Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron, but judging from the 375-person sell-out crowd at the first Urban Farm Summit in Washington, D.C., the idea is catching on like organics at Walmart.

The recent one-day event called, Sowing Seeds Here and Now, was organized by Engaged Community Offshoots (ECO), a fledgling non-profit urban farm based just outside D.C. in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The summit agenda spotlighted the reasons why urban farms are sprouting up all over: They increase food security by growing food locally. They give under-served urban neighborhoods access to fresh foods. They strengthen  local economies by keeping dollars circulating within the community. They engage consumers, who learn how food is grown. They reduce ‘food miles’ and fossil fuel use. And they create jobs.

Urban farms are growing more than food. They are growing community.

As a social enterprise consultant, I’m fascinated to watch new business models emerge. Nascent urban farmers are not only literally breaking new ground, but they are finding they enjoy competitive advantages over their rural counterparts. Buyers will pay a premium for custom-grown vegetables that can be picked and delivered the same day.

“I can walk in to a restaurant with a seed catalog and ask the chef what varieties of lettuce, zucchini, or beets he’d like me to grow, just for his menu,” explains Vinnie Bevivino, director of Urban Farming Operations at ECO. “He can also tell me when he wants delivery and I’ll synchronize my planting schedule with his seasonal menus. He won’t get that kind of customized service from a national produce chain.”

Yet to make their business work, urban farmers must contend with two challenges that rural farmers typically don’t face—accessing land and scaling operations large enough to be profitable. Urban land suitable for farming is expensive and, even when land is available it comes in smaller lot-sized parcels rather than in acres. Urban land is at such a premium that farmers have to get creative and grow more densely to make their business viable.

Innovators are finding a way to make urban farming work. Will Allen, the guru of urban farming and the creator of Growing Power in Milwaukee, has been able to grow enough food in 14 greenhouses sited on two acres of land in the middle of a food desert to feed 10,000 local residents. The non-profit turns millions of tons of food waste into compost to grow vegetables, and to feed Tilapia and Lake Perch in tanks. But even more impressive is Growing Power’s social return on investment: They include including engaging youth in work readiness, life skills, construction techniques, and writing skills; employing convicts for summer work; reducing crime in the neighborhood; and teaching adults from all over the world hands on urban farming.

To spread urban farming, Growing Power offers an eight month training course. The Washington-based ECO staff, after completing it, is beginning to replicate such holistic practices as hoop houses (inexpensive structures made from curved tubular metal frame and covered with greenhouse plastic sheeting to grow food year round), rain catchment and drip irrigation systems for efficient watering, solar panels and anaerobic digesters that make electricity from waste.   They’re also starting closed-loop aquaculture, where plants filter waste from fish, and vermiculture, raising worms that turn food waste into nutrient-rich compost.

While operations can be replicated, ECO must figure out its own business model, tailored for its community’s needs, growing conditions and consumer market. ECO incorporated as a non-profit just six months ago. With grants and in-kind corporate support , the group has secured permission to use of county land just over the Washington DC border.

Vinnie explains how they make use of two small parcels:

We devote two acres just to make compost, turning 10 tons of food waste donated by Whole Foods and 30 cubic yards of wood chips donated by Pepco, our local utility company into 40 cubic yards of compost, which we will sell as well as use on our own farm.  On another half acre, we grow high-quality produce, fish and bee products to sell to local residents at farmers markets, food coops, restaurants, and public schools.

ECO just launched its Offshoots Farm Network. “The network is a group of interrelated agricultural enterprises established to train and employ our underserved community members to produce food for ourselves,” explains Christopher Washington, ECO’s Director of Business Operations. With a Kellogg Foundation grant secured by Crossroads Farmer’s Market, a farmer’s market located in Takoma Park, Maryland, ECO and the Offshoots Farm Network collaborate to help immigrant farmers. “We call this new generation of farmers ‘agripreneurs’ ”, says Christopher. The initial class of five is comprised  immigrants from Ethiopia and Latin American countries who were farmers in their home countries. Rose Sesero, one of the students,  explains why she entered the training program, “I am a hard working person, a fast learner and I would like to make a difference in my life. Also, I would like to help people to change their diet, by focusing on increasing vegetable consumption and having less meat. Back in Ethiopia I grew flowers as a hobby.”

Some students come with college degrees but may not speak English yet. They will learn how to navigate the business of farming in our society — by writing a business plan, selling at farmers markets, and  learning how to transact with SNAP and WIC (food stamps) forms of payment.

“Once they graduate, the agripreneurs can decide where they fit into the local food value chain. They might choose to continue working on ECO’s farm, or they could grow their own produce and sell it under the ECO brand label, or they might choose to strike out on their own,” Christopher says. “Whatever they do, we want to remain supportive.”

Elsewhere, other models are being tested. Glynn Lloyd’s, City Growers LLC is an urban farm franchise business that Lloyd started in his home town of Roxbury, Massachusetts. “I wanted to address the interconnected issues of health, obesity, green jobs, and economic development,” he says. Last year, Glynn looked around his neighborhood and shook his head. “I saw a lot of vacant land, a lot of unemployed people, and an unmet demand for locally-grown food,” he recalls.

Glynn’s idea is to create a turn-key operation — but instead of a fast food chain, he is investing in training residents as farmers and turning vacant lots into urban farms. He’s improving the soil and installing hoop houses, irrigation, and fencing. By creating an urban farm social franchise, Glynn believes can eventually generate $60,000 per acre in revenue, while creating jobs and giving local control to the resident farmers. As a franchise, City Growers would take care of marketing, branding, sales, and quality control. This frees the farmers to focus on, well, farming. Glynn’s other business, City Fresh Foods Inc. , which he started with his brother Sheldon 15 years ago provides a ready market for processing the fresh produce and turning it into meals for Boston’s public schools, vertically integrating at least part of the local food system.

Glynn only launched City Growers this spring. He estimates that there are 800 acres of vacant land in the Boston area, but admits he’s facing hurdles around land acquisition. “On land owned by non-profits, we have to build consensus for using land as a farm. On private land, we have to challenge the current zoning laws that don’t allow farms, and on public land, officials are hesitant to encumber land that has development potential when eventually the economy improves.” Glynn says.  City Growers started with one-quarter of an acre of non-profit land in the middle of a Dorchester neighborhood and another 1-1/2 acres of land owned by private landowners in a neighboring town. Even though City Growers is a for-profit, the business has recently partnered with New Ecology, a non-profit to generate funding to support their social mission.

It’s much too early to tell which might prove the better business model for urban farming—ECO’s Agripreneurs or City Grower’s franchise. Some critics believe that urban farms won’t be viable in the long term if they depend on grants. Even Milwaukee-based Growing Power isn’t economically sustainable; it received $1 million in grants over the last five years to support its 40 full time and 40 part time staff, and it relies on 3,000 volunteers. Others say urban farms will never support a community’s food demand.

And yet re-localizing even part of our food system is about much more than providing food. How do we value creating more jobs, providing more fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities and reconnecting people more viscerally with their food? Glynn quotes Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, who has written: “The rise and fall of a society starts with its food system.”

From small seedlings at ECO…big things may grow

Cities may not need urban farms to survive. But given the social, environmental and economic returns that urban food systems can deliver, we should find ways to nurture them to grow.

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