What is Urban Farming?

May 17, 2019

Although it’s not a new concept, urban farming is becoming more and more of a trend each year, but what exactly is it? To put it simply, urban farming, or urban agriculture, is when you grow and produce food in a city or other heavily populated area, and you sell some or all of that produce.

An urban farm doesn’t have to be on a large piece of land or owned by a corporation or sold to a big-name store. Urban farms come in all shapes and sizes. One person can have an urban farm along with non-profits, a neighborhood, a group of friends, etc. There also isn’t a specific place that you’re required to sell or move produce to. Some urban farms sell at farmer’s markets, some give to food banks, and some even sell to local restaurants.

Many people prefer to buy from urban farmers so that they can know where their food is coming from, how it’s grown and harvested, and know that their money is going to support a local business or person.

Starting an Urban Farm

If you’ve ever been curious about starting an urban farm this will give you a glimpse into what may or may not (depending on your situation) be involved with a project like this. This isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list or a complete how-to guide, but more of a short and informal place to start from or if you just want to learn more about what steps are involve.

Training and Education- First and foremost, find training about urban farming. You can find places that host classes in person or many places online offer webinars that you can watch at your own pace. If you’re in the Seattle area, you can check out Tilth Alliance which has classes for both adults and kids and Seattle Urban Farm Company has an educational webinar series. And once you have your urban farm up and running, don’t forget about continuing education! There are always new resources being published that could help you out along the way.

Business Plan- What will be your budget? What do you want to grow? If you have a small piece of land, consider what plants you’ll have room to grow. If you’re thinking of raising chickens for eggs, you’ll need to make sure they have the right shelter, food, enough space etc to be happy and healthy. How much do you want to sell things for? Who will you sell to? Where will you sell at? What kind of marketing tactics will you use? Is there a gap in your local food market that you think you could fill? There’s a lot that goes into a business plan and might take you a while to come up with a strong one but having one will help you out tremendously.

Peach Sorbet Blueberry (Vaccinium x 'Peach Sorbet')
Peach Sorbet Blueberry (Vaccinium x ‘Peach Sorbet’)

Land- If you don’t already have land for your urban farm, start looking. You’ll also want to look into things like zoning codes for what is and isn’t allowed on your land. You don’t want to buy all the supplies and start building, and then find out your urban farm has more restrictions than you thought or for someone to report you. Before planting, it’s also a good idea to get your soil tested to make sure there aren’t any heavy metals, like lead, or some other kind of contaminant that could ruin your food or make you or someone else sick. A soil test will also tell you if there are nutrients the soil is lacking or has way too much of. Snohomish Conservation District has a lot of really good information and has an agricultural soil testing program that’s definitely worth looking into if you’re in the area. If you’re starting from square one, remember that quality soil matters. Bringing in good, healthy soil (and amending with compost) will go a long way.

Soil Test Results

Farm/Garden Tours- You can probably picture what an urban farm looks like or what you want yours to look like in the future, but it’s a really good idea to get out and see what other ones include or leave out. You might be surprised at what you find out there.

Design- Having a design for your urban farm will help you and your crops be successful year after year. A cohesive garden design can help you plan out what kinds of materials you’ll use for building beds, pathways, etc, which crops you want planted where, where irrigation should go, along with lighting, places for tool storage, drainage, and possible seating areas to enjoy the garden or take break.

Installation- Will you DIY everything or have a contractor come in to help with the installation of your design? Do you want to build up your urban farm in phases or do it all in one go? Your budget will heavily influence this, but so will the amount of time you have to dedicate to the installation of your urban farm.

Food Safety- This also ties in with training and education, but it’s worth noting outside of that, as well. If you’re selling to other people, you don’t want them getting sick so you’ll need to know how crops should be harvested, stored, and handled. It’s best to check in with your local health department to see what classes they have available and might require for you to be able to sell your produce.

Summer harvest

Planting- The process of figuring out what kinds of crops you want to grow on your land might take awhile to go through, but will help you down the road so that you can try to plan out your harvest times and when your busy season will be. Like with your business plan, it’s important to consider the area you have available, what plants will fit, what your sun/shade situation is, and what plants help other plants (companion planting). If you have a greenhouse, or other space available, starting seeds indoors will help your plants get a good start before planting them in the ground. Just make sure not to plant in the ground until after the threat of frost is gone. In the off season, you’ll want to think about which cover crops to plant to help your soil retain nutrients and keep weeds at bay.

Maintenance- Do you want to hire someone to help manage and maintain your urban farm? Seasonal help? What will be your budget for the upkeep of things like irrigation, tools, fencing, etc? What will you do for weed and pest management? Once you’ve designed, built, and planted your urban farm, maintenance will be an ongoing task that shouldn’t be skipped over so that you can keep everything healthy and organized.

Selling- If you’re wanting to sell at a farmer’s market, local business, or restaurant you’ll need to check to see if they require a food license or other kinds of permits and what fees are associated with each one. If you’re wanting to donate your food to a food bank, soup kitchen, or church, make sure to ask what kinds of foods you are allowed to donate. Some food spoils quicker than others and might not be accepted as a donation at all places.

As you can see, urban farming is a big beast to tackle especially if you’re getting into it for the first time. If you have an urban farm, what’s your number one piece of advice to future urban farmers? Or what’s something you wish you had known before starting up? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!

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