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Growing food in forgotten spaces

Amanda Fuller sees unearthed potential in vacant city lots

Spring/Summer 2014 | By Meghan Lepisto

What can $50 buy you these days?

In Louisville, Kentucky, five parcels of land and a world of opportunity.

After learning of a 16-page city inventory of foreclosed vacant property that in some cases was being released for free or at low cost, Amanda Fuller jumped at the chance to farm one small portion.

livable cities food accessIn 2013, she and her friend and colleague Peter Thiong founded Lots of Food, purchasing five adjoining lots from Louisville's Land Bank Authority and becoming the first to do so for the purpose of growing food.

Fuller says she drew inspiration for the idea from fellow Nelson Institute alumna Janet Parker, a driving force behind the grassroots effort Madison Fruits and Nuts, which encourages the planting and harvesting of edible plants in public spaces (the two were graduate school classmates, both receiving master’s degrees in Land Resources in 2002).

Lots of Food has since established a market garden and almond and hazelnut orchard on their third of an acre, raised nearly $7,000 from 132 supporters through the online funding platform Kickstarter, and established links to distribute their produce to local restaurants, farmers’ markets, grocers and food-insecure neighborhoods.

“Where others see overgrown lots, we see fertile soil, and we say, farm it!” their website reads.

Shortly after an open house where friends, neighbors and supporters helped to plant 13 of the 26 nut trees on the property, Fuller shared more about this new venture.

In Common
: What inspired this effort?

Fuller: One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Louisville was how much vacant land there is in the city. It’s like a lot of other cities in this region; there are questions of underutilized urban property. There have been city committees and task forces to bring more attention to solutions to the issue, and I was keenly aware of that.

Then when my employer, Breaking New Grounds, shut its doors, Peter [Thiong] and I wanted to continue working together. We had spent the last three years looking across the street at parcels of land that were exactly emblematic of the kinds of problems we were aware of in the city with vacant and abandoned properties. That put in our heads the idea that people really should be putting those parcels to productive use.

The city had put vague calls out over and over again about needing citizens to help solve this problem and buy some of the properties for redevelopment. Peter and I, having the knowledge and expertise to grow food, thought, well, we don't have a million dollars to start a business or build a building, but we can buy land and grow food on it.

What are some of your goals with Lots of Food; what did you set out to accomplish?

Lots of Food founders Peter Thiong and Amanda Fuller
Friends and colleagues Peter Thiong and
Amanda Fuller founded Lots of Food in 2013.

One of our major goals was to bring attention to the issue and show one simple effort – like an off-the-shelf solution – that anybody can potentially pursue. To learn about and go through it and share what we learned, so other people could do similar things.

By our own initiative, by giving presentations and through other mechanisms in the city, and through our networks, we've brought that to light and made the Land Bank more aware of and open to these kinds of proposals. We’ve cracked that door open and made more people aware of this inventory and aware of the possibility of alternative kinds of redevelopment. At the time, really nobody that I talked to even knew it was available.

Another goal was to beautify and improve some small parcel in the only way that we know how, which is to grow things, make good soil, and share a little bit of that with the neighbors – to make one small, visible impact in a neighborhood that needs a little TLC.

What has the response been like so far?

The neighbors have been very friendly. The neighbor across the street is fixing up an old building and the very first day he saw me working here, he was so excited he ran across the street and said “I’ve been wanting to start a garden there ever since I bought this building; I’m so excited you're doing this.” 

The neighbors next door are letting us catch rainwater off their roof for our irrigation, so we don't have to install water systems. The neighborhood association actually wrote a letter of support to the Land Bank Authority when we were requesting this property, and there’s a local museum down the street that is very supportive.

Inspired to try your
hand at urban
agriculture? Visit
Amanda’s “You Can
Do It
” page for
how-to tips on

researching land,
growing food or
developing a business
plan, as well as links
to other urban
farming efforts.

Not too many people give much of an objection to somebody wanting to start a garden on a vacant lot; it's not the kind of thing people can really complain about.

We are definitely trying to be good neighbors and we're placing some things in the front, outside of our fence, like flowers and berries, specifically for neighbors to share.

Do you see yourself expanding beyond this area, or will you focus on this one lot?

Well, we're still sufficiently busy with this third of an acre. There’s all sorts of space, so our heads are full of things that we could grow.

I have my own vegetable gardens and job [Fuller serves as executive director of the Kentucky Academy of Science], and Peter has a job, so we aren't necessarily planning to buy more property. But we're hoping that other people take the cue and think about doing something similar.

The city has now seen us go through this process and we've had great support from city government, so our hope is that other people will now be looking at vacant lots and thinking about whey can do.

What advice would you share with others who might like to do something similar?

A lot of cities have a land bank of some kind. Different cities have different jurisdictions that handle properties, but there may be similar kinds of inventories.

Buying a property outright is one way to do it, but last year as a preliminary effort we approached neighbors who owned side lots and vacant lots, asking, “What are you doing with that vacant lot? Do you think I could grow some food on it?”

First almond tree planted at Lots of Food
The first almond tree is planted on
the vacant lots, which today house
an orchard and market garden.

I got a variety of responses, but eventually found a neighbor who let me plant a garden on his lot next to his business and I shared some of the produce back with him. You know, a lot of property owners would rather not mow their side lots and they would be happy to let somebody else do something on it if it meant it was reduced maintenance for them.

There are many different models. I think we just need to be creative and think about where there are spaces that could be adopted and put to better use. And think about your allies – who in your community would have an interest in doing these things?

There are lots of ways to make an impact, from guerilla gardening to being an owner of a property to things in between.

Are there other benefits to the community besides the production of fresh food?

Since we started this, our city has undertaken a broad sustainability planning initiative that includes things like storm water infiltration, planting more trees for air quality, and climate mitigation. It's helped me frame the way I’m thinking about my stewardship of this property, too.

For me it's not just taking a vacant lot, growing some food and feeding some people, but it's really about thinking about all the different ecosystem functions. I’m trying to model some ways on this tiny property that we can actually put some of those functions back, in the middle of downtown, so we can have birds and pollinators and cleaner air and water.

It’s really been interesting to think about how this fits in with the bigger picture of what's happening around me. My training is in ecological restoration, so it's nice to come back around to that.

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