How to Start an Urban Farm
Like any new venture, starting an urban farm is a daunting and difficult task. Not only do you have to find land to farm, but that land also must be suitable for growing food. Not only do you have to know how to grow food, but you also have to know what to do with your bounty when harvest time comes around. What has often been referred to as “the simple life” is actually extremely complex and intensive.
And yet many people around the world are choosing to start urban farming ventures of their own to strengthen the bonds of communities and teach people that real food comes from the ground — not from supermarkets. It sounds like an obvious statement, but our food system makes it quite easy to hide all the sweat, work, and dirt that goes into food production and only focus on the finished, packaged products that line the grocery store shelves.
Why Start an Urban Farm?
It’s an unfortunate but true fact that threats to public health are everywhere in today’s modern world. Our food system, one that contributes to the greater problem of climate change, is a huge part of this issue.
How often do we visit the grocery store and buy fruits and vegetables with stickers that mark them as world travelers without ever thinking of how long their journey to our plate might have been? This is even easier to do when the food we buy is so processed that it doesn’t look like real food at all.
In a world where 36 percent of American adults are obese, the state of the food system in the U.S. is a crisis we must address. And what better way to take action against it than to start an urban farm to better feed yourself, your friends and family, and your community?
Finding the Perfect Spot
The first step in starting an urban farm is finding a plot of land to farm. There are several factors to consider when searching for your perfect spot:
Firstly, you want to do what you can to ensure that you’ll have a good relationship with the landowner (if you don’t own the land yourself). Drawing up a formal contract is a good rule of thumb to follow. Each party should outline and agree upon their expectations, the duration of the agreement, and any monetary exchanges that will occur.
Secondly, you want to make sure that the land is capable of producing healthy food. Perform a soil test to check for nutrient deficiency, which could lead to unhealthy, stunted crops.
Other important questions to answer include: How will I irrigate? Are there any concerning activities happening nearby (i.e. a neighbor constantly spraying Roundup near the fence line)? How much sun does the plot receive? Is the ground flat or sloping?
Taking the time to think on these questions before you commit to a piece of land will help ensure the success of your new urban farm down the road.
Deciding What to Plant
Deciding what to plant is the fun part. This is where you get to be creative and explore your vision — within reason, of course. You’ll obviously need to take into account the length of the growing season, frost dates, and general climate when creating your planting guide.
Perhaps you want to focus on annual veggies, or maybe culinary and medicinal herbs. Edible flowers like calendula make great and unique additions to any urban farm, as do special heirloom varieties of your favorite crops.
Create a spreadsheet detailing planting or transplanting dates for each crop, expected harvest date, and what crops will follow each planting. This will help keep you organized and on time throughout the growing season.
Selling Your Goods
Love it or hate it, marketing is essential to your urban farming success if you’re trying to make any amount of money from your operation. In most cases, you’ll want a business name, logo, website, and social media presence for your urban farm. Additionally, you can create a newsletter to share updates with your network about the goings-on at your farm.
Customers these days want to see a visual representation of the journey their products take, so posts that showcase seeds being planted, your crops in the field, or the packing process, for example, will generally do well. If you’re selling in your local neighbourhood, try printing informational postcards that tell people when and where they can buy from you, then going door to door with them.
No matter how you choose to sell the food you grow on your urban farm, there’s no way around it: marketing is an integral part of being a successful small business owner.
Covering Your Legal Bases
The necessity of worrying about legal issues largely depends on if and how you’re going to sell the food you produce. To be an official business, you’ll need a registered business name and a tax number. You’ll also want to consider insurance and any necessary permits from the health department.
Some business advisors will do pro bono work to help new small business owners get started on the right foot. If you’re ever unsure of how to handle something on the legal side of your business, it’s a good idea to reach out for help.
One of the most rewarding outcomes of starting an urban farm is the community that is often created around it. My favorite part of my urban farming experience was selling to my customers and neighbors at farm stands I hosted every Sunday. I met neighbors I’d been surrounded by for a year but never met — and they met each other too, creating small talk over a bag of heirloom tomatoes or a particularly large Armenian cucumber.
So yes, the soil and the seeds and the spreadsheets of crop rotations are important. But so are the people. Don’t underestimate the power of people to inspire you to keep going when the farming gets tough.
Lettie Stratton is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. A Vermont native, she is a lover of travel, tea, bicycles, plants, cooperative board games, and the outdoors. She’s still waiting for a letter from Hogwarts.
Photo courtesy of Jazz Marie Photography
Lead poisoning from home grown produce is not all that unusual.
An urban site with an older dwelling, or older garage should be checked for structural and soil lead contamination prior to purchase.
Lead paint was outlawed in the US in about 1976. Newer houses built on fresh land are less likely to be contaminated. Older houses often had lead paint around the porch, the windowsills, the garage, the bathrooms, and the doors. Lead paint was somewhat waterproof, and was used in area of painted surfaces exposed to the weather. .Old paint often peeled and dropped onto the soil below.
Use caution if growing food near an old garage or porch.
Resources are avalable from the health department.
That’s a really great point – lead does pose a real risk for urban-grown produce. Soil and water tests are a must for anyone starting a new urban venture.
Excited at the prospect of starting a farm-based home business–when I find a farm and finance it!! Any suggestions?
Some of my interests are writing, fine art, cooking/baking and caregiving, with a spot of horti/agricultural skills thrown in for good measure.
I think your interests are very conducive to a farm-based home business. The first thing that comes to my mind is hosting little day- or weekend-long writing/art camps/retreats on your farm. You could include cooking farm-based meals as part of the experience. Good luck!