Backyard Growers Cooperative Demonstrates Community and Economic Development Potential of Urban Farming
October 26, 2016 | Karen Briner
Scott Henley, the urban farmer behind the backyard growers cooperative Whisper Farms in Pasadena, CA started the endeavor with the aim of finding out whether it would be possible to farm a small backyard plot that would generate enough revenue to offset the opportunity cost of not working a traditional job.
“I wanted to see if I could turn what for most people would be a source of consumption in a house, into one that at least balances out and is producing something,” he says.
Henley does not come from a farming background, having studied political philosophy in graduate school; but an opportunity arose that allowed him to move into a family house in Pasadena and start his farming project. Then, in short order he learned about aquaponics and other farming techniques, and set up an urban farming operation.
Henley points out that the farm started off really just trying to make ends meet, but he’s shown that it is possible to make a living as an urban farmer with a small backyard space.
“We’re not entering the Fortune 500, but we’re able to cover our costs and make a modest profit,” he adds. “And so I think that for people in some situations it might be something they could consider doing.”
Whisper Farms, the cooperative which Henley nows runs, grew out of his urban farming efforts. It began as a collective of backyard growers, who sold their produce to farmers’ markets and restaurants, and donated a percentage to local food banks. It has since evolved into a more organized business endeavor in which the group of small plot urban farmers has banded together to sell produce under a shared LA County Department of Agriculture producers certificate. This allows Whisper Farms’ farmer members to share the cost of one certificate. More importantly, though, it has enabled the backyard urban growers that make up Whisper Farms to aggregate and sell produce at new markets where individually they would not have sufficient volume to participate.
The cooperative is hyper local, serving Altadena, Pasadena, Sierra Madre as well as neighborhoods in Northeast Los Angeles. Initially Whisper Farms sold its produce to a number of different restaurants, but the cooperative has since developed more of a peer-to-peer model that includes bartering with neighbors and friends, as well as selling at a few local farmers’ markets and to two restaurants.
The challenge in setting up the cooperative has been working with different people and figuring out a way that they could all proportionately share the costs while enjoying the benefits. Henley is interested in financial sustainability and over time some people wanted to participate at different levels and that required some coordination.
At the moment the cooperative is comprised of Henley and a friend, who lives a couple of towns over, with Henley serving as CEO of Whisper Farms and his mother serving as president. The size of their combined land is less than two acres and they use aquaponics to sustainably grow a wide variety of leafy greens, ranging from watercress to lettuce. The majority of their crops are grown in soil, and while they’re not certified organic, they follow organic practices and don’t use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Henley estimates that the operating cost for his urban farm is around $400 – $500 a month, and he says that someone operating a small plot urban farm similar to his could earn about $3000 – $4000 a month selling the produce. He adds that maintaining that production level and schedule is not easy.
Henley says there has been a good response from the community. In Los Angeles there’s a growing enthusiasm for producing your own food, which has helped Whisper Farms to participate in a larger dialogue about food and where it comes from. Henley points out how fifty years ago, growing your own produce was something that almost everyone knew how to do, and he hopes more people will rediscover this way of living.