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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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The Professionalization of Urban Agriculture

February 24, 2012 |

The following is a guest post from Roxanne Christensen, Co-creator of SPIN-Farming, an online learning series on small plot commercial farming that has helped hundreds of new farmers get started in business throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Roxanne Christensen, Co-creator of SPIN-Farming

Sustainability has gone beyond a buzz word among policymakers, planners, and politicians and is now spurring plans for significant changes in how U.S. cities function. Producing food for residents within city borders has become a cornerstone of these plans. Some cities are considering or have actually implemented initiatives that require meeting a percent of their food needs through local food producers. This has very positive implications for entrepreneurial urban farming. But so far, what urban agriculture has been most successful at growing are non-profits.

Currently, urban agriculture is a movement driven by advocates who take pleasure in food growing as part of a lifestyle, or activists who are passionate about combating the negative effects of our industrial food system. Urban “farms” are social programs that happen to grow food, and urban “farmers” are non-profit employees. Ironically, a point that has gotten lost amid all our zeal to reconnect with the source of our food is that farming is an occupation. It requires talent, training, knowledge and business savvy. It is no different than any other highly skilled profession.

The next important step for cities that are trying to reap the benefits of urban agriculture is to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding local food into viable farming businesses. This will require training a large and diverse number of residents in urban farming and microenterprise development and getting them up and operational quickly.

At SPIN-Farming, which is an online learning series on small plot commercial farming that has helped hundreds of new farmers get started in business throughout the U.S. and Canada, what we have seen is that new farm businesses track the experience of any other small business startup. For the hundreds that make it, thousands fail. Success is a numbers game. The more people who can get their hands in the dirt, the more who can be identified as having what it takes to become professional farmers. The more farming talent that can be developed, the more new farm businesses will be created. As commercial urban farming becomes more commonplace, it will again become obvious where real food comes from, and why it is better. This will expand and solidify the already rapidly developing markets upon which sustainable local food systems need to be based.

All the many community gardens and non-profit farms that are sprouting up around the country are natural initial proving grounds for aspiring professional farmers, and they can be used to channel the most promising candidates into formal training programs. But to train urban farmers in traditional farming methods is only setting them up for failure. By pretending that the economic reality of farming is the same as it ever was, many current training approaches are not harnessing the economic power and vibrancy of local agriculture. They teach farmers to work, but not successfully. They teach them to produce agricultural products that lose money, instead of emphasizing products that serve our country’s urban and suburban customers and their desire for fresh, healthy food. They teach farming methods that conflict with urbanization, rather than leveraging its advantages.

For the farming profession to become attractive and accessible to many more people, it needs to be recast as a small business in a city or town, and the SPIN-Farming system shows one way  this can be accomplished. SPIN stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive, and it makes it possible to earn significant income from land bases under an acre in size by growing common vegetables. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and operating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the two big barriers to entry for first generation farmers – land and capital –  and shows how to incorporate agriculture into the built environment in an economically viable manner.

While most other farming systems focus primarily if not exclusively on agricultural practices, SPIN emphasizes the business aspects and provides a financial and management framework for having the business drive the agriculture, rather than the other way around.

Growing the ranks of successful commercial urban farmers will take more than training them in appropriately scaled farming systems. While SPIN-style farming greatly reduces the amount of land needed for crop production, land access remains a challenge. Cities need to establish formal procedures for prioritizing disposition of their significant banks of vacant and underutilized land for farming use. Policy commitments to commercial agriculture, technical support, start-up financing and market development also need to be addressed. While this may seem like a lot of moving parts, the necessary resources already exist. It is a matter of re-focusing and redeploying them, and coordinating their delivery. This is the traditional role of incubators, and many exist in the farming sector that can be adapted to an urban context.

The good news is that urban farm incubators may require little or no logistical support from cities beyond rhetorical pronouncements and reforming an ordinance or regulation or two along the way to lift obstacles to commercially farming city land. The primary technical and financial support for setting up a farm incubator program can come from other stakeholders, such as local businesses, property owners, farm material and equipment manufacturers, citizens groups, churches, elementary and high schools, junior college vocational training programs, foundations, banks and other financing institutions, State and Federal agencies, and agriculture extension organizations. What is crucial is a lead agency that can identify, recruit and coordinate partners in the incubator and oversee and manage the delivery of services.

The time is ripe for the professionalization of urban agriculture. It will then not only deliver the social and environmental benefits touted by the advocates, but it will also be an industry that generates significant economic benefits as well.

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