- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska has seen a bumper crop of community gardens take root over the last five years, but officials could do more to encourage people to plant gardens and help them flourish, according to a new state report.

The report by a legislative task force identified 184 community gardens, nearly half of which are in Omaha. Many of the gardens began in the last five years.

Despite the growth, the task force says people likely would have planted even more gardens if policymakers had adopted programs similar to those enacted in California, Kansas, Maryland, Texas and several major U.S. cities.

“I think we’re definitely catching up, but there’s been a lot more happening in other states,” said Ingrid Kirst of Lincoln, the task force chairwoman.

The Legislature formed the task force in 2015 in hopes of encouraging community gardens, which involve multiple people or families using shared space to grow food. Lawmakers noted community gardens offer health, education and social benefits as well as encourage the preservation of open spaces.

Nebraska hasn’t seen the same groundswell of community gardens as more urban coastal states but is well-positioned because of its extensive network of farming groups and experts, said task force member Megan McGuffey.

“We’re a little behind, but I wouldn’t let that make us nervous,” said McGuffey, a University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate student. “We’re really poised to jump ahead.”

McGuffey and Kirst said access to quality land and water are the biggest challenges, and can be addressed with incentives and changes in local zoning laws.

Although there is agreement community gardens encourage healthier eating, reduce grocery costs and build relationships with neighbors, they often face logistical hurdles.

In downtown Fairbury, for example, the conversion of an empty downtown lot to a garden was anything but easy, said Rick Nation, CEO of Blue Valley Community Action.

The local nonprofit collected donations and provided soil, but because the lot has no direct access to water, children from a youth center had to haul buckets from across the street. Now the group is trying to build a spigot.

Although the group has created a garden on the lot, Nation noted the property owner still is being charged property taxes.

“There have been challenges,” Nation said. “But I think the community really likes the fact that what was once an eyesore now looks a little nicer.”

Nation said the 2-year-old garden has produced spinach, pumpkins, Swiss chard, gourds, corn and peppers. The youths who maintain it use the vegetables for cooking classes and Halloween and Thanksgiving displays. Some of the produce goes to a local food pantry, and next year the children plan to sell their products at a farmer’s market to raise money.

In Omaha, some aspiring gardeners struggle to find suitable land, said Roxanne Williams Draper, executive director of City Sprouts. The nonprofit community garden, established in 1995, uses elevated planting beds with fresh soil because the ground soil is contaminated with lead from an old smelting plant. Water pumps are also expensive, ranging between $5,000 and $8,000, she said.

“That said, there’s been a lot of increased interest,” Williams Draper said. “A lot of people want to know where their food is coming from, and eat more that’s locally grown and fresh.”

The report pointed to efforts in Milwaukee and Portland, Oregon, for examples of policies Nebraska could adopt. Both cities reviewed their building and zoning codes in 2012 to increase support of urban agriculture.

Elsewhere, the report noted that in Kansas, a partnership between Wyandotte County and private groups offers grants to help pay for garden water hookups. Texas has created financial incentives for rainwater collection systems.

California passed a law in 2013 that lets cities and counties lower the assessed value - and property taxes - on plots of 3 acres or less, as long as the owner dedicates the land to food-growing for at least five years. In 2014, Maryland approved a property tax credit on urban land used for agriculture.

The Nebraska task force report calls for a rewrite of land-use laws so that gardeners have more places to plant, policies that make it easier and more affordable to access water, tax incentives that will encourage landowners to allow gardens on their property, and an educational campaign focused on “food and agricultural literacy.”

Members also recommended appointing a central contact person in state government to help community gardeners communicate.

Even with extra encouragement, starting community garden is hard and usually takes more time than expected, said Sarah Browning, a University of Nebraska extension educator.

Browning said community garden usually requires tests to ensure the soil isn’t contaminated, insurance, a rental agreement and donations. And then, there’s the fact that growing produce can be physically challenging.

“If someone hasn’t had a vegetable garden before, they don’t realize how much work it really is,” Browning said.

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