Monday, February 18, 2013

Urban Farming: A Growing Phenomenon

Urban farming----urban and farming are two concepts that just don’t seem to fit together. Where are the extensive land holdings? Where’s the massive machinery? How about livestock? An urban farm is certainly not our historical picture of a farm. And yet, the largest growing segment in the farming census is that group of farms of 10 acres or less. Many of these farms are two acres and under.

Where are these urban farms? You may not find one in Manhattan, but visit the other boroughs of New York City and you’ll find some. Look to Detroit where urban decay has opened up vacant lots suitable for growing. Look around D.C., in Phoenix, outside of Richmond, and even in Lynchburg, Va. and you’ll find urban farms and market gardens.

 There’s a TV program called Growing a Greener World with the dot com address of the same name that documents urban farms on the outskirts of Manhattan. The old rose greenhouses near Lynchburg stadium are now occupied by a group called Lynchburg Grows. This group is refurbishing the old greenhouses, growing market crops, and employing disadvantaged workers. 

Successful urban farms by necessity are intensive farms. Close planting in raised beds, trellises, and small scale livestock operations all play into a successful urban farm. Aquaculture, the raising of rabbits, chickens for meat or eggs, and even the raising of earthworms can be important components of an urban farm. Enhancing fertility and maintaining that fertility are of utmost importance to a successful operation.

Where is the best place to locate an urban farm? As with real estate, it’s location, location, location. In Edmund Morris’ 1864 book, “Ten Acres Enough”, Mr. Morris documents his attempts at market gardening in New Jersey just across from New York City. A large population and access to horse manure were the key components of his success. Today’s modern means of transportation allow us some flexibility in location, but access to people still remains a foremost consideration.

Farmer’s markets have exploded over the last decade. This one factor has lead to the success of more market farmers and gardeners than any other one single event. These markets bring together a wide array of sale items in one location making these markets attractive places to purchase the freshest, most unique produce items available. Most markets offer reasonable rents, social activities for customers, and unique sales opportunities for vendors. The addition of on-farm stands, CSA’s, local restaurant sales, and wholesale outlets offer urban farmers many outlets for success.

How do you define success? Success may be supplemental income derived from one-eighth acre of land. A husband and wife might define success as a livable income from a couple of acres of vegetables and flowers. Or, a number of individuals might develop multiple acres over several sites with a di-versified marketing approach. Dollars and cents success was documented from a Maryland couple at a Virginia State University farm conference. The couple lamented that their previous year’s income was seriously impacted by both drought and unusually high summer temperatures. That year they were only able to generate $30,000 per acre income from their two acre operation.

A successful urban farm must sell high value items. A successful urban farm can increase their income by selling value added items in their sales mix. What are high value items? Lettuce, beans, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries come to mind. Two of the biggest money makers are tomatoes and squash, especially if you can bring these items to market prior to the normal sell dates for your market. High tunnel production, low tunnel protection, along with row covers and mulch now make it possible to beat the earliest marketing dates on many locally grown products. Corn is a low profit item and may be better purchased for resale to meet your customer demands. Value added items like jams, jellies, baked goods, floral arrangements, and Christmas decorations offer opportunities for higher incomes.

Eliot Coleman is a market gardener, inventor, and author growing products for market year-round in Maine. If you’re seriously considering growing for a profit, look him up on line or check out his “how to” books on most bookseller websites. Now, if crops can be grown year-round in Maine, we certainly have no excuse here in zone seven.

Eight billion and millions more each year------that’s the number of mouths that agriculture needs to feed worldwide. The U.N. estimates that we will need to double our food production in the next 40 years. High fuel prices, high fertilizer prices, rapid loss of good agricultural land to development, increased water demand for a host of reasons----this is not the picture we would like to see. As negative as these things are, urban farming offers a brighter side.
Visit any agricultural conference where Farmer’s markets are discussed and you’ll soon discover that the most successful ones are close to or in metropolitan areas. Remember, we discussed population being a real plus way back in 1864. The same is true today. With an urban farm, the population is right at your doorstep.

Conventional U.S. and worldwide farming is barely keeping up with food demands. We have more hunger than ever before right here in this country; let alone worldwide. Some of our food problems are logistical. Some of our food problems are political. All of our food problems are population driven.
Urban farmers will never compete with the corn, wheat, rice, or soybean farmers. What the urban farmer can do is take some of the production pressure off our commodity farmers. It’s sort of like the Victory Gardens of World War II where, by the end of the war, these gardens were producing around a third of our food needs for the entire country.

What are some of the pluses and minuses of urban farming? Number one on the plus side is, of course, population. Dense populations provide both good markets and available labor. Lots of buildings mean a lot of square footage for collecting rainwater. Many homeowners have the space but not the inclination to use it. Here’s your chance to perhaps make an agreement to use this space for a small percentage of the produce. Beginning farmers can start small and grow their business without giving up their current employment. Raw material for composting may be available just for the asking and supplies are usually more quickly available in urban areas.

On the downside, you have no way of knowing all of the former uses of a given property. Soil testing is a must! Lead paint was used for years and this buildup is especially bad in older residential areas. Old manufacturing sites offer up their own set of problems. To overcome many of these problems, consider growing above the ground in raised beds by bringing in fresh soil or new compost. Open space may be limited requiring you to use a number of different locations for your enterprise.
Urban farming, intense planting, organic gardening, moveable greenhouses, the farm to fork movement, and the list goes on as farmers and gardeners look for another way. People need food---and lots of it. Demand can only increase. Start small, grow from your own resources, and think outside the box. You just might be the one to fit all the pieces into a very profitable urban farming system. 

For more information about Lynchburg Grows, see:

For information about urban farming in Richmond, Virginia, see: Urban Farms: Cultivating Change - City Life.

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