Building an Urban Farming Business: The Setup and Numbers

Ed Wike
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The Setup

If an urban farmer has the right plot of land, he can grow a lot of food and make a decent amount of money. The first step is to find a great location. Some people find a piece of land on the outskirts of town and begin to sell produce. Others have a vision to go even bigger.

For example, a plan for an enterprise that specializes in mobile truck-based gardening that grows on six acres and a plan to sell produce from land leased in a major food distribution hub looks like the following:

both are aimed at the use of hydroponic farming

Chapter 2: Resources

Asking the Right Questions

You'll want to ask the following questions before you get started:

How much experience do you have when it comes to growing food? Some people have an engineering or sciences type of mind while other people don't know the first thing about growing food. It doesn't matter either way. The truth is, it takes people with completely different skill sets to put together an urban farming operation. Do you have the necessary skills to grow the crops? Remember, this is not like planting a few tomato plants in your backyard. This is actually start-up business so don't approach it lightly.

What do you want to grow? As the startup costs of an organic farm can be quite steep you will want to consider the crops that grow well in your climate type and that will have a high demand in your area. It will make your job that much easier and you will be able to recoup your investment costs much more quickly.

What type of business structure should you for your farm? This question is important to think about and is something you should discuss with your partner. The two choices are that you can either pass the business off as a proprietorship or give it your full focus and go through the lengthy process of starting a corporation.

Growing Process Questions

How much time does it take to grow my own food?

If all of your plants are growing indoors, then you'll spend the most time during year one with your seedlings, because indoor vegetable seeds take 7-21 days to germinate. You will be able to plant them within a few weeks of this time. Once the plants are established, your time will primarily be spent planting, weeding, and watering. You will continue spending time on the garden each week, but the amount of effort is more spread out.

How much time will I need to invest in my urban farming business?

How much time you need will depend on the size of your garden. A smaller plan such as a potted plant will take less time than larger plots.

How much space will I need to start growing food?

Space requirements will depend on the size of your crop. Space for a raised bed garden (about 4' x 20') will take up about 200 square feet. You could plant a bed of produce to feed two families, if both families followed the USDA 5-a-day guideline. If you must rent space, a farm could be operated out of 60-100 square feet in a warehouse, or 4,000 square feet in a big-box store. You need a source of water and a supply of sunlight.

Pricing and Sale Questions

The following is a question from a blog reader.

I’d like to start an urban farm, but what would be a good amount of produce per week to grow? I think per week I could grow about 25 pounds of produce. And then for sales, how much do I charge?

We all want to know what is a fair price to charge for our hard work and dedication. I’m a hobby farmer, and I don’t have to make a profit off of my farm, but I want to price my produce at fair value to help the public with their financial struggles.

Competition Questions

Layouts, and Fun.

If you are looking for a fun project for the summer, here is a unique idea for you to consider.

Build a Cart for a Farmer’s Market

If you have the skills, why not help the next generation of farmers? Hours of hard work will lead to multiple dollars from buyers, providing a nice return on your investment.

Materials for this project will vary widely based on your design. Wood is typically the standard, but metal and PVC can be used as well.

The Standard Customer Cart

You likely have noticed many of these carts in your local farmers’ market. The bare-bones version includes a shopping basket, handles for hauling around, and a spot for a tent. You can add whatever style of basket you like. Some have wood slats, and some are made of nylon rope woven throughout the whole basket.

Add Comfortable Seating

Most of these carts are just not comfortable. Try to create a cart that is comfortable to sit on. Consider an adjustable fold-out chair with a removable back. This will make it easy for the farmer to display and sell vegetables, yet it will also provide good seating for the customers.

Supply Questions

Do you want to build the business to sell your food? Are you working with a wholesale distributor that takes care of the sale and delivery of your food to buyers? If so, you don't have to find where to buy seeds or the other tools needed.

Or do you want to build your business as a delivery service to your customers? If that's the case, you need to find the delivery space. If you decide to sell the food, you need to find an affordable delivery area.

Fruit trees and bushes will require pollination. Honey bees are a great way to accomplish that. Honey bees can do the work in between seed crops.

You'll want to find a way to do a lot of landscaping to establish a larger area of edible plants in your urban farming business. There are different ways to do this, some with more success than others. For example, you could keep the grass and plants shorter to prevent weeds. But you could also use raised beds and add soil amendments that contribute to growing healthy vegetables.

The Numbers

Building a successful urban farming business is about more that food production. There are business numbers to consider as well. In many cases, you'll work with a farm manager who takes on the direct farming and sets up network of CSAs and farmers' markets, which keeps you insulated from those day-to-day workings. But in urban farming, you're responsible for every piece of the business. So, when you shave off employee costs with an employee-free model, realize your own expenses may be higher than what you'd see on a farm with many employees.

In the example below, a small urban soil farmer covers his crew's salaries, commercial license, equipment, and supplies. All other items are direct expenses of the farm owner.

So, what are these numbers? Let’s take a look.

Arugula

Arugula has a slightly bitter taste, but it has become a very popular green in recent years. It is a nutrient-packed vegetable, which contains large amounts of vitamins K and A and Omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. Its leaves are tender and are all edible.

Arugula crops can be grown in a number of ways: indoor hydroponically, in containers, or outdoors. It will do well in growing zones 2 through 10.

These are some of the most commonly used soil mixes for growing arugula hydroponically:

  • 1 part peat moss
  • 1 part coco coir
  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 1 part dolomite lime

How To Optimize This System

When it comes to setting up a big or small urban farming operation, there are a number of resources out there to help you get started. However, there is one essential piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked: parking.

If you do not have a car you can't really farm full time from a vehicle. For this reason, you need a parking space for a car or truck. When deciding the size of your setup, decide if you need to be mobile. If so, consider not only how much space you need for the plants and produce but also for the vehicle itself plus parking for the driver.

After you figure out space needs it's time to consider heating, lighting and powering your operation. Depending on the season you might want to provide some extra heat and light for your microfarm.

Getting power to the plants might be tricky if you don't have a strong power source at your location. If you do not want to have to run a long extension cord to the sidewalk every time you harvest, you might want to invest in some solar panels that will generate enough power to charge your battery bank so that you can use your lights and ventilator throughout the day without requiring a cord.