The high cost of soil testing for urban agriculture makes financial sustainability questionable

Before anyone launches an urban farm, environmental soil tests should be completed. The high costs of these tests are difficult to repay for the small farmer using produce sales as the source of income.

In a recent Michigan State University Extension training session, a participant stated that a city was offering vacant land to urban farmers for $100 per acre. On the face of this, that price seems to be a low and reasonable. There are however hidden costs associated with acquisition and development of land for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is a high risk, low return venture that needs careful consideration before a launch is undertaken. Purchasing land that needs large investments to bring soil health to acceptable standards can be expensive, leading to failure of the venture. Beginning farmers and others need to understand the hidden costs of developing urban farms, and make appropriate business decisions that lead to production of safe food, and financial success.

When considering a piece of land, soil testing should be the first consideration in determining its capacity and value for farming. In cities such as Detroit, concern has been expressed regarding the levels of lead and other contaminants in the soil, and the effect it has on food safety, if the ground is farmed and the produce is sold commercially. Testing protocols have been reviewed and suggestions have been made to improve the quality of soil testing, in order to clear up public concern regarding produce grown in urban soils. Wayne State University researchers have developed a testing protocol that results in a 95 percent certainty of detection of lead in urban soils. Additionally other environmental soil tests may be needed, such as cadmium and arsenic, which might have a negative effect on health when ingested.

Using the Wayne State University protocol, an individual sample is needed every 242 square feet. On a typical city lot of 7500 square feet, 31 individual samples would need to be taken and tested. Soils are not to be mixed because the dilution of a hot spot would occur. For one acre, 180 individual samples would need to be taken and tested.

Environmental soil testing is different than normal agricultural testing and may not be available through the Extension service. Commercial laboratories may have the capacity to conduct the test, and some state universities might be able to conduct the test. Penn State does offer environmental soil testing for parcels that are, or might be used for urban farming.

Using Penn State’s lab, for lead $27 per sample. We know that a 7500 square foot lot needs 31 samples, using Wayne State University’s protocol, resulting $837 per lot. One acre (5.81 lots) would cost $4860 for lead testing. Additional testing might also be necessary, given the history of a certain tract of land. Additional costs related to cleanup and mitigation would come into play if the parcel is found to be problematic. The cost of the city lot is much greater than the offering price of $100/acre for surplus land.

What are the options for the urban farmer? The principles of sustainable agriculture and general ethics would prohibit looking the other way, and to plant and grow crops without adequate testing. This leaves management choices of proceeding with testing, and then making decisions on how to proceed once the level of contaminants is known. The second option would be to forgo the opportunity to buy an urban lot, due to the high cost of testing. The average cost of farmland in Michigan  is estimated from $3699 to $4646, with residential land at $7398 per acre. The urban farmer might consider renting agriculture land outside the city, with average land rents of $142/acre for agricultural lands. Additional alternatives such as growing indoors or above ground might be more sustainable option, but not without cost.

If you are interested in pursuing an urban agriculture venture, educators at Michigan State University Extension and innovation counselors at the Michigan State University Product Center can assist potential businesses in the establishment of good practices to improve business effectiveness. For further information and assistance with employee communications please contact your local Michigan State University Extension office. 

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