My View II: Is the Urban Farm Idea Dead?

Center for Land-Based Learning's Urban Farm in West Sacramento shows a different model for the urban farm.
Center for Land-Based Learning’s Urban Farm in West Sacramento shows a different model for the urban farm.

This week, the Davis City Council unanimously passed a motion that supported the concept of an urban farm, while at the same time deeming that the 25-acre Mace parcel was suitable for the development of a community farm.

And yet, I cannot help but to come away with the distinct feeling that the time for a community farm has passed.

Councilmember Brett Lee wanted to take the 25-acre Mace property, owned by the city, out of the innovation park proposal. He went so far as to call it a dodge, and made a motion to not include the 25-acre city-owned parcel in the East Innovation Park proposal.

The staff was able to quickly shoot that idea down, arguing that, for the purposes of the EIR, it is easier to include additional parcels and then cut them out rather than exclude the parcel and add them in later. Fair enough, and that was sufficient to get Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis to withdraw his second and take the council back to the drawing board.

I think Councilmember Lee brought up one of the more powerful points of the evening that has since been ignored – if the council ends up including the 25-acre parcel in the measure that goes before the voters, they will have made a similar mistake to the one made with Mace 391.

As Brett Lee put it, “I think the danger of including the 25-acre parcel is there would be I believe additional opposition created to this east innovation park proposal that includes as part of the proposal turning this open space parcel into tech park. It creates an added opposition to the plan.”

The problem is that, despite the votes by council, I am not convinced that they are really married to the concept of an urban or community farm.

As Councilmember Lucas Frerichs put it, “I want to leave (the 25 acres) in for the purposes of the EIR. It does not in any shape or form abandon the notion of the community farm either at that location or some other location in the city.”

He disputed the notion that this vote would signal the abandonment of the notion of community farms.

At the same time, both he and Rochelle Swanson expressed real concerns for the location. He cited the problem in general as having a lack of access. He said there is really no pedestrian and bike access “So it’s untenable for me moving in the direction of the community farm.”

Rochelle Swanson commented that there are now other sites that make more sense. “This particular site causes me concern because of the distance, the lack of bike and ped access.”

There are a number of good reasons, however, to continue to pursue the community farm concept. The Cannery project contains a small urban farm that is set to be run for the Center for Land-Based Learning. This is certainly an intriguing idea that seems to be working well in places like West Sacramento. But this would not be a place for community-involved agriculture.

For me, at least, I like the idea of a community farm where we could grow organic and farm fresh produce that would become part of a community asset. I like the idea of an educational component, a community involvement, the ability for the community to enjoy this asset as open space.

I really do believe that the city council shares this vision, but I worry that the perfect will become the enemy of the good here.

To use another cliché, possession may be ninth-tenths of the law, but it is nearly 100 percent of land use decisions.

To put it simply, this locale may not be perfect, but it would have a number of things going for it. First, it would be a good-sized chunk of land that is, while not currently adjacent to town, pretty darn close and, if the innovation park becomes reality, it would in fact be adjacent.

Second, the city already owns the land. We don’t have to find new land, we don’t have to purchase new land, we don’t have to swap new land. As Brett Lee put it, “In general we have this opportunity for extremely low cost to have this open space fully accessible.”

There is a third point that I think we need to elevate – part of the innovation future of this community is going to be in agricultural technology, the expansion of food justice, and farm-to-fork notions, as well development of sustainable agriculture.

As the Mace Ranch Innovation Center proposal suggests, “The site, given its size and location, is suitable for research programs for green technology and sus­tainable agricultural research.” The applicants noted “the agrarian nature of the site” and wrote, “There are tremendous opportunities to support sustainable food research, agricultural energy, envi­ronment, health, and innovative ways to bring new technologies and products to market.”

In a very real way then, the community farm would be an ideal addition to that concept, and would help to create a better transition to the ag-urban boundary that will be present in this location.

I think we need to be mindful that the best options may well be the options that are currently on the table. I am particularly mindful of this because, back in 2007 or so, we had a long and protracted discussion about whether to put the sport park on the city-owned Howatt Ranch.

The reasons cited to oppose it were the distance from the city and the inability for kids and their parents to walk or bike to the sport park. These were very valid concerns. However, it should be pointed out that, eight years later, we still don’t have a sports park and one does not appear to be very imminent.

Howatt Ranch had a lot of drawbacks but it had one main advantage – it was available. The result is that a decade of children are not going to have access to newer and better facilities because the proposed site had clear problems.

We have the same issue, potentially, with the Mace 25 land.

Mayor Pro Tem Davis said, “It’s not ready to be made into a farm just yet – it’s just not.” He noted, “It’s not connected to anything. It’s not connected to our city.”

However, if the innovation park goes forward, suddenly it could be connected to the city. Robb Davis acknowledged that that is a “big if” because the innovation park would have to be approved by a vote from the people.

“But what I want to signal very clearly is that I want that option to remain on the table,” he said.

My concern is that I suspect that, if we do not start moving forward toward planning it as a community farm, the opportunity will pass us by and the alternative sites will never actually materialize.

Again – I reiterate, I believe that the wishes expressed by all five councilmembers to be sincere ‒ I just think that the land that we have available is a better option than the hope that new options will materialize magically that we do not see today.

I agree with the idea of flexibility, but I would have preferred to see more affirmative steps to making the farm become a reality. As it stands now, I fear that this is far from the affirmation of the community farm concept, but rather its death knell. Hopefully I will be proven wrong on this account.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Anon

    I can see both sides here.  On the one hand, an urban farm way out by I-80, far away from the city, is not ideal for an urban farm, because of the lack of connectivity with the rest of the city.  And I am not certain how well an urban farm would do right next to or essentially almost an integral part of an innovation park.  It would almost be “out of place’.  But a swap for an appropriate parcel for an urban farm closer into town would be ideal, because there wouldn’t be the connectivity issues.  People could then easily access the urban farm.

    On the other hand, if an urban farm was located next to the innovation park, there could by some synergies with any ag research companies that might locate there.  Possibly the innovation park developers could be asked to contribute in some way towards funding the urban farm, and integrate it aesthetically as part of the innovation park.  I suppose the developer could be asked to help fund connectivity between the urban farm and the city through a bike path of some sort.  But the urban farm would still be quite a ways outside the city.

    At this stage of the game, I think it did make perfect sense to keep our options open, rather than definitively force the issue onto the parcel right next to the innovation park.  That said, if people truly want an urban farm, it will be necessary to keep the pressure on to ensure that if there is a parcel swap, there is some sort of a guarantee the urban farm is built – perhaps the innovation park developer can be asked for funding to make sure it does.  This is all part of the bargaining process that should take place between the developer and the city IMO.  For the developer to acquiesce to some amenities like this and make the developer more a part of what the community wants is more likely to result in approval of the innovation park in a Measure R vote.  Just some food for thought.


    1. Davis Progressive

      except for one problem – this land seems to have been identified outside of the current development discussion as being a spot for an urban farm.  now we have a council that seems to on the one hand reaffirm the need for an urban farm while  on the other hand, not taking affirmative steps.  i think david sees as this slipping away through benign neglect.

      1. Anon

        No, just leaving options open to locate the urban farm closer into town, rather than definitely insisting the Mace Innovation Park site will be where the urban farm is to be located.

  2. Alan Miller

    “far away from the city, is not ideal for an urban farm, because of the lack of connectivity with the rest of the city.”

    A good location for an urban farm would be the Simmons tract.

    Possibly not practical, but yes, a good location.

    1. Don Shor

      Given the need for tractor operations and spraying, as well as the dust issues, noise, and odors, I think that having any farm — “urban” or otherwise — a little distant from residential and business properties is probably better.

      1. Roberta Millstein

        Yes, that was one of the factors in the OSHC recommending this site.  The intention is to have this be a real farm, not just people working in their gardens, and other urban uses are often not compatible with being next to a farm.

        1. Doby Fleeman

          Roberta and Don,

          From your comments should we surmise that you would then be advocating for the city and county to acquire additional “buffer/non-agricultural” properties to help protect existing residents and businesses located on the edge of town and who are already exposed to such apparently incompatible uses?

          1. Don Shor

            Each site should be assessed individually for its positive and negative aspects. Converting an existing farm property to an urban farm would be least problematic with respect to near-neighbor issues. I’m not advocating anything specific about what should be acquired; I feel the OSHC is well-suited for vetting properties for Measure O uses.

        2. Roberta Millstein

          Doby, no, I am not saying that all.  I am saying that if we want a community farm, then it will be more likely to succeed if we try to locate it somewhere where adjacent users won’t have reason to complain.  There are no adjacent users to complain at Mace 25, and the site is already being used for agriculture.

        3. Doby Fleeman

          Just teasing.  But it does raise some interesting issues when one begins to describe farming as being not compatible with other urban uses. Keep following that strain of logic, and pretty soon you might find some people starting to suggest its a right not to have to live next to a farm.

          1. Matt Williams

            Correct me if I am wrong Doby, don’t you currently live adjacent to a working farm?

            Actually, last time I checked, I live next to a working farm too.

            Is anyone in either of our two respective families complaining about that proximity?

      2. Matt Williams

        Point well taken Don, which is why I see the southwest corner of the Shriners Property as ideal. Its current farming operations include tractor operations and spraying, as well as dust, noise, and odors.

    2. Matt Williams

      An even better site would be the southwest corner of the Shriners Property … superb access including the Covell Boulevard bicycle underpass just east of the Monarch Lane.

  3. Roberta Millstein

    Thanks for this piece, David.  Despite the pessimism of the title and the conclusion, you make a good case for an urban (community) farm on the Mace 25.  Indeed, there are no perfect sites, only sites with various tradeoffs.  The OSHC has been looking a community farm in Davis for ~8 years and availability of this site, together with unsuitability of other available sites, weighed heavily in its decisions.  Indeed, the OSHC has had to operate that way in general, taking advantage of sites for purchase as they became available.  To do otherwise would be to do nothing.

      1. Don Shor

        Personally I think the pessimism is warranted, but the council and commissions can stick to their goals and make every effort to keep things simple.

        A truism is that once any site has been identified for potential development, regardless of what happens to the original proposal, others looking at the map will start thinking of ways to make a deal to develop it. A community farm is likely to be less profitable than other potential uses; in fact, they are often run as non-profit projects. I don’t think the farm in The Cannery is going to be profitable for the city, for example.

        So the pessimism arises because someone is going to complicate this, probably people who have no interest in the community/urban farm concept. They’ll see some other site, and propose a land swap. Then the other private landowner will want to swing that into a bigger deal somehow. Some grand bargain will be proposed — very likely redounding to the economic benefit of other landowners. As to whether it benefits the city or community, that will be less likely. We’ve seen all this before.

        So if the city council is serious about the community farm concept, they’ll keep it simple and defer to the open space commission in assessing sites and goals for it. If Measure O funds are involved, they should make every effort to keep to the purposes of Measure O.

  4. Tia Will

    I feel like I am missing a major part of this discussion and I am hoping that someone can clarify for me. My understanding is that an urban farm is not a site where the public will be coming and gardening or farming on their own, but this is to be a real working farm.

    If so, what is the need ( other than just the basic fact that alternatives to the private car are by and large healthier) for having this working urban farm to have great pedestrian and bike access as Lucas and Rochelle seem to favor ?

    1. Don Shor

      It depends on how they’re structured and what activities (classes, tours, etc.) are scheduled at them, and whether they sell directly to the public on site or not. But no, these sites don’t generally need a whole lot of public parking or bike access or any of that. They’re farms, not gardens.

    2. Mark West

      Davis is surrounded by working farms so there really is no need to create another.  What we are talking about here is a City Taxpayer Subsidized farm, which frankly we have no need for.  Before we discuss giving away another community asset to some lucky farmer,  we should first start supplying, and paying for, the needs of our community.

      In my opinion, building a 50 Meter pool on the site makes more sense than creating another City subsidized farm.  At least then we would be using the asset for the benefit of the community.

          1. Matt Williams

            Don, many people have asked in many different venues of discussion whether protecting a 300 acre parcel of land that is over 2.5 miles from the City Limits of Davis is consistent with the intent of Measure O as passed by Davis voters in November 2000. Many of those people, who strongly support Measure O, would dispute the use of the term “nearby” to describe the McConeghy property at the Kidwell overpass. The way I have heard their belief expressed is that “nearby” means contiguous to the City Limits (perhaps even within the City Limits). Parcels like south of Willowbank and Motgomery Avenue in South Davis, or east of Dresbach Way in East Davis, or Mace 391, or the land inside the Mace Curve, or the Shriners property, or Covell Village, or north of West Covell Blvd, or west of Stonegate. All of those properties preserve sight lines and viewscapes for Davis residents. Thus far with the exception of Mace 391, all the easements purchased by Measure O have been frogs’ leaps away from impacting the daily lives of Davis residents.

            Those same people argue that we can do better.

          2. Don Shor

            Commercial development on either side of Kidwell, which was a very real possibility, would have had significant impact on Davis, and the city of Davis would have had little input about it. Hence the 17-year lawsuit. I knew the property owner on the south side. He was a local developer who fully intended to pursue highway commercial development there. The property around Kidwell was a high priority for conservation for the Cities of Davis and Dixon, Yolo and Solano Counties, and the land trusts locally.

            Those “many people” you have been talking to should be apprised of the realities of that site and the likelihood of development there.

          3. Matt Williams

            Don, your answer prompts many questions. (1) Again for the purposes of discussion, we have commercial development at the Chiles Road exit of I-80, essentially the same distance from the Davis City Limits but east rather than west on I-80. How has that Chiles Road exit commercial development had a significant impact on Davis? (2) How would the proposed development at the Kidwell exit of I-80 have differed from the Chiles Road exit development? (3) What prevents your referenced owner of the property on the south side of the Kidwell exit from proceeding with his intent to pursue highway commercial development on his property? (4) There is commercial development at the Pedrick Road exit of I-80 just two miles further west from Kidwell. How has the commercial development there impacted Davis?

            With the above questions asked, it does seem as if the McConeghy property at the Kidwell overpass was a unique situation that may have made up for the geographic remoteness of its location from the daily lives of the Davis populace.

            Looking forward to hearing more.

  5. Doby Fleeman


    All well and good, your opinion, but what of those who feel it is only reasonable to expect pedestrian, or bike, or auto access?  And, what of those who feel that lighting, and accessible pathways, and public restrooms are a necessary correlary? After all, how are these sites truly different from public parks?

    1. hpierce

      “…how are these sites truly different from public parks?”

      Well, might be because they’re working farms, not “community gardens” [yes, Don,I get it now].  Of those  “who feel it is only reasonable to expect pedestrian, or bike, or auto access?  And, what of those who feel that lighting, and accessible pathways, and public restrooms are a necessary corollary?”, I say, ‘let them eat kale!’.  

    2. Don Shor

      Generally speaking, properties acquired with Measure O funds haven’t involved public access. They differ considerably from public parks in that the funding and management mechanisms have not been primarily for public use, but for the conservation of open space and farmland. They aren’t gardens and they aren’t parks. They are farms.
      But it all depends on the nature of the farm business that is proposed and what the city council wants.

      1. hpierce

        “…. what the city council wants.”  Not taking issue with you, Don, as I agree with 100% of what you said.  I sincerely hope, at the end of the day, the 5 members of the CC decide not on the basis of what they want, as individuals, but as representatives of the community, and vote their conscience as representatives of the community… not just the most vocal ones.

        In saying this, I am not for or against the issues to this topic…. they are not simple. Talking about how the CC should frame their actions, whatever those might be.

        1. Don Shor

          Good point.
          The council members will need to be more fully informed about this with help from our citizen commissions.

          I would urge that the open space commission spend the time to explain, again and in more detail, what urban farms are and develop the principles that would be used in managing them — establishing the goals pertaining to educational programs, public access, etc.

          Staff can prepare a report showing some of the governance structures that are used elsewhere; no need to reinvent the wheel. Finance commission probably should weigh in on the practical management issues. Then, with broad recommendations in hand, perhaps a request for proposals could be put out.

          I think there are advantages to a structure where the land is leased to a single business that runs it according to the guidelines, to minimize staff involvement. Whether there are enough local farmers interested enough to run the gauntlet of city and citizen input remains to be seen. But there are other models out there that might be preferred.

          There is also no reason the City of Davis can’t have more than one community farm.

          1. Matt Williams

            I would urge that the open space commission spend the time to explain, again and in more detail, what urban farms are and develop the principles that would be used in managing them — establishing the goals pertaining to educational programs, public access, etc.

            I wholeheartedly support Don’s suggestion … and believe that explanation should be both to the Council and more broadly to the citizens of Davis. Given that funding is one of the significant issues facing implementation of the Community Farm concept here in Davis, a joint meeting of the Open Space and Habitat Commission (OSHC) and the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC) may also be a good step.

    3. Doby Fleeman

      H Pierce and Don,

      Excuse me if I’m getting a little confused.  After all, it almost 10PM on Saturday evening.

      I’m having somewhat of a challenge processing the notion of these parcels as “working farms” (whatever that means – would almond orchards qualify?).  Earlier, I had read of objections to working farms being located in close proximity to residences and businesses on the basis of incompatible uses.

      So, somehow, I am getting this image of “working farms” only being located on publicly owned properties that are discretely separated from residences and urban properties – presumably through a mechanism of other publicly acquired land that would serve as an urban buffer between the incompatible activities?

      Perhaps you could clarify how that is all supposed to integrate.




      1. Don Shor

        presumably through a mechanism of other publicly acquired land that would serve as an urban buffer between the incompatible activities?

        I don’t know why or how you seem to think any other land needs to be acquired. Mace 25 is already owned. The Cannery is already planning a community farm. No buffers needed.

        1. Doby Fleeman


          I thought you said earlier:

          “I think that having any farm — “urban” or otherwise — a little distant from residential and business properties is probably better.”

          And, I realize the city owns the 25 acres in question – but what if the adjacent parcel is to be approved for an “Innovation Center”, or the property to the west is approved for “residential”?

          Thus my conclusion that your optimal suggestion might be to reserve such “working farm” locations to environmentally buffered areas.

          Just trying to understand how this all would work.

          Full disclosure: I live adjacent to a working farm and the view is fabulous – even if it is sometimes noisy and dusty.


      2. hpierce

        I would assume that the City would share in the net proceeds of a working farm.  And, Doby, I do not fully know all the nuances between ‘working farm’, ‘community gardens’ (admitted that before), ‘truck farm’, etc.

        I DO know that if the City pays for the land, has it farmed by an “operator” who sells produce, at a profit, with no reasonable ‘return on investment’ to the City, either for monetary or intangible “educational” benefits (which I expect would be quantified), it would constitute, in my opinion, a “gift of public funds”, which would be unethical and illegal.

        I leave it to Don to explain his stance, as you “co-joined” us, perhaps beyond the intent/spirit of my comment.

  6. Tia Will


    I DO know that if the City pays for the land, has it farmed by an “operator” who sells produce, at a profit, with no reasonable ‘return on investment’ to the City, either for monetary or intangible “educational” benefits (which I expect would be quantified), it would constitute, in my opinion, a “gift of public funds”, which would be unethical and illegal.”

    Please view this as a question, not any form of attack since I am clearly ignorant on issues of city land use and contract law. I am wondering if you, or anyone else for that matter sees this as different from what is now being requested by the developers of the Cannery ?

    What I see there is a request from the developers first for a change of zoning of publicly use determined property. Then a process of clarifying what that project would actually entail. Followed by a request to change the proposal to a form again stacked greatly to their financial advantage. To me, this seems very much like a “gift of public funds” not in the form of cash, but in the form of more developer advantageous use of their lands at a cost to the general public ( or at least to that portion of the public that did not favor the development as approved on a 3-2 vote of the CC. Do you see this as a valid analogy, and if not, why not ?

    I understand the financial interest of a developer in maximizing their profits. I also understand that this maximization should not be to the detriment of the community. It would appear to me that while their may have been a period when Davis was excessively restrictive, that period does not seem to be now and we will not be benefitted by swinging the pendulum so far in favor of the developers that we are willing to compromise community well being just to favor a given business or developer.

    1. Anon

      Your analogy completely escapes me.  The Cannery owns its own land, and has agreed in the Developer Agreement to have a urban farm as part of the development.  In the Mace situation, the city owns the property.  A whole different animal.

    2. hpierce

      Just read your post, Tia, and I am somewhat confused at what you’re really asking, as you got into a philosophical discussion on what a developer or community should get out of development.

      That said, if the simple question of whether the Cannery site and the 25 acre Mace area site are analogous, I don’t think so, except to the extent if the City (or subset, Cannery residents) pays for on-going costs to subsidize a private farming operation.  In that aspect, I believe that too would amount to a gift of public funds.

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