Community & Business Planning - The Urban Farming (2015)

The Urban Farming (2015)


Community & Business Planning

Farming can be a family business. My daughter enjoyed gathering pill bugs.


“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.”

—Christopher Morley

The Food Distribution System

The first grocery stores in North America were general stores and only rarely offered fresh food. Instead they sold things that people couldn’t grow or make themselves and things that could be stored away for months at a time, such as canned goods, flour, and sugar. When you went to the general store, you brought your goods to trade or your little bit of money, walked directly up to the counter, and told the owner or clerk exactly what you wanted. He would tell you the price, you haggled over it, and then you handed over your beaver pelts.

Then came Piggly Wiggly in 1916, which changed everything. Clarence Saunders had the novel idea that shoppers could just take things off the shelf for themselves. It was called the amazing “self-serving store,” but he didn’t stop there. The real game changer was his newfound ability to buy in high volume at lower prices. He became one of the very first wholesale buyers. No longer would there be haggling or time-consuming debates with customers over prices—he already offered the lowest price. Grocery store chains began popping up everywhere in the 1920s, and soon there were tens of thousands of them across America. By 1940, all these little stores had conglomerated and started creating supermarkets, with butchers, bakers, produce managers, and dry goods all under one roof. By the 1950s, these supermarkets had already migrated to the suburbs, leaving the little corner groceries in the dust. It only took thirty years before the general store had disappeared.

In the process of migrating from the small store to the supermarket concept, the way that food moved around the country changed as well. Previously, almost all farmers had sold directly to the customer or to a produce man who sold directly to customers. There was never more than one middleman. But when grocery stores became larger and larger and more distance was created between the farmer and the customer, food distribution became much more complex.

Here’s how food distribution works today: The farmer sells to food wholesalers through a broker. The broker negotiates a deal between the wholesaler and farmer, taking a cut in the process. The wholesaler then sells the food at a marked-up price to the grocery chain in large quantities. This food is then trucked to a warehouse where it sits for a week until it can be placed on a shelf in a store.

Then there are marketing boards. In the United States, the boards are organizations that farmers can voluntarily belong to and act as policy watchdogs and advertising representatives. Although they really only represent factory farms, they serve the interests of farmers who pay a rate to the board based on how much they produce. The farmers make the choice to pay this fee because it provides insurance that they will continue to receive government subsidies and retain control of their distribution system. In Canada, however, these boards are much more insidious. If the farmer produces a “regulated” product, he must then comply with whatever policy the board decides. These Canadian boards have the ultimate power to fix prices, require farmers to sell through certain distributors rather than directly to customers, and help manage subsidies. To sell a regulated product on more than a backyard scale, the farmer must purchase a quota on a unit price. Today, there are no quotas left because they were bought up years ago and they are inheritable. The boards don’t create more quotas. These boards have completely locked up production of most food staples in Canada, including cabbage, potatoes, carrots, milk, greenhouse tomatoes, wheat, and more. It is impossible for young farmers to break in unless they are directly related to an aging farmer who owns a quota. If someone chooses to grow and sell a regulated product without a quota, these boards have the right to seize their property, levy ridiculous fines, and even send them to jail.

Now add to this the lobbyists and government agricultural departments working to manipulate prices, plan subsidies, and create multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns aimed at consumers. All of these actors need to be paid, and the people at both ends of this chain are the ones who pay for it: the farmer and the consumer.

Food prices rose drastically as the recession began to build momentum in 2011. We all felt it. People assume this is because of “the economy,” or climate change and bad weather, but this is only partly true. Raw goods in their most basic form are called commodities, and when people hear that word they usually think of things like copper or coal. But one major commodity you don’t hear much about is food. During the last decade, investment banks like Goldman Sachs had begun helping investors speculate on food crop. When speculators bet on futures of corn and soybeans, they pay a price for a future crop of food and hope that in the end it sells for more than they paid. Previously, futures trading was a way of stabilizing the market. Farmers would make a deal to sell future crops for a specific price, which gave them some insurance and predictability. However, when this system was deregulated, the speculators were able to cause problems by manipulating it in ways that drove up prices instead of stabilizing them.

Here we have this global food distribution system, which trades food in the same way as any other commodity, is very dependent on petroleum to produce it and move it around, and is very susceptible to changing markets and economies. Drought, oil prices, and even social unrest can all make it hard for people to afford a basic necessity like food.

This is where urban agriculture comes in and why we need to look at Cuba.


Havana, Cuba has only recently been recognized as a model of the city of the future, not because it has some kind of futuristic cityscape (far from it), but because:

  • 60 percent of the total food supply is produced within the city limits;
  • 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and fruit are grown locally on an estimated eighty-five thousand acres of land (8 percent of the total land), versus 90 percent of the supply of vegetables/fruit imported into the US and Canada;
  • Havana’s population is more than 2 million (making this a huge accomplishment);
  • this was created due to a post-oil era: without transportation, food has to be local;
  • Cuba has 6 percent food insecurity versus US at 14 percent (FAO, Coleman-Jensen);
  • every fifteen houses have a growing space; and
  • agricultural centers are located in every neighborhood.

Organopónicos are urban farms in Cuba that run without petroleum. They were created during what Cubans call the Special Period (Período especial), which began in 1989 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Cuba found itself in a very sudden and severe economic depression based mostly on the fact that their trade deals with the Soviet Union were gone, including petroleum. Every industry that relies on petroleum was hit, including agriculture. As soon as this happened, a huge national effort began to build up a local food supply that did not rely on oil; the alternative was mass starvation.

As other industries in Cuba collapsed, the government encouraged the unemployed to work in farming. Cuba has a high percentage of highly educated people because university tuition is free. These scientists, engineers, and doctors used their education and ingenuity to create new low-cost solutions in organic agriculture. That said, a lot of people starved anyway. The solution started a little late and it took a while to catch up, which brings us now to our own definition of urban farming.

Balcony broccoli and intensive container production.

Urban Farming Defined

Urban farming should really be used only to describe intensive food production in or near a city. Although there are many wonderful gardens designed to look great and grow food, often called “edible landscaping,” farming is an activity that grows as much food in a space as possible, and this is where it deviates from urban homesteading. An urban homesteader is dabbling in a wide variety of self-reliant skills to raise food and make things for their own family, like knitting, canning, and beekeeping. A farmer, on the other hand, is focused on producing food, and that’s it. A farmer’s goal is to produce a lot more food than she can eat herself. This does not mean that the farmer doesn’t do a lot of other stuff. But a farmer is putting a lot of energy into a growing system for food production.

Not only is Havana the best model for changing our food distribution system because it really works, it is also a great example of why we should make such a change. A sudden collapse of just one of the systems that keeps our food distribution in place leads to hunger very quickly. If we want real change, we have to move from being hobbyists to serious farmers who act as if our lives depend on it. The food insecurity in the United States right now is as high as it was in Cuba during the Special Period, so our lives actually do depend on it.


“[Permaculture] is the harmonious integration of the landscape, people, and appropriate technologies, providing food, shelter, energy and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

—Bill Mollison

Today, definitions of permaculture differ. It has been described as a way of life. A culture. A philosophy. At its very core, permaculture is a way of designing all human systems so that they integrate harmoniously with ecology. It grew to include community systems, cultural ideologies, business, art—every facet of human life.

An herb spiral, which represents some of the basics of permaculture: a functional, connected growing system.

What had originally started out as permanent agriculture ended up meaning permanent culture because the idea encompassed much more than just agriculture. Author and scientist Bill Mollison described it this way: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless action, of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them.” One great permaculture teacher, Toby Hemenway, described it even more simply: “Turn every liability into an asset.”

When Cuba faced its economic crises, the country was fortunate that a small army of permaculture teachers arrived from Australia to share what they knew about creating an efficient, low-cost food-producing system. This became the basis of the agriculture that exists in Cuba today. Another remarkable part of this is the idea of information sharing: Cuban farmers shared everything they knew, which has created a level of standardization. Farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing is a part of the support system we will talk about shortly. This book focuses a lot on permaculture principles as a proven system for creating real change and sustainability.

Permaculture Ethics

Ethics guide our behavior and are the vehicles by which our destiny manifests itself. There are three ethics of permaculture, and they are fairly simple:

Care for the Earth: All things, living or nonliving, have intrinsic worth.

Care for People: Humanity is cared for through self-reliance and community responsibility.

Give Away the Surplus: The surplus should be shared to fulfill the other two ethics.

In a nonpermaculture system, everything is used once or twice and then thrown away into the water and air, never to be seen again. This is a linear system because everything makes a straight line from the source to the landfill. Sustainable systems, by contrast, are circular. The used items go back to their source, where they can go through the natural recycling process of the earth and be used again, using very little energy. The same is true of permaculture ethics. When each resource or living creature is valued rather than exploited or destroyed, and people care for themselves as well as their community, an excess of resources is the natural result—and these can then be used to care for the earth and people again.

Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture may be a very creative and imaginative method of design, and it may work with some highly variable pieces, but it still follows some basic principles. Different permaculture groups may phrase these principles differently, but the meaning is the same. Most will include twelve principles or more, but I have combined some of these together for simplicity.

  1. Every thing is connected to and supported by everything else.
  2. Every thing, or element,should serve many functions. Students of design usually learn to make things look nice while being functional, but permaculture focuses on function alone.
  3. Functional design is sustainable, and it provides a useful product or surplus. If it doesn’t, it creates pollution and work. Pollution is an overabundance of a resource, or something that is simply not used. Work results when one element doesn’t help another element.
  4. Permaculture maximizes the useful energy in any system (or, put another way, decreases the waste of energy).
  5. Successful design serves the needs of people and provides many useful connections between elements, or diversity.
  6. If there is pollution, then the system goes into chaos.
  7. Societies, systems, and human lives are wasted in disorder and opposition. To stop this vicious cycle, we only use what we can return to the soil, and we build harmony (cooperation) into the functional organization of a system.


“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

I believe the basis for Cuba’s success in transitioning to a localized food system with so much of the population involved in urban agriculture comes down to the government-created support system. Living in a postpetroleum age impacted the availability of fertilizers and pesticides, forcing them to use organic production. Information became key. This information and support came in the form of horticultural clubs for every neighborhood as well as agricultural organizations (both governmental and community-based) with the goal that “no space in the city should go uncultivated.” These groups and centralized locations offer the following:

  • data and information about growing in the local area
  • shared equipment
  • travelling vets and animal registries
  • farmstands and markets in every neighborhood
  • free seeds, local seed development, and exchanges
  • workshops and collaborations
  • seedling greenhouses
  • free compost from organic waste collection
  • organic pest control
  • agroecological libraries
  • regional competitive ranking systems
  • microloans

Schools often act as centers, from kindergartens to universities, but in the absence of an available location, a shipping container is placed to become an agricultural hub. In the United States and Canada, we have seen very few cities embracing urban agriculture on a municipal level, and as far as I can find, there are very few organizations that seek to create a neighborhood-level support system for urban farmers. This kind of support was created in Cuba out of necessity because of the lack of gas for cars, but the end result would be the same anywhere: it is accessible to everyone regardless of income, it is convenient, and it brings the community together. Agricultural extensions exist to help farmers in rural areas, but they really should be expanded to include the urban environment.

Creating Agricultural Hubs

In an effort to research a system for North America that would follow Havana’s model of neighborhood-based agricultural hubs, I began creating an inventory of available resources for my own neighborhood in Victoria, British Columbia based on the list of supports Cuban farmers have available to them. I then divided my city up into its natural neighborhoods. Cities often divide themselves into communities based on history, geography, and culture; for example, my city is made up of regional districts like Fernwood and Saanich, which operate community centers and independent police departments. It also has within it First Nations territories; Chinatown; a mosque that acts as a focal point of a local community; and universities, which are their own microcosms of culture. Each of these layers has its own needs, resources, and challenges in obtaining local food.

I picked the minds of people in my area who had experience with both food hubs and urban farmers. Many urban farmers are young, new farmers and a large number are women. I also spoke to farmers, city councils, agricultural land representatives, young farmers’ coalitions, municipal policy activists, and consumers. All of these players were in absolute agreement that the food distribution system needs to change on a fundamental level. They agreed that there needs to be a cultural shift in government from agribusiness to a small, local, sustainable model. They also agreed that there are probably too many organizations working toward the same goals but not communicating well with each other or using resources efficiently.

People are not in agreement about how to change things, although there are some generally accepted ideas.

The people working in policy and government to promote local food are wildly supportive of standardized solutions using cheap technology. Databases like a wiki I developed to keep track of my neighborhoods were very interesting to these groups because they represent a simple solution to sharing information, mapping data, and quantifying results. This is important in government because funding is largely based on simple ideas that can easily be proven with numbers.

The food hub organizations, such as community centers, food banks, and student-led activist groups, preferred to create small, short-term projects focused on the needs of an individual, microregional group of people. For example, a food bank would want to start a farm to grow food, using a student-led organization for volunteer support. This type of project was attractive to them because it was easily fundable. However, it was also not sustainable, because it was run on grants, and it was short-lived, because the people running food banks are likely volunteers, not farmers.

Farmers have found that many people want to support local food, but the group of people who are buying locally is very small. Farmers also can’t support more local farmers' markets because they can’t physically be at most locations. In addition, they would need to be better at marketing and business, but they don’t have the time to do so because small, sustainable farms are labor-intensive. They would like a better distribution system, training programs, and more funding for their farms.

In the end, the ability to organize neighborhood-based support for urban farming depends on a strong relationship between the government, local food organizations, and farmers. There needs to be an active government advocate, such as a city councilor, and key community activists who can support the farmer-to-consumer connection. The Cuban model allows free land, free supplies, and free education to anyone who is interested in growing food. It is imperfect and filled with problems, but it is a system that is producing great outcomes.

Farmer-to-Farmer Information Sharing

There are two groups of farmers: protective farmers and open-source farmers. Protective farmers tend to hoard their growing information as business secrets. Open-source farmers share all of their production information freely with other farmers.

Does sharing business information hurt your farm? In most industries, trade secrets should be closely guarded, but farming is not a typical industry. The most important reason for this is that demand is so incredibly high for local food, yet farmers don’t realize that they aren’t competing against each other. They are competing against the grocery stores, not other farmers.


“The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hope. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright.”

—Scott Russell Sanders, “The Common Life” in Writing from the Center

What Community Is (and Isn’t)

Farming is a group-oriented activity. Therefore, historically, permaculture has been heavily focused on the building of community. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to use land in an urban environment for farming activities without falling victim to tons of expenses or annoyed neighbors. To this end, a strong community must be built up. The community should consist of like-minded people who can pool their resources to acquire land or create protection around the activities of a local farmer.

A diligent community is able to apply the third permaculture ethic: share the surplus. Individuals will share with their small community of friends, who will share with the greater community of not-so-like-minded neighbors. That is when real social change begins.

To summarize, permaculture applied to community has three guiding principles:

  • Create a support system and teaching network for like-minded people to be able to accomplish their goals.
  • The only thing this community must have in common is the belief that humanity should live sustainably and self-reliantly.
  • Self-reliance does not come from independence from people, but from independence from business and organizations that rely on products and resources from faraway places.

Starting a Community

A good starting point in developing community is to join an existing one. Community develops naturally, so it is just a matter of finding like-minded people within that group of people who have similar goals.

The quickest introduction to that community is often made in a food hub. A food hub is a regional business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.

On a small scale, a food hub would be a communal kitchen in a community center that offers a meal preparation and sharing day, a church that has a weekly breakfast, or a farmers’ market or café that serves locally produced food.

You are likely to find a food hub within any of these organizations:

  • community center
  • elementary school
  • parent advisory council (or parent teacher association)
  • farmers’ market
  • church
  • food bank
  • local food and farm initiatives


“A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

—W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Frequent communication is important, even in the smallest group. Everyone needs to be on the same page, and any decision that impacts everyone else should be made in consensus. This is a hassle and incredibly challenging, but it’s necessary. There comes a point during a community’s evolution where one person feels left out of the process. One discontented person can cause the collapse of the entire process.

The group must be moving steadily forward toward a preplanned goal in order to continue as a community. Otherwise, people naturally lose motivation or run out of energy.

One effective method of making communication more efficient is in keeping the groups small. The first core group of people is often brought together by a common purpose, but as soon as more people join, things get complicated. All of those extra people have their own reasons for being there. These people should be formed into small groups according to their individual personalities and interests, so that each has something smaller to manage. Each group should have a spokesperson and a secretary. The secretary keeps meticulous records of everything said and done, and the spokesperson reports to the greater community. This may seem very formal and traditional, but this “committee” structure has proven itself to be functional even when individuals aren’t very experienced with it or have personalities that are difficult to work with.

Not everyone gets along, and no one communicates effectively all the time. Creating an environment that is honest about this basic fact, and works around it, is the key to success. Flexibility is part of this. When a task is done, people can move on to something else. When two people aren’t working well together, rather than taking it personally, recognize that sometimes personalities clash and move on. One of the greatest tools in helping people learn to do this is having a common mission. A mission is more than a goal—it embodies the values and direction the group is moving in. This must be decided as a community and written down, and everyone should be reminded of it frequently. Every decision made by the community should be held up to the mission statement to make sure the group is sticking to its values.

Dissent is expected. Consensus is difficult, because if someone disagrees with the group, the whole group cannot move forward. However, there are very few decisions in permaculture that must be made immediately. A single individual may hang up a decision for quite a while, but that is one of the drawbacks of community that must simply be tolerated. It is very important that the founders of the community have communication and consensus decision-making training so that they can facilitate the communications of the group.

The other greatest tool in community is food. Just because you are getting together for a business meeting to discuss difficult topics doesn’t mean you can’t do it over an amazing potluck dinner of homegrown food.


“The good health of a farm depends on the farmer’s mind. The good health of his mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer’s mind and his body—his management and his labor—work together as intimately as his heart and his lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farmer and farm are one thing, an organism.”

—Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land

Sole Proprietorship versus Partnership

The usual business model for a small business is sole proprietorship. Every business owner that I know, including myself, who has also been part of a business partnership has watched it fall apart due to management differences. This is especially dangerous when working with friends and family.

States and provinces vary as to business requirements, but there are major tax benefits to registering your business as a farm. Farms usually have special status and deductions.

Starting a Farm Co-op

A cooperative (or co-op) is a collaboration between like-minded individuals who are working toward a common goal. This is a good alternative to a partnership if there is someone you’d like to work with. Cooperatives are increasingly recognized for their ability to make good things happen—so much so that the United Nations partnered with the International Co-operative Alliance to declare 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. Cooperative enterprises work differently from other businesses in that they are based on needs and values rather than profits. There are many different forms of cooperatives, but what we are most interested in is agricultural co-ops. Cooperatives aren’t just little groups run by Birkenstock-wearing health nuts. Companies like Ocean Spray, Ace Hardware, Sunkist, and the Associated Press are all cooperatives.

A farm co-op has shared ownership and a larger labor pool, which produces more crops. When production increases and is pooled together, it does two things: there is more likely to be a good crop, and it lowers the costs of production. Farmers’ co-ops can either be formed of several privately owned farms, or something increasingly common, a farm owned cooperatively. Forming a farm this way is the most viable way for young people to acquire large acreage and become financially successful without too much individual burden of debt. It is not, however, a commune. It’s strictly a business arrangement. Historically, these farms do not benefit the poorest people in the co-op because it takes a significant financial investment to start a good farm, but once the strongest members begin it, opportunity exists to allow others in with smaller investments.

Urban farm co-ops usually do not own the land outright because the cost in the city is almost always prohibitively expensive. Farming could not ever pay off the mortgage. Instead, the co-op acts as an investment pool for leaseholding, equipment, and inputs (fertilizers, seeds, and other yearly expenses). However, even though the farmers are sharing quite a bit, it is also important that each farmer-member have the ability to have his or her own land space and crops. Farmers’ co-ops often have a slightly different voting strategy based on production. Because some farmers produce more crops than others, they carry more of the risk and therefore deserve a more powerful vote. Votes may be added based on tons of food or the economic value of crops.

There can’t be any outside investment when starting a farm cooperative for the purchase of land or equipment, or for selling crops. This is one of the basic principles of co-ops, because doing so creates a conflict of interest. Rather than focusing on building infrastructure or growing crops, the secondary goal of an interested third party can be distracting or, worse, destructive. To start a farmers’ co-op, the first investment goal is for acquiring and developing land. This may be urban land, either borrowed or leased, or rural land, which can be bought or leased. Whether the land is free or not, money must be available to build the land up for farming in the form of inputs, raised beds, high tunnels, irrigation, and fencing. This part of the investment should be pooled, with that same amount saved in a fund that can buy out farmers who choose to leave the cooperative. In this situation, the land would not be owned by any one person, but rather owned by the co-op, and members would own shares based on their investment.

For those interested in this kind of serious involvement in farming, a few key pieces of information are needed. This knowledge is not always freely available, and yet it is extremely important for people to know when getting into agriculture.

A farm in a rural area requires an investment of at least $200,000, depending on the price of the land and what kind of infrastructure is on it. At least $60,000 of that has to go to developing the growing area, inputs, and tools. A half-acre space with a couple of homemade high tunnels costs at least $15,000 to prepare for intensive growing, and for a co-op, two acres is the minimum for a profitable enterprise. It may be possible to find some land for $140,000, but keep in mind that it must be within the 100-mile radius of a city, and preferably within 45 miles at the most. That’s the most realistic maximum driving time for delivering produce, so the closer you are to your market the better.

A project in an urban area using borrowed land (such as SPIN farming, or Small Plot INtensive farming) requires an investment of at least $30,000. This is used to purchase inputs, a rototiller, refrigeration equipment, a truck, and other tools. These can be shared among several urban farmers operating out of backyards or leased land. The profits per square foot are higher in the city because the initial investment is so much lower and the market price is higher, but these farms tend to be smaller. The smaller the farm, the less likely the farmer can make it work without a second job to support it. An equipment (and labor) co-op can make it possible for urban farms to do things on a larger scale. For example, many use old refrigerators, but a professional walk-in cooler can hold an entire crop. This is so important when harvesting for a Saturday farmers’ market that opens at eight in the morning, because everything needs to be harvested by Friday.

A second kind of farmers’ cooperative manages only product marketing for a group of farmers. Many established farms today are members of a cooperative, which they formed to purchase their own product. The co-op, as a separate entity, purchases the crops of all the farmers and then handles the selling and/or distribution. Usually that means handling negotiations with a wholesaler, but today a co-op can become a direct selling machine, whether in the form of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture farm, which sells shares to members) or a physical market. The labor involved in distributing farm product is taken from the farmers so they can spend more time growing, and there is much less risk because if one farmer has a shortfall, the other farms can fill it. The cooperative can also purchase expensive equipment, like the large coolers and refrigerated trucks that a single farm might not be able to afford. It is important to remember that although a marketing cooperative like this is for making money, the ultimate goal is not higher profits. In fact, profits might be a little lower for the farmer on a per-item basis because he is selling at a lower-than-retail rate to the co-op. The benefits are in cost and labor savings, shared risk, and less stress.

A weekly delivery from my CSA.

Marketing co-ops need someone in charge with a strong marketing background. This means understanding branding, current Internet selling techniques like social media, and the ability to keep track of current food events and policy. Coordinating the harvest of several entire farms, handling proper processing and storage for optimum freshness, and managing multiple types of customers takes a skilled person. Marketing co-ops will usually have enough products to run a CSA, show up at the farmers’ market, sell to restaurants, and possibly run a full-time farm stand. This manager will need several assistants.

The CSA—Community Supported Agriculture

Don’t start out financing your first farm equipment by creating a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture operates on the principle of shared risk, but customers expect you to have the risks worked out as much as possible. The customers agree to take a loss on their investment if things go wrong, and since they pay up front at the beginning of the season, there’s nothing they can do about it. If you do operate a CSA in your first year, be prepared to refund people’s money if things go wrong.

A CSA operating out of one farm (rather than a co-op) is a challenge because you have to grow so many varieties of food, and they have to be planted in succession so that crops are ready every week of the season. The knowledge and planning required to pull this off comes with time and is incredibly challenging in the first year. It is much better to plant a few high-profit crops, grow several varieties of those crops so you can pinpoint which ones do the best in your area and soil, and raise some animals on the side. Dairy, eggs, chickens, lambs, and goats are reliable moneymakers that can be managed without much more labor. These can be sold on the farm or at the farmers’ market, and are a good, relatively low-stress way to start.

Example of Weekly CSA Delivery Values

That being said, the CSA is a phenomenal way of creating farm income when there otherwise wouldn’t be any. Rather than waiting until July or August to make money, when the crops start coming in, a CSA brings in money in March. This means having cash to purchase inputs like seeds and fertilizer when you need it. In return, the farm promises to provide a share of the harvest to the members each week at a fair market value. This usually averages around four to ten pounds of food per week, since most CSAs charge around $20 to $40 per week. The beginning of the season features more salad greens and cold-weather crops, making the delivery lighter, but toward the end of the year it balances out with heavy crops like squash, potatoes, melons, and fruit. CSAs tend to cater to the more affluent customer who is looking for a more involved experience with the farm, because the upfront cost is usually $300 to $900. These people don’t mind picking up their share at the farm every week, or will pay extra for delivery.

It’s crucial not to reinvent the wheel with a CSA, especially in the beginning stages. The CSA model is now widely accepted and recognized by customers, who are willing to bend over backward to help a farm out, including volunteering, handling pickup points, and providing emergency donations. Farms don’t have to try to one-up the competition with lower prices or even more services. Keep it simple. Competing on quality and dependability doesn’t cost more, as opposed to other ways of competing; it just takes planning and effort.

To calculate your shares, you can create a table like the one below. It’s a good idea to start your shares no earlier than June, when you have less risk of crop loss. The value is based on bunches rather than pounds, and arranged according to what is available at the time.

An alternative to the model of pricing shares based on the value of produce (which has become the standard for CSAs in North America) is used at the longest-running CSA, which was formed in 1986. Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire calculates the yearly farm expenses and divides that up among the members. Members are then free to collect as much food as they need from the farm. This has evidently contributed greatly to their success, and the waiting list is so long they no longer collect names. Obviously this model forgoes profits in the interest of community.


“We learn from failure, not from success!”

—Bram Stoker, Dracula

The first step in a microregional food system is collecting information. Many universities have already done work in this realm, which can be accessed through their horticultural programs. Municipal programs may also be a source of information. If this data does not exist, it’s time to create it. This information should include:

  • plant varieties and species that do well in your area;
  • climate information, including frost dates, rainfall, and temperatures;
  • current agricultural growing spaces; and
  • a fruit tree inventory.

These last two may not be readily available as a quick search on the Internet. If you are creating this database for an entire city, the task could take years. On a small scale, the job requires scouting your neighborhood, or the area you can reasonably travel by walking or biking, to learn what’s near you.

Agricultural growing spaces can include:

  • backyard and front yard gardens
  • greenhouses
  • unused wetlands
  • parks
  • vacant lots
  • rooftops
  • schoolyards
  • community gardens

Google Maps is a brilliant tool that can make this job much easier. This tool is currently known as My Maps, and it can be found by Googling My Maps, or through the menu on the regular Google Maps site. You can create and save a custom map using satellite imagery. Locations can be marked with a pin and with color-coded overlays. Notes can also be added to each marker. Each site record should try to include:

  • size and usage possibilities
  • soil quality
  • water access
  • ownership
  • possible toxicity

The fruit inventory works similarly in that each tree or bush is marked on the map with variety and possibly notes on yield and harvest dates. In fact, these two groups of information might be more useful on the same map, but that’s up to you.

Why is it so important to find or make an inventory of fruit trees in your farm’s neighborhood? Observation is the key to success in farming, as is meticulous record-keeping. Your first year of farming is a huge experiment because you are dealing with a microclimate that has no history of farming—except that it might. If you can find fruit trees and other plants growing in your area, you can find out the species that do well and save yourself a lot of experimentation. You might also be able to glean fruit for sale without having to put in much labor to grow it.

Farm Record-Keeping

Record-keeping begins with planning, but it doesn’t end there. You will need to keep detailed records of:

  • all your plant varieties, including what seed brand (or source) you got your seeds from, and how many you used;
  • any problems per plant;
  • when you started harvesting and how much you got;
  • notes for yourself for next year;
  • your expenses and sales.

This will make it possible for you to improve each year and produce more based on your past failures and successes. Only one in five small farms is keeping records of their farm production. Many farmers don’t want to see their farm as a business and would prefer to keep it as a social enterprise. That’s great, but even if you are operating without profit you should record your growing information. There is no way you will remember which type of tomato did well and which didn’t, or whether you remembered to fertilize, or when you started your mushrooms. Many farmers now use a simple spreadsheet. If you have a smartphone, most spreadsheet software can be saved to iCloud and will be accessible on your computer at home or anywhere you go, so there’s really no excuse for not writing down how much garlic you grew.

This suburban land behind an RV park was borrowed in exchange for food, and it had no soil. Soil was brought in and held in place by wood boxes.


“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.”

—Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Acquiring Land

There are a lot of ways of getting land, but not all areas are ideal. For commercial agriculture in the city, your crop will sometimes have to change in order to work with in the amount of space you have. For example, if you live in an apartment, you will not be growing cabbage as a farmer. You could, however, grow herbs, microgreens, mushrooms, and other delights. For urban farmers, the options are:

  • leasing land from a land trust or the city;
  • leasing land from wealthy (or not so wealthy) nonfarming landowners who get a tax break (in some states and provinces agriculture receives a tax break, but this only applies if a percentage of the land is activelygrowing something);
  • renting a portion of a working farm in a suburb and sharing equipment;
  • farming land owned by a school, restaurant, retreat center, or other institution;
  • borrowing an urban backyard from a willing person who might be willing to barter for vegetables;
  • farming a rooftop with corporate partners;
  • renting urban land from the city, such as an unused park space or empty lot;
  • farming on the site of an old bedding plant nursery or other compatible space;
  • growing indoors under lights.

Buying versus Renting

In the city, land prices are much higher per acre. In the area where I live (Victoria, British Columbia), prices run around $300,000 per acre, and this includes rural areas. Typically, people run to the country and buy cheap land. The benefit of being in the city, however, is the market. Your customer is literally right next door, which is a much more profitable situation. At the same time, you need to have space. If you don’t have the money to purchase a property, you will have to rent or borrow it, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. Acreage is nice to have, but not even totally necessary. However, if you can buy property in a feasible way, do it. You’ll protect your investment and you’ll have much more control over what you can do. If you can’t, there are many other ways of getting land.

Borrowing Land

More often than not, urban farmers use someone’s underused hobby farm acreage in the suburbs. This land is either leased or borrowed. However, leasing with a contract may not necessarily have any additional security over a verbal agreement, since the farmer is only leasing a section of the property. The property owner can still probably kick you off at any time. At the very least you might be able to get a deposit back or retain your property, such as tools or a greenhouse. Without a paper agreement, the property owner can take everything you have built up there. Verbal agreements only work well if the person you’re dealing with is trustworthy, but even then, having something in writing is a good idea.

Loss of farmland is the biggest complaint of urban farms, and this is why their farming techniques are slightly different. For borrowed or leased land, raised beds and permanent structures take too much time and money to invest in, unless it is absolutely certain that the property can be farmed for the next five years. In five years it will have paid for itself. Otherwise, the property must have soil that is already good enough for farming, and a rototiller is used to turn the soil. The farmer must be able to just add fertilizer, turn the soil, and produce a crop right away without much investment in boxes, fences, and other structures.

A pitfall of borrowed land is toxins. Urban farms in these areas are not usually certified organic because they do not have adequate buffers. Gardens growing on the edges of roads and highways have a higher lead content because of deposits in the soil, and this is why certified organic crops must have a buffer zone, either of a certain amount of space or a tree belt to absorb the exhaust fumes. To combat this, urban farmers must add even more compost to the soil. The more organic material, the less concentrated the lead and other toxins will be. Mulch can also help.

Benefits of Close Proximity

One major benefit of urban farming is the close proximity to customers. Some even have farm stands set up right on the sidewalk like lemonade stands. Most cities have a plethora of farmers’ markets, so selling the produce isn’t the problem; it’s growing enough to meet demand, or growing the right things and finding the right market. This possibly means using several backyards within a small area. However, too much traveling makes crops suffer because they cannot be properly cared for. The multiplot model requires drip irrigation on a timer, which is more expensive than spray irrigation but saves the trouble of running around to all your plots four times a day for watering.

The urban farmer needs one permanent spot to process crops. This means harvesting everything and then bringing it back to a place that has tables, a water supply, and refrigerators or a walk-in cooler. An urban farm cooperative can help put this together; otherwise, the farmer will have to have a garage for processing. This processing area needs to be close to the farmer’s plots as well.

All of these are fairly standard farm issues, but the real challenge is zoning. City farms are facing conflicts, and unless the city has specifically allowed urban farming, it is probably illegal. The urban farmer is making the conscious choice to break city bylaws in the hope that the neighbors won’t complain. There are two choices here—a tall fence can hide the backyard and make it impossible for anyone to even know what’s going on, or the farm can embrace the publicity. If the second option is chosen, be prepared to meet all the neighbors, offer them free vegetables, and become an ambassador for farming.

Some factors to consider when finding a location:

In the city it’s not very likely that you will have much choice in what properties are available to you. However, you can decide where your home base is and whether or not a property is going to be worth farming on. You should ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there employment opportunities? Be prepared to keep steady employment while you build up your farm business. If work is close to your farm, it makes it easier.
  • Is there a good sense of community? Do they accept new people?
  • Is there culture and education? Communities with culture and learning opportunities have tended to embrace urban farms, and the two seem to go hand-in-hand. This provides connections to possible customers, as well as emotional support for you.
  • Are there churches and other community places located in the area? These are one of the best free resources for farmers to use as distribution points or to get the word out.
  • Is there a farmers’ market or grocery nearby?

As I mentioned, community is a major component of urban agriculture. Some urban farms have been successfully put together in some inner-city areas and these farms have been able to bring the community together in amazing ways. However, as a farmer with a business, it is a lot easier to begin in an area that already has a strong sense of community, lots of culture, and a decent farmers’ market. You will have to make a judgment on how much energy (emotional and physical) you want to put into building your community up.

This may not look like prime farmland, but farmers in Detroit think otherwise. Land like this is being reclaimed for farming.

A Conversation with Your Landlord

As a renter, you have many options. Most landlords are fine with a small garden bed. It’s a tough sell to convince your landlord that completely tearing up the entire lawn is a good idea. Your landlord will be concerned with:

  • liability (Could there be some fallout on them because of this activity? Does their property liability insurance cover this?)
  • the value of the property (Could it decrease?)
  • water (Who pays the water bill? If it’s you, no big deal, but if it’s your landlord they will see a huge increase.)
  • neighbors (How will they react?)

Your landlord is concerned with risk and investment, which should be your concern as well. This means now is the best time to write a preliminary business plan based on the property you are looking to farm on. Perhaps you had visions of an orchard or blueberries, but the land isn’t quite right for it. The property will shape what you are doing to a large extent.

If you are using your own rented house, finding land isn’t the problem, it’s getting permission to use the land. But if you are looking for land, you still need to identify whether it’s a suitable place for farming. Just because it’s empty land doesn’t make it the best spot.

Here is a site checklist:

  • Ownership:Write down the address, including the cross streets. The owner will be listed at the county or provincial tax assessor’s office. Sometimes this is available online.
  • Water access:If there is no municipal water service or a well, installation will cost you thousands of dollars. As mentioned before, this is not worth it unless you can guarantee access to the property for at least five years.
  • Transportation:The property needs to be easily accessible by truck. Either you need to bring in supplies, or you will need to get a truckload of food out.
  • Light:The sun needs to be shining on the ground for at least 60-70 percent of the day, or you will need permission to cut down trees. If a building is shading it, it’s a no-go.
  • Wind:It should be sheltered from heavy winds by trees or buildings. This can sometimes be remedied by building some windbreaks.
  • Drainage:If the soil is flooded or marshy, there is no easy fix other than some major draining construction.
  • Soil:Is there soil? What is the quality? Could it be contaminated? Cities have a ton of concrete and contaminated soil. This doesn’t eliminate the property, but it does play a big part in your planning process.
  • Time:How long will you have the land?

Some of these factors will be addressed in this chapter and have solutions. Some of them cost too much, so you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it.

Making a Farm Plan

Here is a farm plan outline:

  • Executive summary

˚ a brief summary of the business

˚ your goals and timelines

  • Layout diagram of the farm property
  • Benefits

˚ to the community

˚ to the property owner

  • Management: your own experience and personal references
  • Construction:

˚ changes to existing structures

˚ development of new structures

  • Maintenance: property maintenance measures

˚ safety

˚ cleanliness

˚ aesthetics

  • Termination of Use: cleanup and restoration of the property
  • Operations:

˚ who has access to the property

˚ who will work the land

˚ who will pay the water bill

  • Licensing & Insurance:

˚ business licenses

˚ agricultural inspections

˚ liability insurance

You will need to write a cover letter, which will be a brief introduction to who you are; a proposal to lease the land for free (or for a low price); your willingness to pay for any expenses that you write about in your farm plan; and a big thank-you for their time. Most landlords will not be receptive to animals, although some municipalities have been accommodating if you are using land owned by the city.

This preliminary plan is a good starting point for your own business plan, and it gives enough information to bring in a potential landlord. It does not include your operating costs and income projections, which we will talk about later.

Developing a Written Agreement

A written agreement to use land for farming needs to be in writing and signed by both you and the owner. This should be done no matter what has been discussed. This must include the following:

  • the name and address of the owner and his or her spouse
  • tax information if the owner is a business, as they would have to pay tax on the rent
  • the name and address of the renter(s)
  • address of the land
  • a map of the land, with the boundaries clearly detailed
  • the length of the agreement in months; the minimum should be twelve months
  • an option to renew
  • how much notice is needed to terminate the agreement and under what circumstances
  • an agreement that the renter cannot sublease
  • explanations of what happens if the land is sold or the landlord dies
  • outline which areas of the property the renter will have the right to access
  • hours of the day the renter is allowed to access the rented areas
  • what kinds of exceptional circumstances might cause access to be changed
  • who the renter is allowed to bring on the property and why
  • if members of the public are allowed in the area and with what notice
  • the specific business activities of the renter
  • activities that are prohibited
  • how manure is managed
  • if farm signage is allowed
  • what production practices must be followed in order to maintain soil quality
  • any certifications or regulatory constraints such as organic certification, agricultural land status, or tax benefits
  • any exclusive use of any buildings or structures and for what purpose
  • any shared use of any buildings or structures and for what purpose
  • bathroom facilities available to the renter
  • who is responsible for building maintenance
  • if fencing is required by the renter, who is responsible for maintenance
  • if the renter plans to build permanent structures, whether there will be compensation
  • use of electricity and monitoring of usage
  • use of equipment owned by the landlord and compensation
  • water sources and use, backup plan in case of drought, and who is responsible for maintenance

If a house or residence is offered as well, this use should be put under a separate lease agreement.

Compensation to the Owner

Many urban farmers have negotiated the free use of land in exchange for food. For example, a backyard can be borrowed from a homeowner in exchange for a box of food every week. A large plot of land, for example, an acre on a hobby farm in the suburbs, might be a different story. If a long-term commitment is being offered by the landowner, some compensation may be fair. However, what is considered “fair market value” is not necessarily the best guide for a piece of acreage. You will have to find a willing person who is happy to let the land go to use for farming without much compensation. You can, however, compensate the farmer for water, power, and other amenities, with a small amount thrown in for using the land.

This garden is located at a hotel and supplies the restaurant with high-quality herbs and vegetables.


“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

—Abraham Lincoln


Typically, the definition of a farm is acreage that is a certain size and makes a certain amount of money. However, that definition doesn’t apply to urban farming. There are many different scales of agriculture, and they don’t necessarily have to do with size, but rather with intensity:

  • Microgarden:1,000 square feet or less, usually supplies one family with vegetables.
  • Yard:10,000 square feet or less, this amount of space can feed a whole family most of the year plus garner surplus for sale.
  • Lot:10,000 square feet or less, as above, except that it is not attached to a house.
  • Intensive:10,000 square feet to 1 acre, either on a lot or small acreage.
  • Small farm or food garden for school/institution:a food garden attached to an institution operated for education and nutrition rather than profit.
  • High-yield farm:minimum of 25,000 square feet in full intensive production.

In an urban setting, the maximum amount of land that is usually farmable by one farm manager is two and a half acres, but more land is not always more profitable. Curtis Stone of Green City Acres had two and a half acres and eight staff members, but found through careful record-keeping that ten crops were making 80 percent of the profit on one acre. Does this mean only grow the most profitable things? Not necessarily. Farming sales often use “loss leaders,” or low-priced, low-profit crops to boost sales of more profitable crops. Fifteen vegetables of multiple varieties on one acre can produce a living wage for a farmer, with less overhead and less time spent working. The goal (as Curtis has also demonstrated) is a forty-hour workweek with a payout of forty to fifty dollars an hour.

This is done through high-rotation, intensive succession planting. These crops are planted in beds of a standard size: on a suburban lot, usually thirty inches wide by twenty-five feet long. When initially creating the bed you would need a sod cutter to remove the sod, add amendments (fertilizers and other similar stuff), fork it up to break up chunks and loosen up roots, then rake it out to remove debris and invasive grass. Each standard bed would be seven hundred fifty square feet.

You would have two kinds of beds:

High rotation: Three to six rotations per season, located close to home with a crop value of $800.

Bi-rotation: Two rotations per season, $400 crop value.

The next chapter has more information about preparing these beds using either a rototiller or no-till method. During your planning, however, you would want to decide what you want to grow first.

In order to create a steady stream of income, you would plant two kinds of crops:

Quick crops: These crops are ready in fourteen to sixteen days. You would plant them in succession weekly because you harvest them once rather than picking them over time like tomatoes. A sample schedule will be discussed later. These include turnips, microgreens, radishes, salad greens, beets, green onions, and carrots.

Steady crops: These are ready in sixty-four to eighty-five days, and you would plant them once (maybe twice) because they produce a steady crop throughout the season. These include patty pan squash, indeterminate tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, kale, beets, and carrots.

Profitability Chart for 750 Sq. Ft. Beds

Calculating Your Gross Sales

If you have twenty-four high rotation beds at $800 and twelve bi-rotation beds at $400, you would make a $24,000 profit.

You also need to calculate your costs. If you get a new plot of land and put in a bunch of time and money, it needs to pay for itself. Let’s suppose you have a space that is around two thousand square feet. This allows you to put in two beds, with enough space for walkways. According to Curtis Stone, you would spend $978 to put in two beds (see the table below).

This means that these two beds will pay for themselves, plus make a small profit the first season. In the second season, inputs would be your only expenses.

More Models of Farming

Besides the scale of the farm, there are a few more types of urban farms that need to be addressed:

Indoors: An apartment could be an indoor farm. A warehouse can also be an indoor farm. Growing under lights can be a viable option for many different crops, as long as the energy cost is factored into the cost of production. If you are an indoor farmer, the discussion of land and planning may not apply to you, so just skip ahead to the indoor growing sections. Crops that work well inside are mushrooms, greens, microgreens, and herbs because they are quick-growing or don’t need quite as much light as other plants.

Windows/balconies: Although this doesn’t allow for much farming space, certain crops work well on balconies and in window boxes and can give you a tidy cash crop. Tomatoes, dwarf fruit, hardy berry bushes, and mushrooms can give you high cash returns from a small space.

Community gardens: Most community gardens do not allow you to farm commercially (that is, to sell what you grow). However, if you want to use a barter model, a great idea would be to grow a ton of food and trade with the other members of the community.

Farm to table: Farm to table refers to farms that specifically sell to restaurants. Some of these are located at the restaurant itself. Others specialize in fresh specialty crops and deliver directly to discriminating chefs. This is usually very profitable.

One person alone can’t maintain a productive farm that is growing a serious cash crop. An entire family has to be involved, or a group of seasonal helpers. There are several factors that can help you choose a cash crop. As a product it should take up less space, such as honey or berries. It should also be easy to process without much equipment, or be value added. Value-added products are jam or butter—raw materials like berries and milk that are processed into something people want, which adds value. It’s a good idea to have a second cash crop that is something nonperishable, like firewood or nuts, which can be sold throughout the year. Here are some cash crop ideas:




Labor: sod removal, rototilling, forking, fertilizing, raking

$15 hr.


Sod cutter rental

$60 per day


Fuel expense

$20 per day


Irrigation, timers, impact heads, lumber, poly lines

$320 one-time purchase


Soil inputs: 2 yards compost, 2 cans fertilizer per bed

$80 compost

$48 fertilizer




Aquatic nursery: Fish, bee, and duck forage; friendly insect plants; and ornamentals

Berries: Berry sales, U-pick service, plant nursery selling berry starts

Rare plants: Useful permaculture plants; bee, bird, and beneficial insect forage

Seeds: Rare or unusual heirloom seeds

Animals: Geese, silkworms, earthworms, bantams, milk or mowing goats, specialty sheep, and quail

Hedges and trees: Local tree species, regenerating forests, windbreaks, animal forage, bamboo, or food crops. (These products can be grown in containers, which make them possible in an urban setting.)

Organic food: Typical fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk, eggs, wool, meat, flowers

Value-added food: Smoked meat, dried fruit, jam, feathers, dried flowers or wreaths, pickles

Craft supplies: Willow, bamboo, natural dyes, wool

Natural pest control: Nursery plants like marigold or yarrow

Herbs: Dried herbs for culinary or medicinal purposes

Commercial Greenhouses

It is much cheaper to build a greenhouse than to buy one, but take into consideration the work and potential risks if you do. It is common for businesses to start out by building a high tunnel, which is simply a long framework made of PVC piping that holds up a light plastic cover. This plastic cover must be removed in the winter, so this is not for year-round growth. This type of greenhouse is cheap, but it is also very susceptible to wind damage.

It is much easier to buy a real commercial greenhouse, which will have built-in features like ventilation and be sturdy enough to use all year round, than to build one. One feature it needs to have in a cool climate is a separate entry room. Every time the door opens heat is lost, so an entryway with two doors is crucial. The first crops you grow should be designed to pay for the greenhouse, which means growing high-value products like tomatoes, peppers, and fruit.

Of course, while running a commercial greenhouse business is most often done with a single high-value crop, in a permaculture system you could still follow the principles of community growing and polyculture. Pick at least three crops that can work together, and consider using aquaculture tanks or birds as well.

Planning for a CSA

Many studies have been done on CSAs, and what you can expect is somewhat predictable. A traditionally farmed row-crop farm using mechanization can expect to produce thirty shares per acre. That doesn’t mean that the acre is going to just feed thirty families; it just means that as a general rule, planning for losses, no more than thirty units should be sold. An intensively planted farm can offer up to fifty shares per acre when well-established, but is unlikely to be able to farm more than two acres without a lot more labor.

Intensive farming requires at least five people per half acre to take care of the weeding and harvesting, and the more land, the more people it takes. At the two-acre level, the farm should have anywhere from eight to twenty people involved at various times of the year. A mechanized farm can use five people for five acres.

The farm must plant at least thirty to forty varieties, and each share is built around a large salad. In some areas a mixed baby green bag is expected (mesclun mix), and in others a large head of lettuce is the norm. Early in the season things like broccoli, kale, cabbage, and turnips fill in the weight, and later in the season the tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and potatoes fill it in. Baby greens are a challenge because a new crop must be ready every week. This means planting every week for harvesting thirty to thirty-seven days later.

Once the maximum farm customers are obtained according to the space you have, the next step is not expansion to more land or trying to get more customers. It is more profitable to maximize production and create more value. Value-added products are ones that are processed from farm crops, such as jam, pickles, and tea. Not only can you make many of these items from seconds—that is, crops that are too ugly to sell—you can charge more than you could for the raw item. These can be sold as add-ons to your existing customers, along with eggs and meat, and can be sold at your farm stand. Meanwhile, work hard to build up your soil and perfect your growing techniques for greater and more reliable yields.

Distribution can be done by home delivery, delivery to drop-off points, and/or pick-up at the farm. Each has its merits and drawbacks. Home delivery puts distribution completely in the hands of the farm, but takes more labor. For the farmer all the customers should be within a thirty-mile radius, otherwise it’s not worth the fuel and time. It takes less time to do this than to allow farm pick-up, but you have to have a very good delivery database system on the computer that keeps track of the customers, the routes, and whether they will be around or not. Deliveries also have to be made in the evening when people are home. Delivery to drop-off points is a happy compromise but usually relies on an outside source to provide the location, such as a parking lot or even a member’s garage. Many farms have a relationship with a member that allows them to drop off the food at a spot and leave, and allows shareholders to pick up when they can during a three-hour period. Pick-up at the farm works if the farm is close to the shareholders and has ample parking. The shares can be left out and people can serve themselves without too much trouble.

Example: CSA Availability Chart

Example: Crop Planting Schedule

Developing a Final Business Plan

You’ve found your land, have a good idea of the type of farm you want to have, and a general idea of the crops you will be growing. The next step is to write it all down in a business plan that will help you maintain your goals and keep you on the right track. The simplest farm business plan is outlined like this:

  • Description:Who are you, what does your farm grow, and how do you grow it?
  • Land:Who owns the land or building, and how do you protect the owner and yourself? The section earlier in this chapter on acquiring land includes a lot about how to work out the legal use of your space, and it will be helpful when writing this part of your business plan.
  • Income:How much do you need to grow in order to make as much money as you want to make? These are your objectives and also gives you a healthy dose of reality. Does what you want to make jibe with what you have?
  • Niche:Just because one of these crops seems more profitable doesn’t mean that focusing on one crop is a smart idea. Diversifying and bringing in customers with a cheap bunch of radishes is how most urban farmers become successful. How will you market and sell your crops?
  • Costs:The best way to be profitable is by reducing costs, and the biggest one is labor. Inputs like seeds and fertilizer are a close second. How can you manage your costs and still maintain quality?

To finalize your business plan, you must make some predictions on your expected crop yields. The following small farmer’s table includes average yields as a guide to predicting possible profits. It includes some crop yields and retail prices per square foot, with retail price range per pound. This range is taken from a variety of sources. The best place to get accurate information, however, is to go to your farmers’ market and find out what farmers near you are charging.


Average Yield per Sq. Ft.

Price Range per Lb.


2 lb.



½ lb.



¾ lb.



1 lb.


Broccoli heads

½ lb.


Brussels sprouts

½ lb.



1¾ lb.



3 lb.



¾ lb.



4 lb.



¾ lb.



3 lb.



¼ lb.



1 lb.



¼ lb.


Greens, baby

2 lb.



2 lb.


Lettuce, head

1 lb.



3 lb.



½ lb.


Peas, sweet

1 lb.



¾ sweet, ¼ hot



1¾ lb.


Sweet potatoes

1½ lb.



1 lb.


Squash, summer

2 lb.


Squash, winter

1 lb.



2 lb.



2 lb.



“Most business meetings involve one party elaborately suppressing a wish to shout at the other: ‘just give us the money’.”

—Alain de Botton

The current agricultural system is dependent on petroleum at every stage of the food process. Fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum-based. The tractors run on petroleum, and the food that is produced is transported using petroleum. All of this creates carbon emissions, and agriculture is responsible for a lot of it. The EPA estimates that 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from production, and this doesn’t even include the transportation. Changing the way food is produced and distributed can have a major effect on humanity’s future.

However, agribusiness has effectively blocked a lot of change. This means that funding for your small farm is not necessarily going to come from the government or a bank as it would for any other business.

In doing research for this book, it was interesting to hear the different opinions on how to fund young and beginning farmers. When we describe “young” farmers, we now refer to something quite broad—currently, farmers make up only about 2 percent of the population. They are mostly in their sixties and are trying to retire, and so any young, beginning farmer is really anyone under sixty.

The government is totally supportive of farmers who are interested in agribusiness, and this is the case in Canada as well as the United States. If you should decide to grow soybeans or another commodity crop on large acreage, you are likely to have many funding doors open to you. However, the typical beginning farmer is a woman looking to start a small, organic farm or market garden. Often these are not “young” people, but rather mothers, graduate students, and immigrants who have a lot of life experience and education. The funding options are far fewer and take on the form of incubator farms, microloans, and land leasing. Incubator farms are properties owned by an organization that lends the farmer land, training, tools, and other inputs to start a farm at no cost.

Organizations that support incubator farms have described a situation wherein they have supported new farmers only to find that the new farmer is unable to become independent of the incubator farm. They have found that without the cooperative funding model, new farmers today really struggle to create a reliable income. Young farmer coalition groups and organizations have described a similar situation and would like to see a better funding model from the government that treats all farms as a necessary system like transportation or health care.

Regardless of what the future holds, it is important to realize that if you are going to make a living farming, you will be dependent on a community of people to make that happen, whether it be a cooperative farm, an incubator farm, a land lease with a benevolent owner, or through networking within your community. It is hard to find examples of sustainable, small-scale urban farming that provide someone with a full-time living. They do exist, and those who are making a living are often selling the information on how to do so. It’s important to do your homework and have a solid business plan that can outline your farm income in a realistic way and help you figure out how much income you can comfortably produce. At the beginning, you will have to have other income and a plan to scale up your production so that you can make your living as your business grows.