Why Cityfarming? To Earn a Living

By Adam Brock

Dig deep enough into the history of urban agriculture and you’re bound to come around to the story of Havana. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its only real trading partner, Cuba went through the economic equivalent of peak oil, and during the “special period” of the early nineties, was forced to relocalize. Fidel Castro began an aggressive program of local food production, and today, Havana sports government-supported community gardens and backyard vegetable plots that provide half of the city’s produce.

Cuba’s path from famine to self-sufficiency has become legendary among Forest Greens. But try and tell it to a city policymaker, and you’ll be politely shown the door: examples borne of deprivation don’t tend to be considered best practices. Instead, mobilizing urban agriculture on a large scale will take the rhetoric of optimism, and perhaps more importantly, a solid grounding in economic reality. Forget food miles and nutrition studies – farming won’t get urban in a serious way until it can turn a profit.

Fortunately, with cereal prices on the rise and the demand for local and organic food growing, there just might be a business model hiding in there amongst all those celery stalks. One of the most promising incubators for successful cityfarm strategies is Intervale, a 350-acre conglomeration of a dozen or so organic farms and natural areas just outside Burlington, Vermont. The land, owned by the Intervale Center, is leased to first-time farmers, who receive training and start-up funds for the first couple years. While the Intervale Center itself obtains its funding from grants and donors, it has birthed many agricultural endeavors that are on the path to financial self-sufficiency. Intervale Compost Products is the most successful, which processes 20,000 tons of organic waste into $750,000 of revenue.

Burlington was fortunate to have a large area of arable land so near the urban core, but most cities won’t be so lucky. The manic pace of development over the past fifteen years has made vacant land a precious commodity, and many urban centers will have to get creative about squeezing in the space for crops. Enter Philadelphia’s Somerton Tanks Farm, a prototype for the economic viability of small-scale urban ag.

Somerton Tanks developed as a collaboration between Roxanne Christiansen, a marketing specialist and urban agriculture advocate, and an unlikely ally: the Philadelphia Water Department. PWD owns about a hundred acres of vacant land around its storage and treatment facilities, and had been looking for ways to cut down on maintenance costs while preserving the land’s ecological integrity – a perfect fit for Christiansiansen’s vision of a test case for profit-generating urban farm.

In 2001 Christiansen’s non-profit, the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, began leasing a half-acre plot next to the Somerton water tanks for a dollar a month.
Working with Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN Farming, she worked out a design that would cut down on overhead and maximizing production. This meant installing a drip-irrigation system, focusing on high-value crops like exotic salad greens, and figuring out how to grow three crops per year. To run the operation, Christiansen hired two full-time farmers and opted for hand tools over costly mechanical equipment. Four years later, Somerton Tanks was grossing $68,000 a year from CSA and farmer’s market sales – 20% more than even Christiansen had anticipated.

IILF is currently working on a state-funded study that will use Somerton Tanks’ business model to outline the prospects for creating an agriculture industry within Philadelphia’s city limits. But before Somerton Tanks is replicated citywide, zoning codes will need to change, as well as cultural attitudes about growing food in the city. And few landowners are likely to be as generous with their land as Philadelphia Water Department.

To be sure, cityfarming as an industry is just getting off the ground – but with Intervale and Somerton Tanks, the bar has been set. Urban agriculture can turn a profit, but every city will need to devise urban ag models that fit with the cultural attitudes, land availability, political will, and, of course, climate. But the commodification of city-grown food comes with a caveat: it runs the risk of disenfranchising those who need it the most. It’s the issue of cityfarms and food justice that I’ll be exploring in the final installment of the series.

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