Urban farming is a trend that appears to be here to stay, and is even catching on at airports, shipping containers and rooftops. I recently attended a lively session at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, where one urban farmer gave aspiring urban agrarians a taste of what it takes to start your own urban farm.
Urban farming gets deep
The speaker was Chris Hiryak from Little Rock Urban Farming (LRUF) of Little Rock, Arkansas. LRUF calls itself a community based food enterprise that specializes in the production of organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers for local markets. Hiryak started off his career in sales and was “absolutely miserable” until he discovered sustainable agriculture doing several apprenticeships, including working at the Dunbar Community Garden Project.
“It’s really important that you first get that horticultural experience. There is a disservice being done, that young people are not getting the real deal on the challenges of farming,” said Hiryak.
He calls this the new beginning farmer industrial complex, where young people go into farming with very idealistic notions of what it will be like and not considering how hard the work is or how little money they will realistically make.
Hiryak advises that folks start small. He began with nothing more than a passion for the urban agrarian lifestyle and the desire to make his community better. The farm, located in the backyard of the house he grew up in, is roughly half an acre, with only one quarter being intensively managed. To start out, he built tiny experimentation plots to try things out first and built a small heated and ventilated propagation greenhouse. Most work at LRUF is done with hand tools and seeds are all hand sewn without seeders.
To find a farming site, explore getting an easement from the city, which requires getting involved in city politics and building a good relationship with the city. “I got involved in the sustainability commission in Little Rock, which helped get LRUF access to an easement and the city has been very receptive.” However, Hiryak warns that this comes with the risk that the city could choose to do work on that easement at any time. It’s also critical to get the soil tested for heavy metals, as you don’t want to grow edibles in contaminated soil.
Find your niche
An urban farm needs a niche.
“I was fascinated with horticulture. I loved plants. I wanted to grow everything once. Try everything once.”
But then reality set in and he realized he couldn’t do it all. To get a contract with a restaurant or sell at the farmers market, he recommends sticking with high value crops. “If you crunch the numbers, grow greens, tomatoes and flowers if you want to make money,” advises Hiryak. Shitake musrooms, hakurai turnips, radishes and beets and these crops can also be grown at home.
Get your financial ducks in a row
Hiryak is a big proponent of urban farmers keeping their day job for the first few years.
“This may not be appealing to some of you youngsters out there ready to jump in and start farming. But it’s good for everyone here to get a dose of reality,” he tells the audience with this caveat, “It’s not to discourage you, but to encourage you. I wanted to create a garden home, to build a living museum, a magical experience. This can be something beautiful that makes you $10-15K a year, but without giving up your job.”
He explains it pretty rare for an urban farmer to make their entire living off the land, unless they selling literally everything they grow (again, also rare).
A quarter-acre farm can get started on $10,000, estimates Hiryak. There are many ways to finance your operation such as:
- friends and family
- crowdsource funding
- impact investors
- community development funds
- traditional bank loans
- credit cards
- and grants
But if you borrow from friends and family, be sure to only do so if you intend to pay them back. Work with your local farmers to do the initial tillage of the soil by borrowing their equipment and offering to pay them back in kind or with labor. “I never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do.”
If you do a crowdsource funding campaign (i.e., Kiva, Kickstarter), remember “there is no free lunch,” shares Hiryak. “People do have expectations so make sure you are ready to deliver on your promises.” This is especially true if you are the first to pursue urban farming in your community. If you can be the first one in your community, others will look to you, but you will need to maintain and deliver on that leadership.
Be frugal in other ways and start with as low an overhead as possible.
- Make the best use of the space you have like Hiryak, who still processes all the food in his basement.
- Shop for used tools at estate sales, garage sales, or on craigslist.
- Ask friends for help.
- Share equipment with other urban farmers.
Marketing is the word
You have to be willing to spend some money on marketing to make it work. “The name of the game in urban farming is marketing. The food needs to be sold before it even comes out of the ground,” explains Hiryak. “If you want to be a successful farm, you have to be willing and able to be an educator and to deal with the media.”
Create a simple, to the point website with beautiful images that communicates what you want your brand to represent and build on that brand. Most importantly, “Get the community involved and supportive. Invite them to barbeques. Take them fishing. Host farm dinners and ask local chefs or other handpicked players to come. Develop your sphere of influence,” says Hiryak.
Start at the farmers market. “That’s the place to get your feet wet, unless you already have great relationships with restauranteurs. No one is going to get down on you for making mistakes at the farmers market. But restaurants will hold you accountable if your numbers and quality aren’t right.” At the farmers market, LRUF follows the motto, “Stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly.” In other words, make your stall look as abundant and overflowing as possible.
For the love of farming
His final words of wisdom,
I hope you are not a perfectionist, because farms are an imperfect art. In the beginning, it’s all about the love and the passion and you are working hard. But after three years of that, you become smarter. You have to assess the risk and figure out whether it’s worth it for you or not.”
At the end of the day, Hiryak wanted to make it clear that urban farming is a labor of love, but one that in his case has brought him “more joy and happiness than I could have imagined.”
Feature image courtesy of littleny / Shutterstock