Urban Farm Models
Below are five different urban farm models that can work for a commercial urban farm operation farming on ½ acre or less.
I have run my farm at various sizes and scales over the years, and a lot of the models in this part are based on what I have tried. Some (like the Small Farm Broker) are ideas that I think would work but have not yet tried.
I have done some brokering before and still do a little bit, but this is a model which I think would be a great option for someone wanting to operate on a very small land base, like ¼ acre or less, and still have the potential of pulling in a six-figure gross income.
How to Start on Less than $10,000
One quarter acre of land or less is the right amount to start with if you don’t have any previous experience in farming. Taking on too much land is the number one mistake I see new farmers make. On ¼ acre, you have the potential of making $50,000 from the land itself, but if you incorporate some greenhouse or indoor microgreens, you could make that number considerably higher; this all mostly depends your market streams.
Understanding your market is the key to success in farming. In order to spend less money on startup, you’ll need to spend more time looking for deals on your major investments to save cash.
If you can give yourself six months prior to starting, like I did, that should be enough time to build the infrastructure you need, prep some land, and look for the best deals on good used equipment. Depending on how populated the area you’re in is, you may have to do some traveling to find the best bargains in used equipment.
I purchased a BCS tiller with three implements for $1,000, and I bought my first walk-in cooler for $1,000. If I had bought both of those items new, I would have spent $8,000 more. The point here is to shop around.
Also, use craigslist or other sites to post what you’re looking for. I found my BCS because I made a post saying that I was looking for one. The $7,000 I spent in my first season covered all of my major investments, seed, tools, irrigation and fertilizer.
If you want to achieve ambitious revenue from ¼ acre or less, then you need to have access to high-end restaurants and good farmers markets. You will also need to specialize in the crops that give you the highest return on the smallest amount of land, in the least amount of turnover time. This means a little less diversity in crop selection.
On the other hand, if you’re going to farm ½ acre or more, you’ll need to broaden your market reach, unless of course you have access to a lot of restaurant market streams. Unless I could act as a broker, I would consider operating a CSA only on ½ acre or more.
The advantage of catering to restaurant markets is that you can grow large quantities of vegetables that have high margins. For example, I grow a lot of baby root vegetables like radishes, because some of my customers will go through up to a hundred bunches a week. I pretty much exclusively grow them for restaurants. I can sell up to 200 pounds a week to all of my clients on a weekly basis, but there’s no way I could sell that many at the market, or even in a CSA. I’m lucky to sell 20 bunches on a good market day. You learn over time what sells and where.
Some items (like Swiss chard and kale) I sell better at the market than to my restaurants. It takes a little time to learn what products do the best in each area; this is why taking notes on spreadsheets is so important. You need to continuously update this information and leverage it over time to make your production and sales as effective as they can be.
The models below are scalable. For example, it would be possible to start as a part-time farmer, growing in your own backyard, and then, once you get some experience and feel comfortable quitting your day job to pursue farming full time, scale up to the Micro farm or Small Farm after a year. From there, you can continue to scale it as you see fit.
The biggest challenge when scaling up is finding the right help, getting people who are willing to work at least close to your level. Anyone who is an employer will tell you that you’ll never find anyone who will work as hard as you do, and for the most part, they’re right. The key is finding what level of output is acceptable. I have found that the best employee will work at 85% of my output level— and that’s really good, like best-case scenario.
You have to accept the fact that nobody will work as hard as you because they don’t have the incentive that the farm owner does. If you can create incentives such as pay bonuses based on production or revenue targets, then I think you can increase that percentage to some degree.
$21,600 Part-Time Farmer in Your Own Backyard
An ideal situation for anyone would be to keep your day job for a year or two, perhaps scale your hours back a little bit and run a farm on a part-time basis. This way you can give yourself some comfort and security in knowing that you don’t have to go in head first. I will say, though, that jumping in head first makes you learn faster because you have a lot more skin in the game.
But I understand that not everyone is willing to take that big a risk at first. This model is for people who see themselves in that position. One tenth of an acre— around 36 beds at 30 inches by 25 feet on one piece of property— would be an ideal size.
Ideally, your own front and backyards or maybe somewhere really close to home (like right in your own neighborhood) would be your farm. If you were to run this farm with all HR beds growing Quick Crops, it could gross $28,800 in a 30-week season.
But, I would recommend diversifying your crops to give yourself experience with growing a variety of different things. Thirty-six beds at half BR and half HR could still generate $21,600 in a 30- week season. The outcome for this model is less about maximizing profit and more about learning systems so that it can be scaled up at a later date.
To run a farm in this way, you have to focus on market streams that are less risky and take less time in customer service: that’s primarily farmers markets. Because most markets run on weekends, this makes it possible for someone with a Monday-to-Friday job to do a lot of work on the weekends and evenings and successfully operate this model.
It might be possible to try and market to restaurants a little bit, but I suggest just small owner-operator types who you feel confident that you could supply. In this case you’re looking for places that will use small amounts, like an order of $60 per week, for example.
Also make sure they can be flexible with what they get, because when you’re learning, you will find sometimes things may be a little inconsistent. The challenge with catering to chefs is that they require more on the customer service end. Text messages and phone calls midweek are very common, and if you’re not available for those, it could make it more difficult to engage with those customers.
Realistically, you’d have to scale back your hours at your main job, for example, Monday through Wednesday 9–5, and then working an hour or two in the evenings or early mornings before work. And then Thursday 12–5, so you have time in the morning to harvest what you need for market. You’d need to have Fridays almost entirely off, or a really short day of a couple hours, because if you were to sell at a Saturday market, you’d need most of Friday to process and package all of your product.
I have seen small families with children and couples make this type of farm work quite well. The more collective support you have, the more options you have for when the farm work can get done. You’ll need to be able to commit at least 20 hours a week plus a half day at a farmers market in order to make this model work.
$58,800 Microfarm on 1/10 Acre
Farming on 1/10 acre could be running a farming business at your own home in the suburbs or urban lot. If you had a front and backyard that was a total of 4,356 square feet, that could be enough land to actually run a farming business from home.
With this model, in order to maximize profits, you must only focus on Quick Crops and Hi-Rotation; this means growing only crops like greens, radishes, turnips and some herbs, and turning those beds over at least four times in the season.
At this size of farm, you would have around 36 total beds and about 10 inches for the walkways between the beds. If all these beds were in HR, the income potential is $28,800 from just the field crops alone in a 30-week season.
This number could get higher by using greenhouses for the field crops and microgreens. If you could produce and sell 50 flats of micros per week at $20 per flat, it would be possible to gross $58,800 from a lot this size. Also, if your season is more than 30 weeks (which is the average for North America), the possibilities are greater.
The risk with this model is that your products and market streams are very specialized. So, your success is based on being able to cater to some very niche markets and being able to move all the ten or so crop varieties you grow. A farm like this might work well in a larger city area where you have access to some very high-end restaurant markets that are willing to buy only specific things from you.
In no way would you be a one stop shop for anyone, and that means that you have to accept the fact that you’re catering only to the specific needs of your clientele— and not even their basic ones. The other risk here is that because the scale is small, your restaurant customer base will also be pretty small, meaning that you are reliant on a small handful of customers to support you.
If you were to lose some of those customers, then your income could be compromised very quickly. These are some of the risks involved in primarily focusing on the restaurant markets. Sometimes if a certain chef leaves, then you have to go back and try to establish a relationship with the new one.
I have had customers in the past that spent $1,000 per week, and then the next season the restaurants changed concepts and chefs, and they were basically gone as customers. Some diversification with customers is important, but it’s even more important to build good relationships with your clients and constantly keep your eyes and ears open when communicating with them.
Running a farm at this scale could be a full-time job for one person working at least 40 hours a week. The microgreen production would be close to 15 hours per week alone, and the rest of the time would be spent on the field crops, processing and delivering. If you were able to only sell to restaurants and not bother selling at a farmers market, then that would save you an entire day’s work standing at a market booth.
The crops I recommend growing for this model are arugula, cilantro, baby dill, salad turnips, baby lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, baby red Russian kale and baby spinach. All the greens I mentioned, except spinach, should be mixed together for a variety of salad mixes, and the spinach and arugula could also be sold on their own.
Try different mix combinations to market as different products. Mustard and arugula together form a “spicy mix,” for example. Grow microgreens such pea shoots, sun shoots, radish shoots and some specialty microgreens such as purple opal basil, cilantro and anything with bright color.
Pea shoots and sun shoots are common within the health food community, and this makes it possible to produce a lot of those and market them to that demographic. Radish shoots and specialty microgreens are popular in restaurant markets. $87,000
Small Farm on ¼ Acre
Farming ¼ acre is the perfect place to start if you are new to farming, and you are prepared to make this your full-time job. To achieve the highest potential gross income from this model, you will most likely have to employ at least one other person, part-time or full-time, depending on how much time you are willing to commit. In this model focus on Quick Crops and Hi-Rotation areas.
No Bi-Rotation crops like tomatoes or summer squash would be grown!
However, it would be possible to a have up to four beds of kale in here without affecting your income negatively. On ¼ acre, you would have around 90 beds with around ten-inch walkways between the beds.
If you’re growing in a cold climate, I’d suggest using either poly low tunnels or high tunnels to push the season longer. With very few season extension techniques, you should be able to market for 30 weeks if you are in most places in North America except for climate zones of 5 or lower.
In those climates, a 20-week season would be reasonable. Ninety beds in HR can generate $72,000 in 30 weeks or $2,400 per week on average. If you were to add some microgreen production to this model, you could bring in a considerable amount more income. If you just targeted 25 flats per week at $20 per flat for 30 weeks, you could bring the total gross up to $87,000, and if you were to be a little more ambitious and produce 50 flats per week for 30 weeks, it would be possible to gross $102,000 from this ¼ acre.
The crops I’d recommend growing are turnips, bok choy and radish bunches, arugula, baby red russian kale, spinach for loose greens and lettuce, mizuna, mustard and tatsoi for greens mixes. You could also add red russian and arugula to those mixes as well. Bunch herbs such as baby dill, cilantro and parsley for sale. You could also grow kale for bunches to add a little more variety.
Grow microgreens like pea shoots, sun shoots, radish shoots and some specialty varieties for restaurants and farmers markets. The market streams I would encourage are a balance of farmers markets and restaurants, and look for the possibility of providing some niche products into another farmer’s CSA.
I wouldn’t recommend running your own CSA at this size, because there is not enough variety in your products. The advantage of this model is that you are growing a small diversity of crops, which offers you more marketability in both farmers markets and restaurants. So, this scale of operation would allow you to broaden your customer base a little more easily.
$123,000 Semi-Diversified on ½ Acre
One half acre is the largest amount of land I’m going to propose farming. Anything beyond this, you’re getting more into rural farm plans that people like Jean-Martin Fortier or Eliot Coleman put forth in their books.1 Half an acre is a lot of land for an urban farm; in most cases, if you’re focusing on high value crops, you’ll most likely exceed what your markets will bear, so you’ll have to offer a wider variety of products. Also, with a farm this size, you’re going to have to have an employee or two. This model is not recommended for anyone new to farming.
Operating ½ acre would be for those who already have a season or two under their belt. It would be possible for a farm this size to be operated by two full-time people if they were co-owners. You might have some temporary help in the summer months for help with market prep on Friday, but for the most part, two experienced people could farm ½ acre and still balance life and workflow. This much land would allow for 180 beds.
I’d recommend farming an equal amount of HR and BR beds and all of the crops I list in Part 10, with some indoor or greenhouse microgreens as well. With this much production and crop diversity you have the ability to market to a fairly wide customer base, including restaurants, farmers markets, and perhaps to operate a small CSA program.
Even at ½ acre, the primary value a CSA program offers to an urban farmer is the up-front cash at the beginning of the season, not the income it brings. With a larger farm, you will have higher overhead costs, especially start-up costs.
Your fixed costs for seed, labor, fertilizer and transport will be considerably higher, and you will have to be very careful to make sure that expanding to this size of farm is actually worth it. If you can operate at this size and still pursue high-end markets, then any extra costs will be absorbed by your extra profits.
However, if you have to engage a lot more lower-yielding market streams like CSAs and more days at the farmers market, you might still be making the same net profit at the end of the day. The key to expanding a farm is understanding what your market demand is and if there is room to grow. If you are saturating your markets, then expanding your operation is pointless.
If, however, you’re selling out at the farmers market every week and you can’t seem to grow enough for your restaurants, then those are obvious signs that you can expand to meet demand. I find the best place to be is where you’re almost meeting the demand, but not quite. It’s better to sell everything every single week than to not sell 15% of your product. I’d rather be 5% short than have 5% left over.
Every time you go home with product from the market or are producing too much, then you are working for free, and that really cuts into your lifestyle and bottom line. Part of what has allowed me to have such a great work/life balance is the fact that I pretty much sell everything I grow. This way, I’m never working without getting paid.
Originally posted 2020-08-08 11:54:28.