Site assessment steps for urban farms

Each potential urban farm should be evaluated for the presence of lead and other potentially hazardous elements.

As industrial cities begin to redevelop, urban gardens and small-scale urban farming has emerged as a possible use of former residential, commercial and industrial properties. Recent studies have concluded those potentially hazardous elements have been found in urban soils and need to be managed in order to limit human exposure. Lead, cadmium and arsenic are of particular concern. Several steps should be considered when planning an urban garden or urban farming location.

  • Understand the historic use of the site. Discuss the site history with persons familiar with prior uses if possible. Search public records such as tax assessment records to provide clues to prior use. Evaluate the neighborhood, taking note of the age of homes, commercial business and industry in the area.
  • Where are the undisturbed soils? On a typical city lot, where a demolition of the residence occurred, elevated levels potentially hazardous elements are more likely to occur in the “footprint” of the residence. Soil test samples from the “footprint” of the structure should be tested separately from other areas of the site.
  • When the original structure remains on the site, soil samples taken adjacent to the structure should be tested separate from other locations on the site. For instance, lead from chipped paint may reside adjacent the structure.
  • In areas where soils have been brought to a site, soil testing should be separate from other locations on the site. This is important on lots that have had a demolition of structures. In many cases, soils are brought to a site to fill in holes related to the demolition.
  • Take notes related to the soil sampling locations and processes.

If you find that you have elevated levels of potentially hazardous elements, Michigan State University Extension educators can assist in developing strategies, such as raised bed production, for lots with elevated levels of potentially hazardous elements. For further reading please review University of Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station Bulletin 1019, ‘Lead and Other Heavy Metals in Community Garden Soils in Connecticut.”

For more information regarding urban gardening and urban farming, speak with a MSU Extension educator. MSU Extension provides educational and technical assistance for individuals, community groups, and businesses seeking to establish gardens and farms in urban settings.

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