Sustainable Soil Resource Management and Produce Marketing on Resource-limited Urban Farms

Progress report for LS22-372

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $371,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipients: Texas Christian University; CoAct; Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration (HTCC)
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Omar Harvey
Texas Christian University
Dr. Esayas Gebremichael
Texas Christian University
Dr. Stacy Grau
Texas Christian University
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Project Information


The Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metroplex has some of the highest concentration of food deserts in the United States. These food deserts are characterized by limited access to fresh healthy food, low household incomes, limited economic opportunities, and limited access to transportation. Outward migration has also left high proportions of abandoned/vacant properties. Urban agriculture, particularly urban crop production provides a viable strategy for addressing food insecurity while helping to mitigate economic disparities through social entrepreneurship.

In recent years, several efforts have been initiated to support urban crop production in southeast Fort Worth – a major food desert in DFW. Grow Southeast - a cohort of community members and governmental agencies - provides site designs, resources and municipal navigation services to local urban farmers. The PI and his students have supported this effort by providing free whole-field soil analysis and assessment to support crop establishment. The service is undertaken as semester-long, experiential-learning projects in soil science and analytical techniques. 

Conversations with local urban farmers, highlights three major barriers to continued sustainable urban farms in the resource-limited southeast Fort Worth area; 1) sustainable, low-cost soil amendment/management practices, 2) strategic marketing and business management practices, and 3) resources for identifying and developing a suitable site for an urban farm. The proposed project will address the identified barriers via four objectives and focused on tomatoes planted directly in the soil. Objectives are 1) mapping and rating current vacant lots in SE Fort Worth for urban crop production; 2) evaluating food-waste compost with a legume cover crop as low-cost sustainable soil amendment strategy; 3) evaluate a proposed 75: 25% (for-profit: non-profit) selling model in the context of social entrepreneurship and available local markets; 4) using the results from objectives 1 - 3 to develop outreach and training material to support peer-to-peer and community-based training for sustainable urban crop production in resource-limited areas.

Objective 1 will be accomplished via the development of an interactive map with vacant lots rated for urban crop production. Ratings will be based on zoning, land ordinances, estimated development cost for urban farming and type of urban farming enterprise. Objectives 2-4 will be executed in partnership with three current farmers. We will use a split-plot, randomized block design with bi-weekly-to-monthly on-farm soil health, crop growth, crop yield, water and nutrient assessments across treatments to assess soil amendments on each of the 3 farms (objective 2). We will utilize a human-centered design for the marketing, management and outreach scopes (covered by objectives 3 and 4) to evaluate current practices and then to inform best marketing and community-centered outreach strategies. For example, marketing research to achieve objective 3 will identify the available markets, fresh- and value-added tomato-based products needs in each market, and strategies for non-profit and for-profit sales in each market. Outreach and training efforts (objective 4) will be centered on the development of a toolkit for urban crop production in resource-limited areas. This toolkit will be designed to highlight resources and facilitate farmer- or community-led trainings across multiple media platforms.

Project Objectives:

The proposed project will address farmer-identified barriers to sustainable tomato production on resource-limited urban farm (in the study area) via four specific objectives;

1) mapping and rating vacant lots in SE Fort Worth for urban crop production;

2) evaluating food-waste compost with a legume cover crop as low-cost sustainable soil amendment;

3) evaluate a proposed 75: 25% (for-profit: non-profit and visa-versa) selling model in the context of social entrepreneurship and available local markets;

4) using the results from objectives 1, 2 and 3 to develop outreach and training material to support peer-to-peer and community-based training for sustainable urban crop production in resource-limited areas.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Ursula Nunez
  • Amber Carr - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Greg Joel - Producer
  • Steven Nunez - Producer
  • Jhamal Huckaby - Producer
  • Sarah Foxx
  • Amanda Whitley
  • David Cole


Materials and methods:

Research activities in this funding cycle occurred under three of the four project objectives:

1. Mapping and rating vacant lots in SE Fort Worth for urban crop production

2. Evaluating food-waste compost with a legume cover crop as a low-cost sustainable soil amendment for supporting the growth of tomatoes

3. Evaluate a proposed 75: 25% (for-profit: non-profit and visa-versa) selling model in the context of social entrepreneurship and available local markets

Within this funding cycle,  activities under objective 1 combined data from google maps and high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery with geospatial analysis (supervised learning) techniques to develop 1) an inventory of churches with potentially available land and 2) a rubric for ranking available land for suitability to support urban crop production. The techniques chosen facilitated the remote assessment of the number and size of available sites while allowing for their easy mapping, evaluation, and incorporation into the targeted interactive map. 

Activities under objective 2 were focused on 1) recruiting and hiring graduate students and 2) establishing the on-farm research plots at each of the three participating farms. Our strategy in recruiting graduate students was to intentionally target students who were from the study area and had an interest in addressing food security issues. A completely randomized design with triplicates across four treatments (compost+cover-crop, compost only, cover-crop only, and no compost+no cover-crop) was used in laying out the research plots at each farm. That is a total of 12 treatment cells/farm. Treatment cells are 12' long x 8' wide with a dual-bed design (3' wide beds separated by furrow). The design was made to contain 10 plants/cell  (2' apart within bed). The sample design and layout are used at each farm. In December 2022, two inches (2") of compost was added to compost only and compost + cover-crop treatments, and a winter peas cover crop was established on compost + cover-crop and cover-crop only treatments. Since establishing the cover-crop and compost treatments, soil moisture measurements and soil sampling have been ongoing on a monthly basis to a depth of 12 inches. Soil moisture is being measured in-field at three randomized locations using a hand-held moisture probe and meter (Hydrosense II, Campbell Scientific). Soil sampling is completed at the same randomized locations with the samples composited in paper sampling bags, oven-dried, crushed, sieved, and stored for further analysis. Tomato (Celebrity hybrid) plants were grown for the project by Mr. David Cole and his team at Tarrant County College- Northwest Campus. Plants were provided in six-inch pots and transplanted between March 20 and 31, 2022. Since being transplanted, the tomato plants have been fertilized (all treatments), staked (all treatments) and the cover-crop crimped.    

Activities under objective 3, combined roundtables, interviews, discussions with community stakeholders, and visits to farmer's markets to get insights into the functioning of the local food system. A total of three roundtable conversations were held this cycle. Two of these roundtables were with individuals representing 13 local organizations that provide food-related services. Our goal was to identify services being provided in the area, gain insights from utilized programs, and identify current gaps in social services and opportunities to collaborate. The third roundtable was with residents from zip codes in the study area and focused on identifying key factors that influence community members purchasing decisions. A total of 5 farmers were interviewed to gain insights on growing practices and marketing strategies employed. One of the farmer interviews was with a non-participating urban farmer, Charlie Blaylock, who has had great success in his business and developed extensive expertise in bio-intensive growing techniques. Here we were interested in identifying motivations and strategies that helped Charlie in being successful. Farmer's market visits were to observe differences in offerings, pricing structures, and conditions of operations and to develop baseline review guidelines for data collection.

Research results and discussion:

Objective 1. A total of 145 churches were identified in the zip codes of the study area. That is 76104, 76105, 76111, and 76119. Of the 145 churches, 76 (52%) had land of at least 1 acre that could be leased to support urban crop production. Outreach to the 76 churches revealed that many had outdated contact information and/or do not have regular staff on duty. To date, we have been able to get responses from only 4 churches (1 is located in 76119, 2 in 76105, and 1 in 76104). The next phase of the project will incorporate GIS data containing spatial information and attribute data of various properties from the Tarrant Appraisal District data dissemination platform. This data will be integrated with the supervised learning product to identify other vacant lots that could be used for urban crop production.

Objective 2. As of the writing of this report, we have successfully recruited two graduate students (Ursula Nunez and Amber Carr). Both students are from the study area and are very entrenched in the communities effort to address food insecurity. Ursula officially started her graduate degree in Fall 2022 while Amber will start working on the project this Summer first as a research assistant before officially starting her graduate degree in Fall 2023. Texas Christian University was very generous in providing full tuition waivers to support both students for two years of their graduate work. The project is responsible for providing stipends. There are currently no research data to be reported from the on-farm research plots. However, it is worth noting that this is actually our second effort in establishing research plots. In the summer of 2022, per our original proposal, on-farm research plots were established at one of our participating farms (Opal's Farm). However, a combination of record high temperatures, severe drought, and too small transplant sizes (4-inch pots) resulted in the plants dying before being fully established. To prevent this we chose a Spring establishment, the larger transplant sizes (6-inch), and shifted to an all drip (versus sprinkler) irrigation system.

Objective 3. Key outcomes from efforts on this objective were

1) a compiled list of local farmer’s markets,

2) the acquisition of retail data from the City of Fort Worth that provides insights into the average distance traveled to purchase groceries, preferred stores, and most common items purchased,

3)  the development of draft surveys and interview strategies to identify key factors that influence community member purchasing decisions at various farmer's markets. The first of these draft surveys and planned interview strategies is currently in review with the Board of Directors for Cowtown Farmer’s Market which will serve as our pilot. We are also in discussions with Blue Zones Project to collaborate on surveys and community discussions.

A major challenge faced with this objective was the participation levels of residents in the hosted roundtable session. The session was very poorly attended with only 3 residents showing up. To address this issue, we have been successful in recruiting a 9-member steering committee to aid in increasing participation in research and thinking more critically about day-to-day experiences of community members in target zip codes. We have also identified a list of neighborhood associations that can be engaged during the project

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.