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Survey says land costs and acquisition issues make urban agriculture difficult in St. Louis

Sylvester Brown and Tamara plant sweet potato seeds in front of Union Avenue Christian Church in June.
Kim Oswalt | St. Louis Public Radio
Sweet Potato Project founder Sylvester Brown and Tamara plant sweet potato seeds in front of Union Avenue Christian Church in June.

Encouraging more residents to grow fruits and vegetables in St. Louis could depend on making it easier for residents to acquire vacant lots, according to a new survey. 

The St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, consisting of environmentalists, policy experts and community leaders, collected 854 responses that came from nearly every neighborhood in the city. Residents were asked about their interest and participation in urban agriculture and the challenges they faced in doing so.

"We really want to make sure that if there is going to be economic opportunity created from urban agriculture in the city that we want it to be the result of citizens in the city that have come together and said that that's something they want," said Melissa Vatterott, food and farm coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. 

The coalition is using the feedback to draft an ordinance to facilitate urban farming for residents. It could be presented to aldermen by this coming spring.

Urban agriculture has been shown to bring environmental, health and economic benefits to cities. For example, recent research by Saint Louis University indicated that native bees species, which are better pollinators than honeybees, are finding cities more hospitable than rural areas, partly due to the increase in urban gardening. 

Nearly eight of 10 survey respondents said that they'd like to see the city make it easier for residents to acquire land for food production. About half said that the cost and taxes on vacant properties are too high. Some also said that leasing property from the Land Reutilization Authority also presented a challenge because there is little guarantee that the parcel wouldn't be bought out from under the tenants. 

Cara Spencer, alderman for the 20th Ward, said promoting urban agriculture could greatly address the city's overabundant vacant lots. 

"We have a very serious issue with over 10,000 vacant parcels that the city itself owns," Spencer said. "And we know when urban agriculture flourishes in a city, its children, residents are healthier and they're smarter about what they choose to eat."

City residents who have maintained a vacant lot for two years can purchase it for $125, provided that it was owned by the LRA for at least three years. The opportunity was announced by Mayor Francis Slay earlier this year

Several people who responded to the survey also wished to sell produce and eggs from their yard. Some also were in favor of changing the city code to keep more chickens in their backyard. The city imposes a limit of four animals for each residential property.

Last spring, Alderman Scott Ogilvie of the 24th Ward attempted to pass legislation to support residents who want to keep backyard chickens, but the Board of Aldermen ultimately rejected it. 

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.