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An undeveloped acre of city property at 27th Street and Old Cheney Road holds the virgin soil eyed for a project to explore commercial farming within the city limits. 

The grass field northeast of the intersection and south of a fire station requires regular mowing. 

There's no future commercial or residential plans.

But a proposal backed by City Councilman Roy Christensen would give it purpose, testing the feasibility of urban farming.

Jeff Johnston and Ed Bannister of Jefe's Pepper Products, a local startup, would till the plot and grow primarily peppers and tomatoes for their salsas and hot sauces. 

"The city has an opportunity to start putting agriculture back in the center of our lives like the way we put food in the center of our mouths," said Tim Rinne of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Food Policy Council. 

Rinne brought the idea to Christensen and pitched Johnston and Bannister as the farmers to launch this study. 

This project wouldn't be like a community garden, said Rinne, who runs a neighborhood garden in the Hawley Neighborhood.

Rather it would help produce more local food, reduce a barrier for first-time and entrepreneurial farmers who can't find land and generate revenue for the city, according to Rinne and Christensen. 

"As the largest landowner in Lincoln, city government is uniquely positioned to help ease this need for suitable food-growing space, while eventually generating lease income from the use of city property for a public purpose," Christensen said.

Both describe the proposal, which has not been formally introduced to the City Council, as a win-win. 

If it was approved by the council, the project could begin in October, and the two farmers would need access to the plot to test the soil, till it and ready it for spring planting. 

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For their participation in the pilot project and work tilling the land, the farmers wouldn't need to pay rent the first year, Christensen said. 

Instead, their participation would help the city develop baseline lease fees for the possible expansion of urban farming, he said. 

Other sites are being investigated for their compatibility.

Developers have had interest in that parcel previously, but traffic access to the land from 27th Street or Old Cheney Road has been prohibited by city policy

Rinne envisions the city having designated tracts of land subdivided for multiple farmers to grow vegetables they could sell at local markets. 

He's worried about catastrophic food system failures, and he believes urban farming could make Lincoln more food-secure, he said. 

Council Chair Jane Raybould said she's intrigued by the idea.

But her experience on the Lancaster County Board approving lease agreements for farmers to grow crops on county land makes her uncomfortable with giving away a year of rent.

"I don't think we should give a private entity free rent," she said. "I want to be consistent and fair with everyone." 

An acre of cropland wouldn't have the same visual appeal of building parks such as Hazel Abel or the Sunken Gardens, Rinne said. 

But he believes the community can only benefit from investing in more local agriculture. 

"There’s just no downside to this," Rinne said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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