Strategies and techniques for making a living with intensive food production in small spaces
There are 40 million acres of lawns in North America. In their current form, these unproductive expanses of grass represent a significant financial and environmental cost. However, viewed through a different lens, they can also be seen as a tremendous source of opportunity. Access to land is a major barrier for many people who want to enter the agricultural sector, and urban and suburban yards have huge potential for would-be farmers wanting to become part of this growing movement.
The Urban Farmer is a comprehensive, hands-on, practical manual to help you learn the techniques and business strategies you need to make a good living growing high-yield, high-value crops right in your own backyard (or someone else's). Major benefits include:
- Low capital investment and overhead costs
- Reduced need for expensive infrastructure
- Easy access to markets.
Growing food in the city means that fresh crops may travel only a few blocks from field to table, making this innovative approach the next logical step in the local food movement. Based on a scalable, easily reproduced business model, The Urban Farmer is your complete guide to minimizing risk and maximizing profit by using intensive production in small leased or borrowed spaces.
|Publisher:||New Society Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||7.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Curtis Stone is the owner/operator of Green City Acres, a commercial urban farm based in Kelowna, BC. Farming less than half an acre on a collection of urban plots, Green City Acres grows vegetables for farmers markets, restaurants and retail outlets. After five successful seasons, Curtis has demonstrated that one can grow an extraordinary amount of food in a backyard, and make a good living doing it. During his slower months, Curtis works as a public speaker, teacher, and consultant, sharing his story to inspire a new generation of farmers.
Read an Excerpt
1 Why Urban Farming?
You've probably heard the term the end of suburbia before. In fact, a very well-known film was actually made about the whole concept. The basic premise is that as fuel prices increase, living in the suburbs will become less economically feasible for average North Americans; the cost and time it takes to drive into the city for work will outweigh the benefits of living in the suburbs, and this will cause their imminent collapse. Hence the term, the end of suburbia. You can look at that in two ways:
- The decline of real estate values and mass exodus from the suburbs will turn them into ghost towns.
- There is a huge opportunity to repurpose these places into modern day, self-reliant farming communities
This book will show you how option #2 is possible.
Let's look at some facts. Right now in the US, there are 40 million acres of lawn. Between 30% to 60% of the fresh water in cities is used to water those lawns, and 580 million gallons of gasoline are used to mow them.1 When we factor in all the costs it takes to maintain a lawn such as watering, mowing, weeding and manicuring it's easy to come to the conclusion that a lawn is nothing but a cost center, one that a lot of North Americans simply cannot afford.
But, what if we changed our thinking about lawns? We can tackle two huge problems
- Lawns are unsustainable in many ways
- Access to land is a major barrier for most young people who want to enter the agricultural sector
and create one great solution. Lawns, particularly in suburbs, offer great opportunity for new farmers because:
- Land is abundant. The average home in the US has an average of .2 acres of land. That's around 8,000 square feet.2
- Using land without owning it removes the idea that one must own land in order to be a farmer.
- All of that land sitting in lawns now becomes a great place to farm.
What if we could repurpose the suburbs to be the new frontier of localization? What if all of these suburban streets turned into areas for transition, reeducation and abundance? I believe this is not only a possibility but an inevitability.
There are a number of reasons why farming in the city is not only more profitable, but there are also a variety of reasons that make it very advantageous: access to markets, low start-up and overhead costs, better growing conditions with warmer climates and easy access to water.
Advantages of Being Urban:
Market access has to be the single greatest advantage that benefits urban farmers. When you live and work in the city, you live and work in the market that you're supplying. You don't have to travel very far to sell your product, and for the most part, your product will sell itself. When I deliver to restaurants in the downtown core, I am a five-minute bike ride away from them. Not only is that a talking point that those chefs will boast about to their customers, but it is also a huge advantage to me as far as saving time and energy in transport.
Delivering product that was harvested just blocks from where it is consumed has huge marketing appeal. Our farmers market is a five-minute drive or ten-minute bike ride from our base of operations. One advantage to this, besides bragging rights, is that, if I sell out of one particular item during the market day, I can buzz home quickly on my bike and get more. I call this topping up, and I've done it many times. From my proximity to the market, in 30 minutes, I can ride home, harvest some greens, bring them back to the market and bag them up there. What other farmer has the ability to do that?
Low Start-Up and Overhead
Farming in city greatly reduces the barriers to entry because you no longer need to think about buying land: it's available everywhere. If you can make enough income on small lots, you don't need the heavy machinery and infrastructure that is required for farming in the traditional sense. Infrastructure is simple, small and cheap.
Better Growing Conditions
A city is always a few degrees warmer than the countryside. This is called the heat island effect. With concrete and buildings everywhere, the city will absorb heat during the day into all that thermal mass, and the heat will release during the evening. This is very noticeable during the summer: if you're riding a bike or driving your car past an open field, you'll immediately notice a drop in temperature. It's because you're leaving the thermal mass of the city that you feel that heat drop. In the downtown of my city, I'm in climate zone 6b, and people just a mile and a quarter out are around a climate zone 5. That's huge difference in frost-free days. In fact, I have at least 30 more frost-free days downtown than farms everywhere else in my area.
The other growing advantage is microclimates. When farm plots are surrounded by buildings, walls and fences, these can protect your crops from severe wind. Also, each plot will have it's own set of unique characteristics, making some plots better for certain crops than others. This urban climate offers a nice diversity of growing conditions for your farm.
Pests and Weeds
Pest problems do exist in the city, but when you're farming on multiple plots, they can easily be avoided by simply running away. If flea beetle becomes a problem at one site, you can stop planting that crop there, and start it somewhere else. The pest can't follow the crop around in the city because of its many obstructions and barriers. And weed problems just don't exist in the way they do on rural farms. With barriers and obstructions, there are far fewer weed seeds blowing in from all angles. In the past, I farmed on two peri-urban plots where the neighboring properties were just open fields. The weed problems on these plots were day and night compared to the urban plots.
Access to Water
Accessible water offers a huge advantage when you compare rural to urban farms. So many farms in the countryside have to wait for water from a river during the spring, and that can delay crop production. Also, well water can become contaminated by neighboring farms or industries. Accessing water on urban lots is in most cases as simple as connecting to the faucet on a house. The water is clean and has ample pressure.
The Social Connection
Over the years, I have met a large number of my customers, simply because they walked by my farm plots. Every neighborhood where I have a plot, I have a different set of neighbors, just as if I were living on that street. By working in these garden plots over the years, I eventually get to know most of the people on that particular street. This is a very nice thing, as I end up making a bunch more friends.
I can't tell you how many times on a weekly basis I'm visited at my market booth by neighbors from my farm plots. Not only do they become shoppers, but they end up bringing their friends too, who also become customers. There's an old saying "A satisfied customer is your best salesperson." For the 6 The Urban Farmer: A Farm In The City urban farmer, it's more like "Your neighbors are your best salespeople." One of the best advantages to having multiple locations is that you just have more potential to build social capital in more neighborhoods.
Social capital describes the relationships you build with people over time as a form of capital. Having good relationships with people can turn into many opportunities like favors, connections and influence. These rewards are like money you can save in a bank, except you don't lose any economic value to income tax, sales tax or inflation. No government official can steal social capital from you. It's what you build with people by just making friends, sharing information and feeding the community!
2 Connecting the Dots: An Urban Farmer's Place in the Community
More Than Just a Farmer
What makes urban farming so different than other forms of farming is that you are working in areas where there are many more people, and because of this you will meet more people. An urban farmer has the ability to be more than just a farmer. You can be an educator simply by showing people, on the street level, how to grow food. You will connect more people to the idea of localization simply by demonstrating it on a day-to-day basis. And you may even get to act as a broker for rural farmers, bringing some of their products that you don't want to grow into the city, helping them access some of the connections you have there.
The Frontier of Localization
As an urban farmer, you are at the forefront of the local food movement not only because you are growing food to feed locals but because you are demonstrating urban farming to them and leading the way. This has a considerable ripple effect in all the neighborhoods that you will farm in. I have seen these effects firsthand, and it never ceases to amaze me how powerful this can be. In every place that I have had a farm plot over the years, I have seen at least ten people in all those areas start to garden passionately. Whether I was the sole reason they did so is hard to say, but what I can say with certainty is that, since I have been farming in their neighborhood, people have learned a lot about how to grow intensively, and this has been a major motivator to getting them to either start or increase the scale of their gardens. I know this because I hear about it on a day-to-day basis.
By default, many urban farmers end up becoming educators. Just by farming someone's front yard, you will in many, many instances end up talking to the neighbors about what you're doing. And, the longer you stay there, over the years you're going to be known in that neighborhood for providing a lot of valuable information about how to garden. Before you know it, people will be waiting for you to arrive at your farm plot so they can ask you questions about their gardens. After some time doing this, you're going to get good at it, because you're going to be articulating the same points so many times over that you're going to start to sound like an educator.
This is exactly what happened to me. I had no original intention of being a public speaker, educator or writer. All I wanted to be was a farmer so that I could live by my values. People started to talk to me at my farm plots on an ongoing basis. They'd ask me questions about what I was planting and when to plant it. The more experienced gardeners in the area were always amazed at how early I planted things out into the ground. At first, I was getting many comments like, "Oh, I think you're planting a little too early here; aren't you worried about the frost?" And then after a while, when they saw how I was doing it, they stopped pretending to know more than I did and just started asking questions to help them in their gardens. The first speaking gigs I ever did were at garden clubs, addressing a bunch of retirees/master gardeners. At first I felt ridiculous telling people who had been gardening for 40 years about urban farming, but then I realized that there was something still so new about what I was doing that it could be valuable to them. For people like these, it wasn't so much about the details of how I did this or that but more about why I did it and the fact that I was doing it. I was making a living from essentially gardening in people's yards. You must start with the why. The what is important, but the why is what pulls people in.
The garden club invitations led to invitations from high schools, then colleges, then universities and conferences. And in less than a full year from when I started, people were actually paying me to come and teach them about urban farming. Granted, there were parts of my past that lent themselves to my being a public speaker: I had been a preforming musician for 16 years of my life, and I realized that what worked for me might not work for everyone. The point here is that, because of the public nature of urban farming, you're going to be communicating what you're doing with people on an ongoing basis. And because of this, I believe that urban farmers have a responsibility to bring their message to the people. No matter how you look at it, you will, whether that is your intention or not.
The Rural to Urban Connection
I believe there are many opportunities for farmers to work together, and one I see becoming much more important, as urban farming becomes more widely adopted, is connecting rural and urban farmers. Let's face it, some crops just don't make sense to grow on an urban farm. Anything that has a really long date to maturity, requires a lot of space or has a lower price is just not economical for an urban farmer to grow. However, farmers in rural areas aren't nearly as limited with crop selection because they have access to larger tracts of land and don't have as much of a need to turn areas over in a hurry to get something else planted. They also have heavy machinery to manage some crops, like potatoes for example, that are more economically grown with a tractor. But one of the biggest challenges rural farmers face is access to markets. Since they are often removed from the population centers, they don't have the ability to find customers as easily as an urban farmer might. There is a strong case for cooperation here, and could be another great role for urban farmers to play in the community. For more details, see "Small Farm Broker" in Chapter 9.
Table of Contents
Foreword Diego Footer xi
1 A Farm in the City 1
1 Why Urban Farming? 3
2 Connecting the Dots: An Urban Farmer's Place in the Community 7
3 Quick Breakdown of Economics 11
2 A Viable Farming Business on 1/2 Acre or Less 13
4 The Zones of Your Farm and Your Life 15
5 Crops Better Suited for the City 19
6 Introdution to Urban Infrastructure 27
7 Start-Up Farm Models 29
3 The Business of Urban Farming 37
8 Starting Small 39
9 Market Streams 41
10 Working with Chefs 51
11 Labor 55
12 Software and Organization 61
13 Self-Promotion 73
14 Finance Options 75
4 Finding the Right Site 79
15 Scouting for Land 81
16 Urban, Suburban and Peri-Urban Land 89
17 Multiple or Single-Plot Farming 93
18 Urban Soil 95
19 Land Agreements and Leases 99
20 Urban Pests 101
5 Building Your Farm, One Site at a Time 105
21 Turning a Lawn into a Farm Plot 107
22 Choosing a Site 115
23 Garden Layout 119
24 The Perimeter 121
25 Irrigation 123
6 Infrastructure and equipment 133
26 Base of Operations 135
27 Tools 143
28 Special Growing Areas 147
29 Inexpensive Season Extension 151
30 Transportation 155
7 Operations 157
31 Work Smarter not Harder 159
32 Harvesting 167
33 Post-Harvest Processing 173
34 Portioning and Packing 179
8 Production Systems 185
35 Beds for Production 187
36 Planting 195
37 Microgreens 199
38 Extending the Season 205
9 Basic Crop Planning 211
39 Determine Your Outcome 213
40 The Base Plan 217
10 Crops for the Urban Farmer 223
41 Parting Words 249
About the Author 265
What People are Saying About This
" The Urban Farmer is simply the best guide out there for anyone wanting to grow vegetables for market. Chock full of practical information on costs, business planning, the best crops to grow, how much land to farm, growing techniques, and how to develop markets, this book covers it all. Curtis Stone shares his hard-won knowledge on setting up and succeeding at small-plot intensive (SPIN) farming in lively, easy-to-grasp prose, in all the detail you'll need to get started. Curtis not only tells us what works, he reveals, based on his own experience, what didn't work for him, and that alone is worth the price of the book. This is a comprehensive real-world manual from someone who's done it, and any market farmer will profit greatly from reading it."
— Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia's Garden and The Permaculture City
"I have no hesitation in saying that The Urban Farmer by Curtis Stone is one of the most important, and overdue, books on urban agriculture ever published. It is simultaneously deeply visionary and immensely practical, always a heady brew. It allows us to look at urban land in an entirely different way. If I were 18 again and given this book, it would put fire in my belly and set me on a career path that is cutting edge, deeply entrepreneurial and profoundly responsible. It deserves to be a best seller."
— Rob Hopkins, Founder of the Transition movement and author of The Power of Just Doing Stuff.
"Curtis Stone is at the forefront of a stirring revolution. Urban farming will change what local food means and I know of no other farmer that is as successful at it as he is. And the best part is his willingness to share what is a successful business model. If you're interested in learning to profitably start a farm on a shoestring budget, Curtis Stone is the go to guy."
—Jean Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener
"A first-rate, hands-on guide to successful and profitable farming on the very small scale, Curtis Stone's The Urban Farmer should be required reading for anyone who thinks that growing food requires hundreds of acres off in the countryside. Highly recommended."
— John Michael Greer, author of Green Wizardry
"Curtis Stone has artfully blended my three favorite things - entrepreneurship, independence and sustainable food production into one amazing book. He has also done so in a way that lowers the entry point for anyone who is truly motivated to no longer have any excuse for not getting started. To say I recommend this book highly is a gross understatement. I consider it required reading for anyone with a goal to start a business, not matter what niche they end up in."
— Jack Spirko, TheSurvivalPodcast.com
"If factory farms are not the solution to the biggest issue of our time - how to feed 9 billion people without cooking the planet - what can we do? Grow more food in the cities where we live. Urban agriculture is a tradition dating back thousands of years as well as an innovation reshaping modern city design. It's also a lure for a growing number of idealists drawn by a vision of reconnecting with the land while becoming part of the solution. But hold on. Anyone who's tried it as a business knows there's more to urban agriculture than romance. It takes hard work and common sense - two gifts Curtis Stone has in spades, and he's always been generous with sharing it. Local growers have appreciated the lectures and workshops where he spells out the dollars and sense behind growing city food. Now readers everywhere have the opportunity to tap into this valuable resource. If you're going to invest in your future as city food grower, start with a copy of The Urban Farmer."
— David Tracey, author of Guerrilla Gardening and Urban Agriculture
"This book is a treasure for anyone really serious about making a decent living off an urban farm. Back-to-the-lawn urban farming might look easy, but Curtis Stone shows exactly how that “ease” grows out of getting a thousand details right. They're all in this book, generously shared. This is not just a well-written business text, illustrating the myriad technical, entrepreneurial, marketing, accounting, farming and people skills Curtis developed to work smarter, not harder. It is even more a quintessential "how-to" manual, taking the reader step by step by step to the roots of running a profitable urban farm."
— Peter Ladner, author of The Urban Food Revolution and a long-time urban food gardener