There are many benefits to farming in urban areas. Most urban farmers enjoy being close to their markets and customers. They also spend less time and money transporting goods to customers than rural growers. Urban sites generally offer easy access to potable water. Most urban farmers have fewer wildlife problems than their rural counterparts. Urban environments also tend to be 6 – 8 degrees warmer than rural areas. This is partly due to the heat island effect of pavement and sidewalks.
Urban farms can be abandoned or open lots, neighborhood backyards, city parks or rooftops. Many urban farmers grow on multiple sites using intensive farming techniques.
National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) Program Specialist Andy Pressman emphasized four elements of intensive agriculture: soil fertility, close plant spacing, succession plantings and season extension. Pressman led a workshop called “Enhancing the Viability of Commercial Urban Farms” at the NOFA/ Mass Winter Conference. Pressman described strategies urban farmers can use to increase production and profits and ways urban commercial growers can produce high quality crops with common challenges they face.
Annual soil tests with micro- and macro-nutrients levels are important. Urban growers should also test for lead and other potential toxins. Even if the site never included a building with lead-based paint, lead could have accumulated in soils from automobile fumes.
Cover crops like pennycress and mustards may absorb certain soil toxins. Pressman urged all growers to adjust pH to ideal crop levels and to add organic matter to help tie up potential toxins. For marginal soils, he suggested using raised beds with safe top soil and compost for greens and root crops. For certain marginal soils, Pressman suggested selecting fruiting crops that grow above soils and avoiding crops with routine soil contact like greens or root crops. Add compost and organic matter often and adjust pH to help tie up potential toxins. Pressman advised any “grower with potentially contaminated soils to always wash produce and remove outer leaves.”
Intensive agriculture means close spacing, staggered rows and sometimes multiple crops in the same space.
Growers like Rich Pederson at City Farm in Providence, RI use site-made plywood dibble templates made to fit their bed width. Farm staff transplant seedlings into preset spacing patterns.
Native Americans used intercropping with their “Three Sisters” plantings of corn, beans and squash. Today’s growers might grow a fast, early crop like radishes with slower crops like carrots, potatoes or garlic.
Intensive growing means harvesting two to three (or more) crops in each bed each year. Pressman reminded all growers to rotate crops. Add compost between crops and never plant the next crop from the same family. A successful crop rotation plan builds fertility, increases yield and reduces workloads over time. Farmers should create a growing plan with harvest dates and work backwards to calculate transplanting and seeding dates. Many growers will start weekly or biweekly plantings of greens, herbs and flowers from early spring into early summer and start again with brassicas and greens in late summer.
For small growers to compete successfully with larger, often rural growers, season extension is essential. Small urban growers should offer greens and other staples early and late and should ask a high price for these crops. When larger growers bring abundant, cheap crops, small growers will need specialty or oddity crops to keep their market cashboxes full.
“Work for land security,” urged Pressman. “If you cannot buy the land or get a long term lease, consider planting in portable containers,” he continued. Zach Pickens at Riverpark Farm in New York City plants in milk crates. If unable to renew a land lease, this farmer could easily move the crates to a new site.
Leases should cover these topics clearly:
• Payment — Describe what the landowner gets: a CSA share(s), cash or a service. Include what the grower promises to do on land, including any site upkeep and/or landscaping.
• Growing practices — Will the grower use organic or conventional techniques? Will on-site composting be allowed? Describe tilling frequency.
• Crop plan — List which crops or categories will be grown.
• Site appearance — How tidy does the site have to be?
• Water — Is municipal water available directly or will the grower need a hose connected to neighboring home with net metering? Is the water source secured all season? Will the grower use drip irrigation, overhead watering, etc.?
• Access — Define hours and days of work, and notice needed for exceptions. If there is a fence, both grower and landowner need keys. Is there parking for grower and staff?
• Equipment storage — Where can the grower keep tools and hoses?
• Insurance coverage — How much liability coverage must the grower have, and who will be listed on the policy?
• Landowner access — Pressman said growers should, “be clear with landowners that this is not a U-pick site. They can’t think of your farm business as their salad bar or green grocer.”
Pressman insisted every grower would benefit from careful planning. A business plan and crop plan are essential to secure a loan, grant and insurance. Planning for profit can urge additional market efforts and reduce or prevent unnecessary expenses. Farmers with clear financial and life goals can measure all enterprise, equipment, marketing and crop decisions against these goals.
“Be sure you run a Market Analysis before planting,” said Pressman. Always know where you will sell your product before you grow and harvest crops. Be sure you grow what your customers want, when they want it. Be sure you can deliver crops in the form they want. Pressman described two weekly markets he attended. At one market, customers only purchase large kale for steaming and braising. At the other market, customers want baby kale for salads.