Creative Commons Wikimedia Rabot-Blaisantvest2009_10_00_150

By Jim Sincock

Urban farms and urban CSA's are popping up around the United States, and we feel that is part of the future of sustainable agriculture.  Urban farms turn lawns and empty lots into productive gardens which create truly local food sources and help to strengthen communities.

The Basic Concept

Buying or renting suitable farmland is often the stumbling block for aspiring farmers or market gardeners.  Land is expensive, especially if you live in or near larger cities.  Often, if you do find suitable land to grow on, you may have issues finding a nearby water source, or the land may be too far away to be convenient for you.

This is where urban farming comes in!  An urban farm can start in your own backyard, and front yard as well.  If you don't have your own growing space, or need to expand your garden, then it is time to find other yards to farm.  This concept is commonly referred to as "multi-plot urban farming".  The beauty of this concept is that you do not need to rent land, but you make arrangements with the homeowner to create gardens in their yard in exchange for a share in the harvest.  In fact, many multi-plot urban farms charge the homeowner to install the garden.  A homeowner may be expected to pay for the following:

  • Sod Removal
  • Compost and Soil Ammendments
  • Soil Test
  • Water Usage (you may agree to pay part of the bill if the usage exceeds a specified amount.)

You, the urban farmer, will cover the cost of seed, equipment (including hoses, drip lines, row cover, etc), and labor.

The Business Model

If you want to start a farm, whether urban or rural, you obviously are doing it to raise food for others, and to make a living at it.  A multi-plot urban farm will have the same revenue sources as a regular farm, plus the initial garden setup fee that you may charge homeowners.  Lets quickly look at the potential revenue sources you could have with your urban farm:

  • Garden Setup Fee - Basically a nominal fee for your time and materials in setting up the initial garden plot.
  • CSA/NSA - Selling shares of the harvest to CSA or NSA members. (Community Supported Agriculture, or Neighborhood Supported Agriculture)
  • Farmers Markets - Having a booth at a farmers market is a great way to sell your produce and create a following.
  • Restaurants - Nearby restaurants will more than likely love to buy your fresh, local produce. Please check back for our upcoming article on selling to restaurants and other wholesale buyers.
  • Food Co-ops & Grocery Stores - These are another potential wholesale buyer, which we will talk more about in an upcoming article.

You can learn more about the business details of starting a farm and CSA by reading our case study  Grow Your Own CSA: HeartEye Village CSA Micro-Farm article.  The article completely documents our own experience starting up a semi-urban micro-farm and CSA.  It includes startup costs and more!

How much food can I grow, and how many people will it feed?

If you are new to growing food for others, these are usually hard questions to answer.  When we started our own micro-farm and CSA, those two questions loomed overhead.  Tracy ended up developing a calculator to help us plan and document all the details of the farm.  The Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator will quickly, and easily help you to determine how much food you can grow on the growing space you have, how many people you can feed, (and how much of each crop you will offer them), and the farm version even has a retail sales calculator to help determine how much food you can sell to restaurants, and what you're projected income will be.  The Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator is an excellent downloadable Excel-based planner that allows you plan and document your garden or farm.  We really feel that it is a huge time saver for the busy gardener or farmer--whether you are a new garden or farmer, or and experienced one. Feel free to try the demo, or watch the training video to learn more.  Or, sign up to use it!

We highly recommend using biointensive (aka intensive, French intensive, square foot, etc) planting methods in order to full maximize your growing potential.  This method uses tighter plant spacings and reduces the amount of unplanted space so that you can grow more food in smaller spaces, as compared to traditional planting methods.  You can learn more about this method in our article that outlines the difference between traditional vs. intensive plant spacing.

Become a Grow Your Own CSA Member to have access to more resources and useful links.