How to Start an Urban Farm

1 / 2
Learn how to start an urban farm with only a vision, and a few simple steps.
2 / 2
“Breaking Through Concrete” by David Hanson and Edwin Marty documents 12 successful urban farm programs with beautifully illustrated essays full of advice for the new community gardener.

People have always grown food in urban spaces — on windowsills or sidewalks, in backyards and neighborhood parks — but today, urban farmers are leading a movement that transforms the national food system. In Breaking Through Concrete(University of California Press, 2012) David Hanson and, experienced urban farmer, Edwin Marty illustrate twelve thriving urban farms. The following excerpt will teach you how to start an urban farm from planning to making a profit.

How to Start an Urban Farm

Tucked behind a short prairie hill, beyond the windmill that provides some power to Sandhill Organics farm (and disguises a cell tower), hides the Back Forty of Prairie Crossing. It’s actually fifty-five acres of certified organic soil where fruits, vegetables, and flowers aren’t the only crops. The acreage holds a new generation of farmer entrepreneurs who are also setting roots in the rich soil.

The Liberty Prairie Foundation offers cheap leases of the development’s land to newcomers who want to start their own farm businesses. It’s a great scenario: available, fertile land, a sense of a safety net from the foundation, and the expertise of the Sheaffers at Sandhill Organics a few hundred yards away. The farmers can test their growing and, more important, their marketing and business skills before moving onto their own land. It’s a wonderful progression of urban farm motivations and intensive farming skills into the larger-scale peri-urban and rural settings. But starting an urban or peri-urban farm business is daunting.

A similar program is unfolding at the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, where the staff matches available land in the city with immigrants interested in starting a small farm-based business. After a two-year apprenticeship and participation in a matched-savings program, the new farmers are ready to scale their operation up and make a living.

Planning an Urban Farm

Follow a few basic steps to make getting started go smoothly.

MISSION STATEMENT. Answer this question: What do you want to see changed as a result of your actions? This will become your mission statement.

RESOURCES. Now work backward. What resources do you have to make this change? Do you have access to land, to money, to people power?

OBJECTIVES. List the activities you want to do with the resources you have to achieve your desired change.

OUTCOMES. How will you know if you’ve been successful? Come up with a list of measurable goals that could result from your actions.

ACTION. Now, go make it happen!

Finding Land for an Urban Farm

Securing land is usually the first challenge when starting an urban farm project, though a growing number of residential and mixed-use developments, such as Prairie Crossing, are making this process easier than ever. But even if a development isn’t offering land to potential urban farms, good options still exist. For example, Detroit literally has too much land to manage efficiently, so it is seeking ways to put farmers on previously occupied property. And Detroit is not the only city looking for urban farmers.

The founders of Jones Valley Urban Farm (JVUF) have started asking people in Birmingham if there is any available land for farming. The responses are often incredulous: ”What do you mean you want to farm in the city?” “Why would you want to farm in the city?” But it takes only one person to understand. One day the JVUF founders were meeting with an accountant who was helping them apply for nonprofit status. After listening to what they wanted to do, the accountant looked out the window of his office and said, “What about that property?” He owned a few pieces of property across the street from his office that he had purchased years before as a long-term investment. The investment was still a long way from paying off, and he’d been stuck mowing the grass for years. The idea of someone else taking care of the property while he waited for an improved real-estate market seemed perfect. Jones Valley Urban Farm began that day. The cofounders walked out of the office, crossed the alley to the property, saw that there was some “workable” soil and sunlight, and said, “Let’s start.”

Where to Look for Urban Farmland

GOVERNMENT. It costs a lot of money to maintain unused land. Most municipalities will be eager to negotiate the idea of “less grass to mow.” The city of Baltimore is soliciting urban farm business plans from the general public. It will lease city-owned land for free to anyone with a viable plan.

PRIVATE COMPANIES. Some cities are passing new taxation on storm-water drainage. A rooftop garden can actually save a company that has a large rooftop some money! If less water pours off the roof of a warehouse as a result of vegetation on the roof, the tax on that storm water will be less. So paying someone to farm the roof would actually be economically beneficial.

CHURCHES. Most congregations have a grass lawn that costs money to maintain. Check to see if there’s interest in turning that lawn into a garden to feed the congregation—or the world.

SCHOOLS. Nearly every school in the country has some extra space for a garden. Try to partner with a school to provide space for students to grow food during the school year and for the community to grow food during the summer.

Picking the Right Spot for an Urban Farm

PROPERTY OWNERSHIP. Many urban gardeners squat on vacant land, but there’s a serious risk of losing the land if property values increase and the owner (or city) suddenly wants to sell. Can you get a written lease for use of the property? You’d be surprised who will ask for back rent if they see you’ve been successful after using what was originally “donated” land.

SITE SECURITY. Fences can make a site seem secure, but a supportive community is a much better solution. Jones Valley Urban Farm provides neighbors with a portion of the farm to grow their own food. The neighbors get access to great affordable food, and JVUF gets a community looking after its property.

CLEAN SOIL. A land-use history can help you decide if you need further testing.

SUNLIGHT. Most edible plants need a minimum of six hours of direct light to grow. Pruning trees can help, but consider finding a different location if trees need to be removed. It’s expensive and there are never enough urban trees.

ACCESS TO WATER. Consistent access to water for irrigating plants is nonnegotiable for an urban farm. The harder it is to get water to the plants, the less likely it is the plants will get the water they need. Many cities will give urban farmers a discounted rate on water if they are not hooked up to the sewer. Los Angeles has created an urban agriculture water rate to give producers a discounted price on irrigation water. Wells in cities are often polluted or illegal. Rain catchment systems can be effective but need to be large enough to work well. For example, a three-hundred-gallon tank will run dry in an hour of regular watering.

Becoming Profitable

Financially successful farms all have one thing in common: they have matched a potential market for their products with the right scale of farming so that products are produced for less than they are sold for. Urban farmers face a unique challenge with this formula because the land available to farm is almost always small. To make a small operation profitable, urban farms have to take advantage of their unique characteristics to do the following two things.

Reduce Production Costs
• Access free land by extolling the benefits of converting unused land into something productive, beautiful, and healthy.
• Sell to local markets to reduce transportation costs. Or, even better, encourage customers to come to the farm for on-site sales.
• Utilize vegetable scraps from local restaurants to make compost for free.
• Develop relationships with local volunteer groups or alternative-sentencing programs to access free labor.

Increase Revenue
• Identify niche crops that are in high demand and need to be delivered frequently, such as microgreens. This almost always guarantees a high price.
• Develop a “brand name” that increases the value of products by tying the nontangible benefits of the farm to the name of the farm.
• Process produce into after-market products, such as salsa or pesto, to increase its value. Check with local health department codes to ensure compliance.

More from Breaking Through Concrete:

How to Create a Green Roof
The Garden as Community

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission fromBreaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revivalby David Hanson and Edwin Marty and published by University of California Press, 2012. Photography by Michael Hanson.