When my family moved into our suburban home in central New Jersey, our large backyard was dotted with an assortment of trees, and unruly hedges hugged much of our perimeter fence. While it did make for a pretty good soccer field, it wasn’t suitable for much else. Our children would play in the backyard, but it didn’t excite their senses, offer impromptu lessons in nature or botany, or serve as a home for insects or birds. It was a desert of grass that required constant care and gave nothing in return. Something needed to change.
I started the transformation to a small backyard farm with a vegetable garden and a couple of fig trees in a small corner of my yard. Now, after almost 15 years, I’ve transformed my entire 1⁄3-acre backyard into a productive and revenue-producing suburban farm.
I decided to expand past the food garden and create a suburban farm when it seemed clear that we weren’t going to be acquiring more land. We both needed to be able to commute to our jobs, and we needed my income as a school librarian to help with the expenses of raising a family.
The first few steps we took to set up a suburban farm were legal and administrative. I called my township to ask about any potential barriers I may encounter. Their response — “If nobody complains, we won’t bother you!” — helped encourage me to be a quiet and courteous neighbor. Our next step was to set up a legal entity. I chose to incorporate as a limited liability company (LLC). I arranged for insurance and filled out some paperwork, and then I was ready to go.
My yard has gone through a number of transformations. I’ve grown heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms, herbs, pea shoots, kale — whatever seemed to be in demand. Though my suburban farm was profitable over the years, eventually I decided it was too difficult to compete with the diversity and quantity of produce from larger farms. I needed to find something that played to my strengths as a small-acreage grower in close proximity to a large and culturally diverse population.
The model I finally chose incorporates plants for berry production as well as a small nursery. It allows me to consistently earn up to $25,000 on a small acreage while holding down a full-time job as a school librarian. The free summers I enjoy as a school employee are a major help in running my farm. I don’t think I could do it with a demanding corporate position. However, I think this model is suitable for others who have flexible hours, work part-time, or perhaps don’t have a job at all. Along the way, I’ve developed some guidelines to help me focus on the best direction for my farm, keeping in mind my specific circumstances and markets.
Here are my four defining guidelines for running my suburban farm business.
Time is money. I work alone. Hiring even part-time workers in New Jersey is very expensive if you do it legally, so I need to grow products that command a good price relative to my time. At one point, I was selling alpine strawberries, which are very small and are remarkably flavorful and fragrant. They generated a lot of interest, but it was difficult to get the price I needed to warrant the time it took to pick them.
Grow something special. When I try a new crop that’s not generally available in my area, I’m always a bit wary. Did someone try growing it and fail, either because of the demands of the plant or the lack of a market? If it’s the former, I need to see whether I can do it better or more successfully than the last person. If it’s the latter, I need to figure out how to create the market.
Providing chefs with a highly specialized product has additional advantages. Let’s face it: Dealing with a small farmer can be more trouble than working with a large farm. My selection is limited, so the chef has to really want to work with me. I need to offer crops they can’t get anywhere else.
Uncover niche markets. Living near people with varied backgrounds creates possibilities for exploring new crops. Are the needs of a specific group in my area not being met? Are they longing for something I can grow? Even a small niche can generate a good return. For example, Russians, Europeans, and Britons all grew up eating gooseberries. Maybe their grandparents’ cottage had a few gooseberry plants, and they have fond memories of picking berries together; or perhaps their mother made a fantastic gooseberry jam. By offering these berries to them, you’ll help them reconnect with those memories.
A short shelf life is your friend. Because my customers are nearby — up to an hour away, and frequently much closer — I can get my produce to them very quickly. Delicate items won’t arrive in pristine condition after traveling long distances. Some berries start to lose their luster after only a day or so. By servicing nearby markets, your perishable items will have much less competition. For example, I pick elderflowers in the early morning when they’re still fresh and cool. After a day in the refrigerator, their appearance and fragrance are already compromised. So I immediately put them into a cooler, and from there, I deliver them to my customers within a few hours at most. They wouldn’t survive being shipped long distances, so the only competition I can expect is from other growers in my area.
Though I sometimes find myself working long hours in less-than-comfortable weather, or scrambling to line up customers for each harvest, at the end of the day I have a deep satisfaction in being able to contribute quality produce to the local food supply. And one day, when we have grandkids, I hope to be able to roam around with them through my little suburban farm to teach them about the wonders of nature and growing and eating fresh and healthful food.
Michael Brown works as a full-time school librarian in central New Jersey. His small backyard farm, Pitspone Farm, specializes in berries and berry plants.
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