is currently setting up discussions with the city of Boise regarding the potential allocation of city land for long-term urban farming use. While no formal proposals have been made, Adam Park, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, said the city is "very supportive of urban agriculture, in general," citing the 2012 Urban Agriculture Ordinance, and the community gardens springing up in city parks.

"A lot of communities do this, they value farming/agriculture as equally important to open space, to parks, to other types of land use," said O'Leary. "There's communities we can look to for guidance as we craft these policies for inspiration."

Before her debacle on the Blosser property, O'Leary lucked into a five-year lease on a parcel of underutilized land at Draggin' Wing Farm, off Hill Road. So while she might have secure access to land for the foreseeable future, she hopes her experience will help incite change at a larger level.

"In a way, it sucks what happened and I think it's exactly the best thing that could've happened to move this thing forward so we really do create some land security for farmers in this town," said O'Leary.

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