Overview of Urban Farming
This paper explores the growth of urban farming across the United States, and highlights three different case studies.
An Overview of Urban Farming
A Report from Green For All’s Capital Access Program
III. Urban Farming as a Business
Urban farms come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Almost all, however, share some basic startup costs. Assuming a plot of land of at least half an acre, a list of such costs would likely include:
• Rototiller ($4,500): a motorized plow that uses rotating tines or blades to cultivate the soil and get the land ready for planting. This is the only mechanized equipment necessary.
• Coolers ($4,000): Two upright produce coolers used to store fresh vegetables and prevent spoilage.
• Other equipment ($1,000): garden seeder, wheel hoe, standard-issue tools, harvesting bins, hoses, and sprinklers
• Sales & Marketing ($500): farmers market tables, display baskets, digital scale, signage
• TOTAL: $10,000
Admittedly, the aspiring urban farmer faces a number of obstacles in starting up her business. First, $10,000 is not a trivial sum of money to someone living in an under- served community, especially since such enterprises are usually self-financed. In addition, these startup costs do not include operating expenses for things such as seeds, bags, transportation, and farmers market fees. These expenses would depend greatly on sales goals, as well as any labor costs. They would likely come to anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per year for a typical sub-acre farm seeking $60,000 in gross revenue. Aside from startup and operating costs, there is the question of land. Few people living in a densely populated city have immediate access to a half-acre of tillable land. And even if one has the land ready, prohibitive zoning and land use regulations will occasionally hinder urban farmers.
Still, these hurdles are not insurmountable.
First, with regards to the startup costs, urban farms already attract a modest share of grants, Small Business Administration loans, and nonprofit support. Hopefully, not only will that continue, but lenders like the Farm Credit Council will begin extending loans to urban farms, too. Right now, such lenders support only rural farms, which already enjoy significant and increasing subsidies. Urban farms can also offset startup costs, as well as operating expenses, by initiating a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, where customers purchase up-front memberships in exchange for regular allotments of produce later during the sea- son. Other revenue opportunities include farmers markets, wholesale markets (restaurants, caterers, etc.), and possibly an on-site farm stand. These four market segments should help a first-year urban farm bring in anywhere from $10,000 – $20,000 — enough to potentially turn a small profit in the first year. As that farm develops its agricultural expertise, not to mention its sales channels, it can gross more than $60,000 with just a half acre of land.
Many cities have taken steps to make it easier for urban farmers to find usable land. Detroit, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark (to name just a few) have struck land deals and, in some cases, relaxed their zoning restrictions.
One final fact also makes it easier for urban farmers to find usable real estate: land need not even be tillable to support urban agriculture. Farms have found success in the harshest of “urban jungles” using special containers packed with treated soil that serve as a suitable replacement to unspoilt land. (This would obviate the need for the rototiller above, but come at an incremental expense of roughly $10,000 for a half-acre farm, bringing startup costs closer to $15,000.) In this model, a farmer would plant vegetables in these containers and cultivate them much as if they were planted directly in the ground. Of course, one still needs access to land, even if it is covered with concrete. But as the case studies below make plain, urban agriculture is garnering a lot of support among many constituencies — a fact that might help ease the burden associated with finding available land.