Mediatrice Niyonkuru, a farmer in Kansas City, Kansas, waters her crop on the New Roots for Refugees’ training farm. She bought some land of her own, but it’s not as much as she’d like and doesn’t have access to water. Urban farmers have a hard time buying land at a price they can afford. (Carlos Moreno / KCUR)
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There’s a high demand for the vegetables Mediatrice Niyonkuru grows in her urban garden.

Cassava leaves, muchicha and white eggplant are staples in the dishes the Burundi native makes, along with other east African immigrants.

“I know what they like and what they’re gonna eat,” she said. “So that’s why I have different plants than other farmers.”

Yet Niyonkuru and her business partner, Gasaya Musekura, are struggling to get more than the small piece of land that they own, despite the estimated 10,000 vacant lots in Kansas City, Kansas.

“My garden is still small, but the problem, too, is no water,” she said, explaining she has no irrigation on this plot of land.

In Wisconsin, the Madison and Milwaukee areas have a series of community gardens — some in urban locations and some in rural areas — that residents can rent for a small fee to grow produce to eat or sell. 

Mediatrice Niyonkuru grows white eggplant and radishes to sell locally. “People from my country, they like certain food,” she says. (Carlos Moreno / KCUR)

Dane County, in partnership with the city of Madison, has 4,000 garden plots on 47 acres. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension has 10 gardens covering 75 acres serving 500 families in Milwaukee County. The 2.2-acre Alice’s Garden Urban Farm was founded in 1972 on the site of a Milwaukee neighborhood torn down to make way for a freeway that was never built.

While many Midwestern cities have an abundance of vacant land, urban farmers often have a difficult time acquiring it, either from private landowners or city-run land banks. Supporters of urban farms say they provide stability and increased food security to neighborhoods, yet not every city recognizes their value.

For instance, in Kansas City, the Wyandotte County Land Bank only sold one property to an urban farm in the past two years.

It was to Niyonkuru and Musekura.

Both are recent graduates of the four-year farm training program called New Roots for Refugees. They were supposed to move their operation onto their own land, but the lack of water access and the inability to extend their land has kept Niyonkuru and her business partner largely on the training farm.

Program Manager Semra Fetahovic said it’s become increasingly difficult for their farmers to acquire land.

“This year we’re actually leasing land to six graduates who can still lease land here,” she said. “Next year I think that number will be 10.”

Private owners hard to reach

For many of the farmers in New Roots for Refugees, it’s been difficult to contact the owners of the vacant lots, who often live elsewhere. It’s unlikely that they would be able to negotiate without the help of the program.

“It’s really difficult. You have to be able to figure out who the owner is, either by knowing them or looking through online resources where you can find an email, a mailing address or a phone number,” Fetahovic said. “You have to have enough English to communicate with them about the purchase.”

Semra Fetahovic, program manager at New Roots for Refugees, stands next to an overgrown lot adjacent to Mediatrice Niyonkuru’s farm. “We’ve tried to contact the owners and they’re not at all interested in selling, but they don’t seem interested in doing anything with it,” she says. (Carlos Moreno / KCUR)

Even if they do get in touch, the owners may not want to sell.

“I think that’s a really big frustration being in an urban setting, is you just see so many vacant lots, yet the owners don’t want to let go of them,” she said.

In many places, owners are likely keeping the vacant lots as relatively cheap investments because of low property taxes, according to Janell O’Keefe of the Center for Community Progress, a non-profit that helps cities deal with systemic vacancy.

“There’s a multitude of private actors in that space, likely some of those who are people who are holding on to it hoping it goes up,” she said. “That’s not a heavy investment to sit around and wait 10, 15 years on.”

Land banks offer some hope

To put together a farm in an urban area, farmers often have to deal with both private owners and city land banks — entities that deal with systemic vacancy by acquiring empty and unused land and selling it. Over 250 land banks or land banking programs exist across the United States.

In Detroit, the land bank currently has around 63,000 vacant lots. Since the Detroit Land Bank Authority was formed in 2008, urban farmers have found it’s a little easier for them to buy property.

Mediatrice Niyonkuru, left, and Gasaya Musekura bought parts of this land from the city’s land bank and others from private owners. In addition to land access, water and soil quality are also issues that urban farmers face as they farm in cities. (Carlos Moreno / KCUR)

Tepfirah Rushdan, the co-founder of Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, said before the land bank was formed there were lots of different entities that owned vacant land around the city and no clear process on how to buy it.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority gathered many of those lots into one source and created programs that sold lots to residents for less than $300.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “and we have a ways to go.”

Rushdan said even with the land bank, poor communication, dropped cases and the city prioritizing development over farming still makes things difficult for the farmers she works with.

“It’s a secondary priority. Not even secondary. It’s like a cute thing that people are doing, in their eyes,” she said.

The tension between development and farming is a challenge for urban farmers in many cities. Residents often have trouble convincing land banks to sell them lots for gardens and farms, according to O’Keefe.

“What we’ve seen through conversations and work we’ve done is just the prevailing notion that the highest and best use of a property is something bricks and mortar,” she said.

Rushdan believes that if the city of Detroit acknowledged the value of urban agriculture as a land use, then it would be easier for farmers to get parcels from the land bank.

Yet the city has made some changes in the past to welcome urban agriculture into the city. For example, an urban agriculture ordinance in 2013 opened up a lot of land for urban farming by loosening restrictions on the type of land that could be farmed.

In a statement, a land bank spokesperson said the goal is “to return blighted and vacant properties to productive use by utilizing a variety of sales programs to make homeownership and land purchases accessible to Detroiters.”

‘I don’t think we have to choose’

At the Wyandotte County Land Bank, selling land for single family housing has been the priority. That’s because it can generate more tax revenue than an urban farm, according to Andrew Davis, a commissioner for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

“For the state of Kansas, there’s just not a lot that we can get from taxing your gardens or taxing orchards or things of that sort,” he said.

Eugene Bivens tends his plants in 2021 at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm, where he has gardened for more than a decade, giving excess produce away to tenants in his apartment building. Alice’s Garden sprouted in 1972 on the site of a freeway project that, before it was canceled, resulted in the destruction of neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s Black-majority North Side. (Sam Woods / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)

The land bank, however, is changing its policies. The community had a chance to weigh in at recent listening sessions. Davis believes the land bank has enough vacant lots to go around for both housing and farming: 4,630 of them.

“I don’t think we have to choose. I think there’s a way in which we can see gardens and farmers thrive in KCK all while still having that aggressive movement for single family homes,” he said.

He knows it will be a challenge to get his colleagues on the commission on board, since many of them would rather have houses that generate property taxes.

“Where I’m comfortable pushing the conversation is saying, ‘Well, in the meantime, while we’re trying to get the rooftops, can we expand access to healthy food, to fresh food in a different way?’ ”

Using the feedback of the community, the land bank is planning to reevaluate its goals and how it can best meet them. Urban farmers are hoping that agriculture will fit into the new policies.

Wisconsin Watch’s Dee J. Hall contributed reporting. This story was produced by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report For America.

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