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
  • Julie Crenwelge
  • 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

In the prior reporting cycle (2022-2023), activities under objective 1 used data from google maps to identify churches with potentially available land for urban crop production and then develop an inventory and ranking system to assess suitability of available these land to support urban crop production. In the current reporting cycle (2023-2024), the focus was placed on ground-truthing the church data and incorporating GIS, attribute and high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery with supervised learning data to expand identification of  vacant lots that could be used for urban crop production. A physical visit was made to the identified sites and observations were made on 1) the state of the land e.g. land clearing requirements, 3) whether there is other landscaping on the site, 4) if the site has access to parking, 5) if the site is fenced, 6) if the site has a storage building, 7) land use on neighboring properties and 8) if the site has evidence of prior crop production. Previously identified sites that were untenable for crop production due to one or several irreconcilable issues were removed from the inventory. For example, sites where the “land” was grown over gravel or pavement were removed from the inventory. So too were sites requiring excessive amounts of clearing, or those lacking more than one key infrastructure like storage, parking and fencing.

Activities under objective 2 in the current reporting cycle (2023-2024)  were focused on 1) re-pivoting to account for personnel changes and to prevent a second year of complete loss of on-farm research efforts, and 2) establishing research plot for the 2024 tomato growing season. Our strategy of intentionally recruiting community members with an interest in addressing food security as graduate students did not work as we anticipated. Continued underperformance of research duties by one recruit necessitated their release from the project while another withdrew due to personal issues unrelated to the project or performance of project duties. Noncompliance with research protocols and/or a threat to the physical safety of project personnel resulted in the complete loss of data or data reliability at two of the three research sites established during the 2023 growing season. The two sites where on-farm research outcomes were compromised were not selected as sites for further on-farm research in the 2024 growing season. Respective farmers at these sites have received all due compensation. The culminating circumstances necessitated the hiring of two new project personnel and the establishment of two additional research plots for the 2024 growing season.

The two newly hired project personnel, a graduate student and a part-time research assistant are focused on collecting and (re)analyzing monthly soil samples from the operating research plot over the 2023 and 2024 growing seasons. This analysis has thus far included soil moisture content, soil pH, soil organic CHNS content and thermogravimetric analysis. Analyses of other key soil health and nutrient indicators are planned for the samples using the Haney Soil Health test. Other on-farm data collected to support objective 2 has included harvest data (number and weight of tomatoes) and drone-based NDVI.   

The two additional research plots for the 2024 growing season were established in December 2023, at the only site that yielded usable data during the 2023 tomato season – bringing the total research plots at the functioning research site to three. The same randomized design with triplicates across four treatments (compost+cover-crop, compost only, cover-crop only, and no compost+no cover-crop) that was used in laying out previous research plots were also used in three research plots for the 2024 growing season. That is, a total of 12 treatment cells per research plot. As noted in prior reports, treatment cells are 12' long x 8' wide with a dual-bed design (3' wide beds separated by furrow). Each cell contains 10 plants at 2' within-bed spacing. 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 monthly to a depth of 12 inches. Soil moisture is continuing to be measured in-field at three randomized locations using a hand-held moisture probe and meter (Hydrosense II, Campbell Scientific). Soil sampling is also being completed at the same randomized locations with the samples composited in paper sampling bags, oven-dried, crushed, sieved, and stored for further analysis.

As in prior growing seasons, tomato (Celebrity hybrid) plants for the 2024 growing season were provided by Mr. David Cole and his team at Tarrant County College- Northwest Campus. Tomato plants were provided in 4.5-inch pots and transplanted between March 18 and 19, 2024. Since being transplanted, the tomato plants have all been fertilized and staked.    

Activities under objective 3 during the 2023-2024 reporting cycle, combined Farmer Interviews, Customer Survey at a local Farmers Market, Farmers’ Market Assessments and Community Conversations. Eight farmers were interviewed over a span of 6 months to understand challenges faced by farmers and the strategies they use to maintain a viable business. The questions asked in the interviews are shown below

Farmer Interviews



  1. Tell me about your farm. Do you own it? Work it?
  1. What type of business structure (sole proprietor, LLC, nonprofit)? Why was this chosen?
  1. What is the size of the farm? What type of growing methods do you use? Who else works there?
  1. What do you grow and sell? What types of produce? Any value-added products? How are your products priced? What is the method?
  1. How much do you sell at a higher price versus selling at a lower price?
  1. Where else do you sell your products? Other markets? Restaurants? Grocery stores? What are the plans for the future?
  1. If you sell elsewhere, where and why? What about the market influences this decision?
  1. How do you promote your products? Do you have a logo? Do you have a newsletter or other communication? What social media channels are used?
  1. What nonprofits and/or causes are you affiliated with (if any)?
  1. Do you currently find ways to provide for food-insecure communities? (donations, sell at discount).
  1. Whom do you feel are your key customers? How often do they buy? What do they buy? How many WIC customers do you think you have? What are they looking for?
  1. Approximately what is your monthly revenue? What is your profit margin? What are your key costs?

Customer surveys were conducted at the local Cowtown Farmers Market twice during the summer of 2023. The first was on Saturday, June 10, 2023 (N=20) and the second was on Saturday, July 8, 2023 (N=24). The total survey sample size was 44 participants with some people completing the survey only partially. Customers who completed the survey were given $15 vouchers to spend at the market.

Farmer’s market assessments were conducted at 39 local markets in the Dallas / Fort Worth area, to better understand how these markets operate towards an objective of garnering insights into the hosting of onsite farm stands to aid with income generation to support a subsidized 75/25 revenue model. Market assessments included the identification of 1) the types of items sold, 2) the number of farmers and vendors participating, 3) the average price point for products, 4) unique user experiences (e.g. live music, couple themes, events, etc), 5) observable customer traits (age, race, sex, etc.), 6) access to public transportation and covered walkways,7) checkout options for customers (cash, card, SNAP, WIC), 8)

if SNAP / WIC is offered and 9) market business models, its leadership, operational time, practices, and vendor cost (fees, applications, etc.). Observations were captured on a Market Assessment Criteria (including photographs) with vendors, customers, and market staff asked to provide additional insights on the market and origin of produce sold. No incentives were offered to participants during the assessment.

Community conversations included group discussions and conversations with a specific target group. The goal of group discussions was to understand the macro issues around food access from the viewpoint of key stakeholders and community leaders. For this, we leveraged advisory committee members, people working in the nonprofit space, and people who are connected to food access in the community (e.g., pastors, church leaders, Spanish-speaking churches).

Some key issues discussed were 1) food access and food insecurity in the community from the stakeholder’s perspective, 2) barriers to food access in the community, 3) key community programs for addressing food insecurity. Who, what, and who benefits? 4) gaps and needs and 5) pros/cons of farmers’ markets.

The goal of targeted group conversations was to understand the macro issues around food access for women, 25+ who purchase food for the family and live in the targeted zip codes.

Key Questions asked within target group conversation were:

  1. Tell us a little about your role within your family and meal preparation.
    1. Who does the cooking?
    2. Who does the shopping?
    3. How often do you purchase food for your family?
    4. How often do you cook at home?
    5. Many people do you cook for at home?
  2. Tell us about a typical trip to the store to get groceries to prepare meals.
    1. Where do you typically shop? How often in a typical month? Tell us about a typical experience and what influences your decision to shop there.
    2. What are the primary items purchased? Why?
    3. What other types of stores (e.g., convenience stores) do you shop? Tell us where you may shop, about that experience, and what influenced your decision to shop there. How often does this occur?
    4. Have you ever purchased food at a farmer’s market? If so, tell us about those experiences and what influences this decision. If not, tell us why.
    5. Are there other places where you get food (e.g., church, food pantries)? What are the primary items received? Tell us about that experience and what influences this decision.
    6. Do you use SNAP benefits on any part of your food purchases? If so, what?
  3. What other daily factors influence your decisions around shopping and preparing meals?


Research results and discussion:

Objective 1. In the prior reporting cycle (2022-2023), a total of 145 churches were identified in the study area - with 76 (52%) having land of at least 1 acre that could be leased to support urban crop production. Ground truthing and ranking, based on criteria around the state of the land and basic infrastructure needs, within the current reporting cycle (2023-2024) further reduced the list of church properties with suitable land for urban crop production to  50 (12 is located in 76119, 22 in 76105, 14 in 76104 and 2 in 76111). That is, 35% of initially identified churches and at least 50 acres of potentially productive urban cropland associated with churches in the study areas.

Combining GIS, attribute data from the Tarrant Appraisal District, and high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery (with supervised learning) to expand the search for empty land that could potentially be used for urban crop production resulted in another 248 properties. In the next phase we will ground truth, rank, and quantify the potentially productive acreage available across these properties.

Objective 2. Three types of data were collected in the on-farm research component of the project during the 2023 tomato growing season

  1. Monthly drone imagery to support remotely sensed crop health assessment
  2. Harvest data to assess yield (number and weight) of tomatoes across different treatments. Frequency of data collection varied from a few days to weeks
  3. Monthly soil samples to assess changes in soil health parameters across treatments.                                                          

Not all of the data collection efforts were successful. In fact, only efforts at one farm resulted in any usable data. The samples also had to be re-analyzed to ensure quality. At another farm, the plants died due to poor agronomic management and a broken irrigation line that flooded the plants. At still another, it was discovered that the farmer was using a mix of wood chips and compost as the growth media, rather than the natural soil the project noted. At this farm, some concerns about the physical safety of project personnel also arose. To this end, all project efforts at this farm were discontinued and the farmer paid for their participation in the project.  

At the farm where usable data was collected, some differences were observed in pre- and post-plant soil pH, the total yield, the number of tomatoes/plant, and the average weight of a tomato across treatment. Pre-plant soil pH was between 7.13 and 7.23 which dropped to between 6.90 and 6.99 post-plant and during the growing season. For reference, this was higher than the optimal 6.2-6.8 pH for Celebrity tomatoes. Observed total yields ranged from 70000 to 76050 lb/ac with the lowest and highest yields occurring in the Cover crop-only and Compost-only treatments, respectively. The number of tomatoes/plant was lowest in the no treatment (41 tomatoes/plant) and increased in the order compost-only (45 tomatoes/plant) < Cover crop-only (46 tomatoes/plant) < Compost + Cover crop (48 tomatoes/plant). The average weight of a tomato obtained across all treatments was 5.6 ounces which is lower than the 8-10 ounces expected for the variety. The heaviest tomatoes were found in the no-treatment and Compost-only treatments where the average weight of a tomato was 6 ounces compared to 5.2 and 5.4 in the  Cover crop + compost and Cover crop-only treatments, respectively. This suggests that soil amendments can be managed/tailored to meet a specific yield target. There is ongoing analyses of various soil health parameters e.g. organic matter, C/N ratios, macro-nutrients, and micronutrients to determine associations between tomato yield characteristics and treatments. This is going to be the main focus of the next phase of on-farm soil and plant research activities.

At the time of writing this report, the final year of the project would have started. That includes the establishment of the tomato crop in mid- to late March 2024. The crop represents a consolidation of work that would otherwise be spread across three farms, to a single farm. That is, the tomatoes  that had previously been planted on three farms are all now centralized at one farm for better management and probing of questions around associations between tomato yield characteristics and treatments

Objective 3

Customer Survey at Cowtown Farmers Market (TCU IRB 2023-178)          

The team collected customer data during the summer of 2023. The team created a survey and talked to Cowtown Farmers Market customers on Saturday, June 10, 2023 (N=20) and Saturday, July 8, 2023 (N=24). The total survey sample size is 44 surveys, but some people did not complete all categories. As such, raw counts are included. Customers who completed the survey were given vouchers to spend at the market worth $15.

People feel great about Cowtown Farmers Market

Cowtown Farmers Market is very well regarded by the public. Customers were asked to rate several reasons for visiting on a scale of 1 to 5, from least important to most important. The most important reasons people visit include:


The quality of the produce                                                       4.9

The freshness of the produce                                                   4.9

To support local farmers                                                         4.9

The variety of products offered at the farmers market            4.8

The overall ambiance of the market                                        4.7


This shows that overwhelmingly, customers give high marks to the product (quality, freshness, variety) and the people (farmer support and ambiance) who are producing the product. This could be a great messaging platform for future marketing campaigns.

Customers also felt positively about other issues related to location and price.

The location of the farmer’s market                                        4.4

The convenience of the farmer’s market                                 4.4

The ability to visit my favorite farm stand                               4.3

The time and day of the market                                               4.3

The great deals on the produce                                                4.3


Customers are purchasing a variety of products

Customers were asked what they typically purchased during their visit. Customers were presented with a list and chose all that applied to their shopping needs. Customers are purchasing the following products:

Produce                                                                                   42

Baked goods (bread, cookies)                                                  22

Eggs                                                                                        17

Dairy                                                                                       12

Jarred products/pickled foods                                                 12

Meat                                                                                        11


Fewer people mentioned other categories, such as beverages (N=4), pet food (N=4), and bath products (N=4).


Generally, customers say they enjoy several things about Cowtown Farmer’s Market.

People stated that they loved the outdoor location, the ambiance, seeing the farmers, and the location. Responses included the following:

“…I love the regulars, and everyone is so nice, and the price and selection is great”

“…I like the location, people, and variety of options”

“…knowing local farmers, feeding good food to family”

“…communal and well organized”

People stated that they like the freshness and variety of produce. They liked supporting local farmers and felt that there were good deals. Many cited that WIC vouchers are accepted as a positive.

There were only a few suggestions for changes

The primary issue was that some people cited location. Of course, many enjoyed the proximity of the last location (but this is also not enough to keep them from not coming). More parking, adding music and adding activities for children were ideas cited. Some cited an interest in more vendors and more people selling a variety of items. Others mentioned that more awareness and a good marketing plan would be useful.

Information about the Customers

Most people visited weekly (N=19). This shows a consistent commitment to the market on the part of customers. From there, many either visit twice a month (N=7) or monthly (N=7). Only a few visit less than once a month (N=6)

The only other farmers market that most customers also visited in addition to Cowtown Farmers Market, was the Clearfork Farmers Market (N=19), and many (N=17) did not visit any others. A few mentioned the Mindful Market at Texas Wesleyan (N=2), and others mentioned Keller, Benbrook, Weatherford, and Lake Worth as other area markets they visit.

Most customers pay with cash (N=32) or credit card (N=24). A few utilize WIC or SNAP benefits (N=13).

Most people heard about Cowtown Farmers Market through word of mouth (N=17) or social media posts (N=14). Signs about Cowtown Farmers Market accounted for some awareness (N=8) but no one mentioned a newsletter. The rest reported they heard about it in some other way (N=13) but did not specify.

This data is part of objective 3 and 4, in order to understand the needs of consumers at farmers markets.


Farmers’ Market Assessments                                                                       

Market Assessments:

The team visited 39 farmer’s markets during Spring and Summer of 2023. During each assessment, a team member would visit a designated farmer’s market during operating times and make key observations. Observations were captured on a Market Assessment Criteria along with photographs. As permitted, a team member would inquire with vendors, customers, and market staff to identify additional insights on the market and origin of produce sold. No incentives were offered to anyone during any assessment.

The team will assess the market visits and compile all results over the next three months. If any gaps or unique points of inquiry are discovered, the team will conduct additional visits or conduct supporting research as needed.


Community Conversations (TCU IRB 2023-179)                                            

Key Trends:

  • Mix of perceptions on where to access food in East Fort Worth.
  • “Quality Food” is subjective and there is not a clear means to measure.
  • Food Bank Services can be hit or miss depending on what is offered. Some people may not know what to do with all items gifted.
  • Physical Environment also contributes to food security and overall quality of life. Some neighborhoods lack sidewalks or lighting and do not feel as safe.
  • Shelf life can effect a decision if money is tight and taking a trip to a store is a burden or not a frequent event.
  • There are many resources available. Not determine how well they work together collectively.
  • Some perceptions that canned food is not good.
  • Some gaps shared include, lack of education, effects of “free food”, and lack of client choice.
  • Farmer’s Markets are hard to maintain if the community requires a heavy discount of subsidy.
  • Farmers can introduce new vegetables that might be



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.