A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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The Urban Landscape as Farming’s New Frontier


by Candace Brown



 from My Organic Garden



Since the beginnings of agriculture, farmers have savored winter as a time to rest from their labors, but no doubt even the ancients spent the dark months doing what farmers still do: dreaming of the next year’s harvest. But the reality that frustrates many would-be farmers, who live in cities, is the lack of land available to them. According the website of an organization called Sharing Backyards,A full 40% of North Americans do not live in single detached housing where the yard space is unequivocally theirs. The other 60% who do have access to land in the cities often leave it underutilized.” In other words, some people have land but don’t use it to grow food, and others dream of growing food, but don’t have any land to use.


This story will show how particular types of “haves” and “have-nots” come together through exciting programs and businesses sprouting up all across the country, in addition to the community gardens that have been around for years. Thanks to new and innovative solutions―as well as the growing awareness of widespread mutual benefit―more people now participate in urban farming, by one means or another. In some cases, home owners contract with professional farmers to grow food for them. In others cases, those who have land share it with those wanting to produce food, sometimes as an exchange of its use for “rent” in fresh produce, and sometimes just to see it under useful cultivation. In all cases, these arrangements grow not only food, but also bonds between people, resulting in healthier bodies and lifestyles, and better neighborhoods.


When people grow food at home, it makes all sorts of positive impacts on our environment, our communities and our health; but what I find most inspiring are the more intangible, abstract benefits.  I truly think that growing food at home makes people happy.”― Colin McCrate, professional farmer at Seattle Urban Farm Company


Colin McCrate, co-owner of Seattle Urban Farm Co. tends a containerized garden on the rooftop of the Basstille Restaurant in Seattle. 



Different ways to participate in the urban farming scene


Research on the topic of urban land utilization for small-scale food production, revealed these major components of the trend:

·       Gardening businesses focused on growing food for the homeowner, business, or restaurant on the client’s own land, parking strip, or even their rooftop

·       Businesses and/or organizations offering customized coaching for those who want to do it all themselves.  Some also provide specialized “kits,” including everything you need for a small container garden, maybe as small as a bucket.

·       Programs matching would-be gardeners―ranging from those wanting to grow food for their own consumption to those wanting to sell at markets―with those who have space available and are willing to share it, sometimes in exchange for part of the harvest.

·       Networks of eager urban gardening advocates sharing information, education, photos, tips, success stories, and encouragement through websites, community events, and more.



A Seattle Family that chose to share their land


Lorraine Sawicki lives in Seattle with her husband and baby daughter and writes a blog called “Bread + Buttercups.” She describes it as “a combination of my love of cooking with my obsession with plants.” After moving to Seattle and finding herself on the bottom end of a list of hundreds of people waiting for a “P-Patch” from the city, she decided to at least offer someone else the chance to grow vegetables on the tiny patch of ground in front of her apartment. She did so through a program called Urban Garden Share. Here is her story:


We moved into our current home a few months before I gave birth to our little girl, so I knew my husband and I wouldn't able to maintain the front yard as well as we'd like. I joined Urban Garden Share  our first year living here, and I got some attention with my profile. However, I didn't attract someone that was really interested in regularly maintaining a very small plot in our front yard between the street and the sidewalk.

Then this past spring I received a short email that basically said, “If that small plot is up for grabs, I want it!” The email's author turned out to be a recent architecture graduate that wrote his thesis on urban agriculture. He admitted to me on our first meeting that he hadn't actually tried to grow food in the city before, so he was looking to practice what he preached. We chuckled a little about that while I showed him the water hose and yard waste bin. I was curious if pedestrians would respect the space and not steal or step on any of the crop, since our sidewalk gets quite a bit of traffic both day and night.

Throughout the summer, this young man and his wife showed up regularly to tend a roughly 5 x 5 ft. plot in front. We got lots of compliments from neighbors that would walk by and see the farming results of our garden share ‘tenants.’ They did a great job. We had a wonderful experience on many levels, and I would definitely vouch for the garden share making my neighborhood just a little more open! Our share is open again for next year, and we're curious about who will want to use it next.


A great resource for those interested in sharing their own yard, or using someone else’s, is the Sharing Backyards website, previously quoted. In practical terms, it lays out all the information you need, such as things to consider before getting involved in a sharing arrangement and how to set up a program in your own town or city by coming a Local Partner.


 A backyard can become a bountiful food source.  From Seattle Urban Farm Co.


Hiring a professional farmer to grow your food 


Colin McCrate, owner of Seattle Urban Farm Company, grows food on other people’s land with his business partner Brad Halm. Clear across the country, a man named Joshua Wenz owns a company called My Organic Garden, serving the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. They work in much the same way. Both McCrate and Wenz provide “full service” to their clients. That includes such benefits as:

·       designing an organic garden customized to the client’s needs

·       site and soil preparation

·       the actual seeds and seedlings and the labor of planting them

·       garden infrastructure such as support mechanisms for plants and a system for irrigation

·       maintenance visits every week throughout the growing season

·       harvest


They both make themselves available to clients whenever questions or concerns arise. For the do-it-yourselfer who just needs a little help, they will work out a customized plan. Wenz states that he might create and plant the garden but let the homeowner do maintenance based on his monthly consultations during the season.


An attractive patch of produce makes good use of this home's front yard, thanks to My Organic Garden and Joshua Wenz. 


What does it cost to hire a pro?


McCrate, concerning Seattle Urban Farm Company:


Our approach is that a new garden installation is a one-time cost that will pay for itself over the first few years of use (especially if the client does all the regular maintenance themselves).  A 200 square foot garden can easily supply a 3-4 person family with all the produce they need during the growing season (usually about 6 months worth). 

A simple new garden might cost around $1500-2000 and can be a bit more expensive if they want to build terraces, arbors, or a lot of cedar raised beds.  We also offer consultation and garden design services which are much less expensive for those people that want to do the work themselves but just need assistance getting the right plan and knowing where to find the right resources.  Depending on the time involved and the complexity of the garden plan, we can usually help people get started for a few hundred dollars. After that, they will have to put some time into the project and spend a little more money on supplies (compost, irrigation, etc.)


Wenz, from My Organic Garden, had this to say:


The cost is primarily determined by the size of the garden and by how much assistance is requested. If we do all the work (digging, planting, irrigating, etc) the cost of setting up an average sized garden is around $1,200. For gardeners who are willing and able to do much of the work themselves, or who have more time than money, a few hours of coaching can allow them to complete a significant portion of the garden on their own.


We also developed, through the DC non-profit - the Neighborhood Farm Initiative - a summer garden coaching program for implementation on vacant properties, community gardens, etc. This program provides garden coaching to groups rather than individuals, which allows for consolidation of cost of tools, equipment & coaching sessions.


Partnering with community groups and making neighborhood connections


Whether in business for themselves, or running a non-profit, it seems the kind of people pioneering the urban gardening frontier naturally care about the vitality and sustainability of their communities and want to participate in improving neighborhood life. In Minnesota, Backyard Harvest is fully engaged with such principles. The organization’s goal, according to their website, is to “…strengthen the Twin Cities local foods system by transforming landscapes into tasty, beautiful and sustainable mini-farms through which eaters connect directly with their farmers, food and land.”


Even a narrow strip of land can yield a nice crop.  Seattle Urban Farm Co. 


 Krista Leraas, Coordinator and Co-Founder of Backyard Harvest: Gardens provide wonderful settings for connecting with our fellow humans as well as the birds, bees and plants. We love partnering with community groups. In addition to providing an excellent focal point for community involvement and improvement, it's a great way for us to reach lots of neighbors who may be longing to share or find garden advice, assistance, bounty or a good recipe.


Wenz: Probably one of our best anecdotes was when we started the non-profit Neighborhood Farm Initiative. The community garden we worked with had in past years been under threat of being turned into a parking lot due to under-use of the community garden site. We developed a for-fee garden class that coached new gardeners through the entire garden season. This brought people from all over the DC area to the neighborhood (interacting both through gardening, and regular cleanups & potlucks), improved the look and maintenance of the garden throughout the season as fallow garden plots were utilized, and trained new gardeners so that they were able stick with it throughout the season without getting discouraged or giving up, and even gave them the experience to take on their own plots the following season.


 Seattle Urban Farm Co.


Creating successful partnerships


Leraas: “A successful partnership is one in which the community, and those in service to it, get their needs met robustly and equitably. Some cash is usually required, but the primary ingredient is really creativity. An example from this past season was a food shelf garden which was sponsored and hosted by a neighborhood organization, fed patrons of a neighborhood food shelf and homeless youth shelter, and involved local youth gardeners to help with the harvest. Now that's a win-win-win-win-win!”


The opinion expressed on the website of Sharing Backyards is that one of the most crucial factors for success is a close geographical proximity between the landowner and the individual doing the farming, for a greater likelihood that the farmer will give the necessary time and attention to the garden plot. They use an ingenious interactive online web-mapping technology to match up partners. Potential farmers and land owners can instantly see who or what is available in their communities.


 Participants in a "Canning Bee" sponsored by Backyard Harvest Proudly display the results.


Community acceptance of urban food gardens


Wenz:  Since we've limited our gardening to small family vegetable gardens in homeowners' yards, no zoning issues have arisen. There can be concern (by homeowners & neighbors) where the front yard is the only suitable area for growing vegetables. Improving the layout and ornamental value of the garden (more flowers, green growth year round, careful pruning, staking & trellising) usually calms any fears.


 In May, Maryland passed HB 1062, which gives county and municipal governments the ability to create tax credits for vacant land used for urban agricultural activities, so there is support on a state level for at least some "visible" urban agriculture.   


 Two young Backyard Harvest gardeners find their efforts rewarding.


McCrate: Overall, the community is incredibly supportive of our efforts.  The city government is totally behind the idea, and instead of making things difficult, they are actually passing initiatives to make growing food in the city even easier (for example: they eliminated the need for a permit to plant a garden in your parking strip). 


 I am sure there are certain neighborhoods where food gardens are prohibited, but we have built a lot of gardens in upscale neighborhoods and they seem to be appreciated just about everywhere.  It helps that Seattle is a pretty progressive, free thinking town. 


Planting seeds for a bountiful future


Leraas: With cities working to make urban farming easier to do, I don't see its popularity waning any time soon. In fact, I'm hopeful that it can be taken a few steps further by utilizing sustainability principles (like the permaculture principles that underpin our own work) in the design of urban food systems. Can you imagine a city filled with diverse food forests, careful composting operations, fresh food for all and equitably compensated farmers? Wow!


As humans look for new ways to live on a planet that can no longer afford old systems of food production and transport, it is encouraging to find ourselves coming full-circle, getting more personally involved with the sources of our sustenance. Perhaps McCrate sums it up best:


To grow something, harvest it and eat it with your friends and family is an experience like nothing else,” and added, “…the simple fact that it can make us happier and bring us closer together is reason enough to keep doing it.”  


Useful links for urban gardeners


Sharing Backyards

Seattle Urban Farm Company

Urban Garden Share

My Organic Garden

Neighborhood Farm Initiative

Backyard Harvest (Twin Cities area)

Urban Land Army

Backyard Harvest (Boston)

Permaculture Institute

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Your Backyard Farmer- Portland, Oregon

All Edibles – Berkeley/Oakland CA area

Green Thumb – New York City Dept. of Parks and Rec.

Bread + Buttercups   Lorraine Sawicki’s wonderful blog about gardening and cooking


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