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Alison Worman, farm manager at Whitelock Community Farm, trims and ties up plants grown on the farm. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Tax break sought for urban farmers

The money is just the beginning, but that’s where Baltimore City Councilman William “Pete” Welch plans to start.

Welch plans to introduce a bill Thursday evening that would provide property tax credits to urban farmers who grow food on private land for the purpose of selling it. The West Baltimore Democrat says his plan would encourage more people to take up urban agriculture, which he and others say would improve the health of people living in “food deserts” — neighborhoods with limited access to nutritious food.

The financial incentive is certainly attractive, said several people involved in Baltimore’s urban agriculture scene, but there are many other challenges to city farming that tax credits cannot solve, such as maintenance and labor costs.

“It’s not like this incentive is suddenly going to make everyone want to start an urban farm who wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Maya Kosok, who coordinated the Farm Alliance of Baltimore City, a network of urban farmers.

Still, “money is always an issue when you’re thinking about starting a community green space,” said Alison Worman, farm manager at Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill. “So the less hurdles the better.”

Welch’s bill seeks to establish a 90 percent property tax credit for urban farms that produce at least $5,000 worth of food in one year, Welch said. That way, only farms focused on producing food for others, rather than for personal use, would be eligible.

“People in some of our neighborhoods make their food-purchasing decisions based on price, not necessarily on the nutritional value of the food,” Welch said. “So by increasing the number of urban farms in Baltimore city, that’s our way of improving the eating habits of our residents.”

Both new and existing farms would be eligible for the credit, Welch said.

But city officials don’t actually collect property taxes on the “vast majority” of Baltimore’s existing urban farms, Kosok said.

Most of the city’s dozen or so production-oriented farms (those focused on selling or donating large quantities of food) are on city-owned land, “and the city obviously doesn’t pay taxes to itself,” Kosok said.

Only a handful of organizations are farming on private land, but not because public land is more desirable. Many people would prefer to farm on private land, Kosok said, and a tax credit could help make that possible.

That’s because although city-owned space is plentiful, the lots tend to be small: about the size of one or two demolished row houses. Those sites are available to Baltimore’s urban farmers through a city program called Adopt-a-Lot, which gives farmers short-term licenses to use the vacant land.

But Adopt-a-Lot provides no long-term land security, Kosok said.

“So by working with a private landowner, you might be able to negotiate a more stable, long-term agreement, which would enable a farm to invest in its infrastructure more confidently,” Kosok said. “And [the tax credit] could incentivize landowners to be more open to using their land for urban farming.”

Welch’s bill must still be reviewed in committee. He said he’s optimistic about its chances for passage, despite a similar measure getting axed by the City Council in 2011.

That bill, introduced by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, was vaguer. It would have applied to a wider variety of land uses and would have established a 100 percent tax credit.

Since then, the city has launched several efforts to promote urban agriculture, which could mean Welch’s bill will be better-received. In November, the Baltimore City Planning Commission adopted a multi-pronged plan called “Homegrown Baltimore” to increase the production, distribution, sale and consumption of locally grown food.

Among other things, the report recommended offering property tax credits for commercial farms on private land.

“[Urban agriculture] is about to pop; it’s really booming right now,” Worman, the Whitelock Community Farm manager, said. “But you have to build city-wide involvement. Once the neighborhoods become invested in it, that’s really when it becomes a sustainable movement.”