Cancel
Advanced Search
KEYWORDS
CATEGORY
AUTHOR
MONTH

Please click here to take a brief survey

Urban Agriculture for Entrepreneurs
Sarah Rich, 22 Jun 07
Article Photo

Farmers typically live modest, if not downright poor lives, working unforgiving swathes of land to earn their keep and fill their plates. We romanticize the farm life from the fast-paced and crowded vantage point of the modern city, but the romance only goes so far. The reality of ceaseless hard labor and unpredictable profits makes a stable office job nice and comfy, which is why farmers have been moving cityward for ages, leaving the agricultural life behind and seeking more lucrative occupations.

True, there's been a resurgence of interest and enthusiasm for urban farming, but the reason for starting and maintaining urban farms still generally have more to do with either health benefits, gourmet cachet or plain survival, than with an entrepreneurial opportunity. Except, maybe, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where an urban couple, Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, developed a well-defined, teachable farming technique they believe can function as a toolkit for a successful start-up business. They call it SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming -- an approach that "makes agriculture accessible to anyone, anywhere." They partnered with Roxanne Christensen of the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming to run a sub-acre test farm called Somerton Tanks, through which they demonstrated over several years that small-scale city farms can bring in serious money.

In 2003, its first year of operation, Somerton Tanks Farm, located in northeast Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the U.S, produced $26,100 in gross sales from a half-acre of growing space during a 9 month growing season. In 2005 gross sales increased to $52,200. So in just three years of operation Somerton Tanks Farm achieved a level of productivity and financial success that many agricultural professionals claimed was impossible. And it is providing a way for independent farmers to once again have a viable role in the food production system that has tipped too much in favor of large scale mass production agriculture.
Mr. Satzewich points out that city growing provides a more controlled environment, with fewer pests, better wind protection and a longer growing season. "We are producing 10-15 different crops and sell thousands of bunches of radishes and green onions and thousands of bags of salad greens and carrots each season. Our volumes are low compared to conventional farming, but we sell high-quality organic products at very high-end prices." The SPIN method is based on their successful experiment in downsizing which emphasizes minimal mechanization and maximum fiscal discipline and planning.

It's an interesting fusion of internet start-up and hands-on farm. They sell guidebooks on the Web, offer email guidance and consulting, and make an unapologetic business case to promote SPIN as the way to farm.

What Are The Key Success Factors?

LAND – SPIN can convert vacant unproductive land into healthy cropland, thereby creating open green space that is self-sustaining

MARKETS – SPIN spurs the creation of a network of neighborhood-based farms that can profitably serve the growing demand for locally grown food

FARMERS – SPIN attracts a new crop of farmers by reducing the 2 big barriers to entry - land and capital

CAPITAL – SPIN is low-capital intensive and can be started with micro-level investment

So far they've run successful SPIN demo plots in Saskatoon and Philadelphia, but they're evangelists on a mission to get city-dwellers everywhere to adopt this practice, which they say promises financial health and ultra-productive land in any urban yard or lot. Like Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates, SPIN offers a way to replace hungry lawns with nourishing gardens -- SPIN's just taken it to another level, turning the process from an art installation/activist project into a profitable enterprise.

Bookmark and Share


Comments

This is inspiring and thought-provoking. What concerns me, however, is a theme that I see running often through green products and services: the theme of "price premium." If we are to have people adopt green on a large scale, we'll have to make green products the cheapest products around. People often talk about economies of scale when they speak of large operations like industrial agriculture, but bigger == better is not inherently a law of physics. Surely there are creative ways to "tunnel through the cost barrier" with these small farms, as Amory Lovins might say?


Posted by: c! on 22 Jun 07

This is inspiring and thought-provoking. What concerns me, however, is a theme that I see running often through green products and services: the theme of "price premium." If we are to have people adopt green on a large scale, we'll have to make green products the cheapest products around. People often talk about economies of scale when they speak of large operations like industrial agriculture, but bigger == better is not inherently a law of physics. Surely there are creative ways to "tunnel through the cost barrier" with these small farms, as Amory Lovins might say?

The one thing that turns me off about the SPIN website is its near-immediate attempt to sell the reader those SPIN guidebooks.


Posted by: c! on 22 Jun 07

Thanks for the fine writing and good stories. Have you considered cross posting to the Seattle PI or syndicating this column to papers nationally Sarah?

I notice the PI has a few green blogs-- and I am sure papers across the country would welcome your WC take on things once they read it.

Ponder.

Timothy


Posted by: Timothy Colman on 23 Jun 07

Thanks for the fine writing and good stories. Have you considered cross posting to the Seattle PI or syndicating this column to papers nationally Sarah?

I notice the PI has a few green blogs-- and I am sure papers across the country would welcome your WC take on things once they read it.

Ponder.

Timothy


Posted by: Timothy Colman on 23 Jun 07

Thanks for the story, I just wanted to clarify a couple things for anyone who is interested in the viability of this stuff (I worked with Roxanne in Philadelphia through the Healthy Environments Collaborative, building a framework for a regional urban agriculture plan).

Somerton Tanks did use volunteer as well as some paid labor, especially during weed season! And the labor those two put in was comparable to regular farm hours (~12 hours/day).
Significantly, the project was a joint venture with the Philadelphia Water Department, who owns the land, so there was no land acquisition cost or rent.

Just wanted to clarify. Thanks for highlighting this project!


Posted by: justus on 26 Jun 07



EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO:

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS:


MESSAGE (optional):


Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Worldchanging2.0


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/ worldchanging.com
©2012
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg