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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Online Urban Farming Course Crosses Continents, Seeks to Boost Number of Farmers Producing Food Locally

February 21, 2012 |

A three-quarter acre parcel of land in the city can be transformed into a successful urban farming business when combined with the right training. Or at least that’s the opinion of startup company GroAction, which offers an online class on the topic.

About 470 people from around the world are now testing this theory.

They are doing so through the Portland, Oregon-based company’s free online urban farming course that launched this month in an effort to boost the number of farmers producing their own food locally. GroAction, an online social hub for entrepreneurs trying to start their own local and sustainable businesses, is using show-by-example video tutorials and an online discussion forum to help its students plan and build their own urban farms.

Each week, course participants receive certain tasks they must perform to develop their own urban farms. They then receive video lessons online that are hosted by Green City Acres urban farm owner and operator Curtis Stone and GroAction founder Luke Miller Callahan, who is also completing the tasks himself. In the video, the two discuss Callahan’s progress, and go over tips for completing the tasks and handling problems that might arise. Next, students must submit updates on their own experiences in completing the tasks through an online forum, where they review each other’s work and give feedback.

“As more and more people lose jobs because of this economy and we move away from a consumer-driven economy … people need to be able to provide food (and) provide resilience within their communities,” Callahan said. “Farming is such a great way (to do that) because, right now, so many communities import food.”

The course is the newest aspect of GroAction’s vision of providing resources for socially-minded entrepreneurs. The business, which was originally called TheSocioCapitalist, started as a blog that focused on the theme of socially-regulated capitalism. More recently, GroAction has become an online social network for entrepreneurs all over the world who are trying to solve social, health and environmental problems.

The idea is to provide a space where entrepreneurs can share their needs and then help each other meet those needs. Network membership is free, but GroAction does charge a fee for helping members land pitch meetings with potential investors, who are selected from the company’s network of about 700 investors, Callahan said.

The concept of the GroAction Network of Social Entrepreneurs came from a project Callahan was working on when he was completing a master’s degree program in strategic leadership toward sustainability in Sweden, he said. He was interviewing entrepreneurs who were launching socially relevant businesses and found a common thread—a need to connect with others who wanted to help projects like theirs, he said.

Clip from the first section of GroAction’s Urban Farming Course:

Access to Education

Now, Callahan’s hope is to provide access to training for such entrepreneurs—with urban agriculture being the company’s first go at it. Callahan says the course covers a variety of topics, including how to conduct market research, select a site, run a CSA, sell food to restaurants, maximize the use of their acreage and much more. The course specifically focuses on SPIN, or small plot intensive, farming tactics, which Stone has benefited from firsthand.

Stone said he was a musician in Montreal when he finally got fed up with the way the world’s food system was heading. He decided to try to contribute to the solution and, with the suggestion of a friend, he used SPIN methods to start his own urban farm in Kelowna in British Columbia, Canada. He said the farming system provided a simple straightforward plan where he could make the most out of small plots of land.

“I basically took that plan and carbon-copied, and it worked as a business for me, like unbelievably well,” Stone said.

Stone started using backyards and front yards for his farm in 2010—adding up to three quarters of an acre—and turned a profit in his first year. That profit tripled in 2011, his second year. He uses his bicycle to transport food and equipment; he doesn’t use chemical pesticides; and he uses organic fertilizers and compost, he said.

Stone noted that he was able to produce about 13,000 pounds of food and generate about $60,000 in sales in 2011. He now speaks about his success with SPIN farming at workshops and events in both Canada and the United States. While GroAction’s urban farming course does not explicitly focus on environmentally sustainable methods or require its participants to use them, Stone said it does introduce the concepts.

“We want to get to the ultimate form of sustainable agriculture,” he said. “The best way to get there is to get people farming … get their farms established, and then you can start to talk about other ways to seriously implement real self-reliant soil building and fertility building.”

One newcomer introduced to farming through GroAction’s course is Anne-Katrin Fischer, an artist living and working in Berlin, Germany. Responding to questions about the course, she wrote that she became interested in urban agriculture a couple of years ago and has been trying to educate herself on the topic ever since.

“My ultimate goal is definitely to be a commercial urban farmer, and this course could potentially show me a path to that goal,” Fischer wrote. “Just getting to know the instructors and other participants has assured me that I am really, really not alone in this.”

Global Reach

So far, the online course has attracted interest from a wide geographic spectrum. Callahan says there are participants from every continent except Antarctica, and the participants range from farming novices to those who have been farming for decades. About 30 percent of the online students are from the United States and Canada, while the rest are from other countries, he said. About 90 percent of all the participants are from developed countries.

Judi Scharns, who owns DragonFly Farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, said she is taking the course to learn more about price setting, markets and growing in smaller spaces. She noted that the diversity of the participants is the course’s greatest advantage, though it could also potentially serve as a disadvantage.

“The strength is going to be the connection with all these other people from all different parts of the world and different climates. I’m really good at taking good ideas and making them work,” said Scharns, who originally learned about the course through Facebook. “But it (also) could be the flip side of the same coin. … It might be that it would be difficult to lay down simple rules that work for everybody.”

Callahan says that’s what the social forum is for—it allows participants with similar geographies to swap advice and local perspectives. The students are also required to do their own research on their local regulations and growing conditions, he said.

“We’re providing the logic of how to think about it, what makes sense on where to grow, that sort of thing,” he said. “We won’t necessarily have the direct solution for every specific case. …  We’re just the ones directing this course. We rely on bringing the solutions from within. This is not like a top-down educational model that you see in public schools. It’s much more of a procreating, pro-learning space.”

The urban farming class may be GroAction’s first sustainable business training program, but Callahan says it won’t be the last. He noted that he would love the company to be able to offer at least three courses this year and possibly more in the future, he said. He said that his core team is working on how to make the practice financially feasible for the business, which is still trying to become profitable. They are considering options such as course sponsorships and a monthly fee for participants who want to take a more serious commercial route.

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