Friday, March 18, 2011

Definition: Ag Park

[Lu-Mien Village Farms at Sunol Ag Park, Sunol, CA]

Similar in concept to a business park  where one landowner manages the overall landscape and infrastructure, and multiple businesses rent out only the amount of office space they need, an ag park is a powerful tool for creating agricultural opportunities in cities and suburbs. It addresses head on the major obstacles for new farmers in urbanized areas: high cost of land, and lack of experience.

By providing small plots that farmers can eventually scale up, the ag park alleviates the need for major capital investment in land and the pressure to manage a full scale farm from the start. Similarly, ag parks have the requisite infrastructure in place - irrigation, deer fencing, tool and packing sheds - that give new farmers a head start without needing to raise significant start up funds. Finally the ag park brings together farmers of different experience levels, facilitating transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. In addition, ag parks typically incorporate a ecological restoration or preservation program, and create open space opportunities in the form of multi-use trails and other public uses.

The Intervale Center in Burlington VT is a well-established example of an ag park. Currently 15 farms share 120 acres, and grow a wide variety of crops from berries to eggs. A conservation nursery grows native plants for use in ecological restoration and stream stabilization, and a system of trails is well-used by the larger community. The goals of the center are summarized as:

"to grow viable farms, preserve productive agricultural land, increase access to local, organic food, compost and other soil amendments, and protect water quality through organic waste management and stream bank restoration"
The Sunol Ag Park in Sunol, CA is a smaller enterprise, hosting five farms on 18 acres, thirty minutes east of the Bay Area. A clear sign of success is one farmer who increased his plot from 1/2 to 9 acres in just four years. One of the notable aspects of the Sunol Ag Park is its location on a public utility easement. Identifying such underused land in urbanized areas, and partnering with the owners to bring productive programs to the land, is a key aspect of a holistic ag planning strategy. The non-profit that created and manages Sunol Ag Park, SAGE, has published a comprehensive guide, the Urban Edge Agricultural Parks Toolkit, to aid municipalities interested in creating similar programs.

As more Ag Parks are created, the opportunities they present for urban and suburban agriculture may become even broader. One can imagine a full spectrum of ag-tourism, education and summer camp activities folded into Ag Parks that could help provide start-up funds for farmers, or expansion of the parks themselves. Designers might find the opportunity to experiment with edible landscapes in these ag parks, addressing questions of maintenance and management typical of commercial projects. The Ag Park model holds a lot of promise for incubation of ag-related projects, from the expected to the extraordinary.