How to Start a Farm in the City
So, you’re thinking about engaging in one of the oldest livelihoods in an area where there is very little arable land? Here are a few things you should know about urban farming before reaching for the shovel.
Urban farming is a fast-growing movement, especially in cities that have been devastated in recent decades by the departure of industry and the real estate crises. The practice lends itself to all kinds of beneficial social and economic activities, and it can truly be a force for good. Initiatives like community gardens can often tie a community together.
Benefits of Starting a Farm in Your City
Urban farming introduces fresh, healthy, locally produced food into food deserts, which are areas where there is limited or no access to healthy food. It can lead the way towards economic revitalization by providing jobs, even if only for the farmer.
It can also serve as an educational instrument, with community classes centering on proper cultivation, harvesting, storage, and preparation of foods grown in the city’s fields. Finally, urban farming is also a great use for acres of vacant lots that most cities have and would love to stop paying for their upkeep.
Urban farming has environmental benefits as well. With all the steel, concrete, and asphalt in a modern city, there is often very little to buffer the absorption of heat and few places where carbon can be captured. Urban farms allow for carbon sequestration and can offer some buffering against the heat island effect of cities. Also, the more living foliage there is in the form of city crops, the more oxygen that is released back into the air.
Urban farmers must be both practical and creative with their use of space. Many urban farms are multi-faceted due to their restricted sizes. On the same property, there may be 5,000 square feet of raised production beds, a limited footprint greenhouse, a bee hive in the corner, and a few chickens running around.
However, some farmers keep it simple. Some urban farms could just be focused on the production of greens or storage crops that can be grown in cooler weather and extend the season. Some may be entirely devoted just to small animal production, while others may produce honey and beeswax products. (See 5 Reasons to Start Your Own Bee Colony). Cut flowers also provide an opportunity for a different type of farming.
Of course, municipal zoning laws also play a part in deciding what kind of urban farm you can start. There is often little restriction on growing food crops in your own backyard, but you might need to have a chat with city hall once you start considering adding animals or converting your front lawn into raised production beds.
Before attempting anything, a trip to a council meeting or a visit to the city office where zoning codes are kept on file is a must. You do not want to put your time and treasure into an urban farm only to have it shut down because zoning laws don’t allow for it.
Finding Land for Your Urban Farm
Once you have established what you can and can’t do in regards to your urban farm, you will need some land. If you happen to have a city lot that affords itself to production, drains well, and has good sun exposure, you are in the minority.
Usually, urban farmers must seek land away from their own dwelling. Unfortunately, most grants and resources that encourage farming are geared towards rural areas and the urban farmer is at a disadvantage when competing for those resources. Many cities, however, have land banks or similar structures that manage the city’s available land holdings.
As mentioned above, many cities are or have been in the process of trying to eliminate vacant lots from their rolls, meaning this land can often be obtained cheaply. Sometimes banks also offer vacant lots that previously had foreclosed homes on them.
Other options may including renting cultivatable space from other businesses or non-profit organizations. Your county’s cooperative extension service may be a resource to start with if you are having difficulty locating land to start your agricultural endeavor.
Once you’ve obtained your urban land, there are a few things you need to do before starting a farm. Lots, especially those that previously had houses upon them, must have their soil tested for a wide range of toxins and contaminants that could still be lingering from old paint, pipes, and insulation. It is not uncommon for lead to be found in high levels in urban soils.
However, having lead or other toxins in the soil is not necessarily a non-starter. You could pay to have the contaminated soil removed and new soil brought in, but there are options to grow above the soil. A non-permeable barrier could be placed above the contaminated ground and a planting bed built upon it.
It is imperative that there be no possibility of commingling the new soil with the existing soil. As time goes on, the existing soil can be retested at regular intervals to determine if the contaminants have left or been reduced to safe levels.
Sourcing Water for Your Urban Farm
Once you have the land situation figured out and know where it is safe to plant edible crops, securing water is the next step of the planning phase. If you grow on land contiguous to your own home, then there is probably little problem in running a hose to satisfy your irrigation needs.
Farming a vacant lot several blocks away, however, may prove more problematic. The water or public works department in most cities allow for obtaining permits to use fire hydrants. For a fee, a meter is placed on the hydrant so that the amount of water used can be recorded and charged for.
While not impossible to work with if it is the only option, other opportunities should probably be explored first. If the land you’re farming is adjacent to another residence, you may be able to strike a deal with the homeowner. If they allow you to use their water, they may agree to be paid with a portion of your produce or accept a nominal fee to offset the increased cost on their water bill.
Lastly, if you intend to incorporate animals in any capacity, even just worms for compost or bees for increased pollination, you will probably require a permit of some kind. Many cities, to their credit, have relaxed rules regarding the raising of livestock within city limits due to the increased interest and demand for more urban farming.
Cities can place limits such as the number of hens, roosters, rabbits, etc. you may have on your farm. Most restrict larger mammals, but perhaps you can be granted a variance if you can demonstrate how having a goat or a sheep would help your business and the community. See Adding Animals to a Home Food System for more details on this.
Determining Your Market
Now that the logistics have been addressed, you will need to determine your market (if you plan to sell your produce, that is). You don’t want to grow prize-winning tomatoes and carrots only to find that you have no place to sell them. If you opt for selling at retail venues, many cities or non-profits operate a public market.
There is usually a fee to set up there, but you will be entering a marketplace that is already established and already has foot traffic. Other options include renting space at well-attended festivals or other privately run markets (such as those set up by churches and community centers), or by potentially starting your own on the land that you rent, if that is permitted by zoning.
You will probably want to attend potential markets as a consumer to see what is already being offered. If there are carrots (or any other crop) as far as the eye can see, you will probably not want to grow them—unless you can offer a different variety or offer it at a time of year when it is not abundant.
The decision to farm, in an urban environment or not, should not be taken lightly. Like anything worth doing well, it is hard work and demands much of your time. Unlike the now-outdated notion that farming is the last resort for an individual unsuited for anything else, a successful farmer has to be knowledgeable in botany, geology, hydrology, plumbing, mechanics, and especially business.
It is entirely possible to be an urban farmer and earn a lucrative wage. The highest chance for doing so requires some research into what is already in your particular market and what it lacks. If you can fill a niche with your locally grown products, you will be in a much better position to enjoy the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor and know that you are doing good and doing well for yourself.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.