Friday, June 2, 2023 Jun 2, 2023
89° F Dallas, TX
Farmers Markets

Elmwood Farm Will Either Close or Move, Highlighting the Challenge of Urban Agriculture

The small urban farm’s lease will not be renewed after two years. It shows how difficult it can be for small, community-driven efforts to compete with other uses.
By |
A bird's eye drone shot of the Elmwood Farm plot of land before it was turned into a working farm. There's a small street, a few residential buildings, and a patchy square of grass where the farm will eventually go.
Elmwood Farm
Elmwood Farm notified its followers in an email newsletter on Tuesday that it will soon need to find another location.

The urban farm, currently at the corner of Ferndale Avenue and Balboa Drive in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Elmwood, will move in the new year because its two-year lease is expiring and will not be renewed.

To build the project we once called “The Little Garden That Could,” Andrew Cagle, Doug Klembara, Eric Nyström, Collin Martin, Matt Glenn, and Eric Gonzalez—all denizens of Elmwood with other jobs—brought disparate experiences to bear, from community gardening to chicken husbandry and coop-building to a degree in soil science. Together, they got soil amendments in the ground, sowed seeds in heavy-duty overalls, erected a hoop house built for tomato and pepper seedlings, and constructed a coop and run for hens that laid multi-hued eggs. Their efforts secured a partnership with Methodist Dallas Medical Center, which joined with the farm to provide grant funding and highlight healthy diets.

By mid-year, the farm had attracted eight regular volunteers, and group workdays and summer farm-stand days brought numbers hovering around a dozen.

They initially struck a deal with their landlord in which they paid $200 a month and the cost of water for the non-retail-zoned plot. But, according to Cagle, their landlord wanted to lease to a tenant who would park work vehicles and store lumber, and he believed he could charge $1,500 a month.

“About the time we learned that we would need to end our lease early, this August, was when we felt we had a good enough grasp on operations to get better at integrating community involvement,” Cagle says.

The building of an urban farm is two-phased. The first year was paid for with the first $10,000 Methodist grant. Those first 12 months are all about infrastructure—establishing the plot, buying tools. “Once that’s there, you can focus on growing and events and all the things you’re really trying to do,” Cagle says. “The first year of funding gave us enough to get everything started. After that phase, it gets a lot cheaper, just trying to maintain it.”

Between water and seeds, they might need $150 per month, he estimates. And enough to activate the space and make events free. They could earn that by selling eggs and vegetables.

But urban efforts like theirs—tying us to the land—are precious and vulnerable to shifts like these. They need support.

“It’s all part of the journey and still worth the effort,” Cagle says, though they’re disappointed to lose the physical space after merely a year in which they nurtured the soil and fostered connections.

Still hopeful, they’re looking to a wish-list plot closer to nearby Tyler Station.

As Cagle argues, “it’s important to see [the whole umbrella of] urban farms … as more of a public good than a capitalistic enterprise.” Over time, “community spaces like ours offer real economic returns as property is improved and foot traffic increased.”

I saw it in every visit I made, in my own frequenting of the bright façade of Lulu’s Mexican restaurant in the nearby quiet bend of Balboa. Or when I stopped by the panaderia a block away or the adjacent tortilleria that sells barbacoa by the pound on weekends.

But, as Cagle also notes, subsidies or property tax exemptions—and appropriate zoning—are also vital to the growth of urban farms. Urban gardens can play vital roles, but their imprint is physical.

That plot near Tyler Station, shaded by trees and much larger (almost an acre), is zoned commercial, much more valuable in terms of its appraisal value, and could pull in several thousand dollars a month. And while their potential new landlord is extraordinarily supportive, there are realistic limits on both sides.

Elmwood Farm has a precedent in Brad Boa of Restorative Farms, which operates multiple programs (including a hydroponic farm at Fair Park) targeting food deserts in South Dallas and received grants and land from Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Bright green, fresh lettuce and herbs in a garden bed.
Lettuce and herbs are poppin’ at Elmwood Farm.

But Elmwood Farm falls somewhere in between a fully operative farm like Restorative Farms or Bonton Farms and a community garden.

According to Cagle, Bob Curry, the city of Dallas’ first urban agriculture manager, is “trying to help us get some answers from the county tax office.” But the concept of urban agriculture is still pretty new, and the city doesn’t yet have a plan that would allow it to thrive. Ideally, if it’s of interest to the city of Dallas, Cagle imagines launching a public program that’s partnered with the Parks and Recreation department and enables use of greenbelt space or city land.

Or, alternatively, the city might offer a tax exemption that could make up some of the revenue the landlord would be sacrificing for a public good. (Consider the fact that about 75 percent of, say, $1,000 monthly rate on the Tyler Station plot would go to property taxes. With an exemption, that money would be a credit to the landlord, and the Farm’s rent would be about $300.)

Teams like Elmwood Farms’ can re-seed millet and buckwheat crops to build new soil, “but it only works financially if we can get a property tax exemption from the county.” They can tout the precepts of the poet and novelist Wendell Berry and espouse the conviction that we have an urgent need to reconnect to the land in an urban environment. And their visions are laudable.

However, essentially, “to be sustainable in an urban context, the land cost has to be subsidized in some form for urban [agriculture] projects,” Cagle says.

“Otherwise, they just won’t exist.”

Related Articles


Gallery: Mardi Gras Parade Returns to Oak Cliff for 2022

Go Oak Cliff’s annual Mardi Gras parade was on hold for a couple years during the pandemic. On Sunday, the crowds and krewes returned to Davis Street to celebrate the day.
By Bret Redman

Warning to All Oak Cliff Violaters

Don't get shot or reshot.
By Tim Rogers
Urban Design

A Pedestrian Win in North Oak Cliff

A small effort to make a difference for perambulators.