Urban Agriculture: Growing, Selling and Eating Locally
The recession has hit people hard. Many of us are either unemployed or underemployed, and with the rising cost of produce and meat, it’s hard to put dinner on the table every night. That’s why millions of people are taking to Urban Agriculture, which is an industry created in urban and peri-urban areas that produces and markets fruits and vegetables, as well as meats, in response to residential and local consumer needs. Many of the urban communities are called food deserts, areas that have no access to clean, healthy food; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food deserts are “…areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
Thankfully, with urban agriculture and urban farms popping up in residents’ front and back yards, and even on rooftops, food deserts are gradually disappearing. Places like Detroit and Cleveland, known for their factories and de-industrialization, are now becoming prime locations for urban agricultural projects—fresh water, low-cost housing, and available vacant land and empty buildings to use for farming are all prime advantages in the Urban Farming Movement. D-Town farm, located in Detroit and founded by the Black Community Food Security Network to produce fresh, healthy food, has farmed two acres of land that was previously used as a park. It’s now a thriving plot that grows 25 different vegetables. A recent study showed that Detroit could produce 76 percent of all vegetables and 42 percent of all fruit eaten in the city each year by introducing urban farming practices on 568 acres of land, which, coincidentally, is only a small dot in terms of the sprawl of the city.
Another large city taking advantage of unused urban space is New York City; one specific Urban Ag group leading the way is Brooklyn Grange. Started in 2010 by five friends and their family members, the group plopped 3,000 pounds of dirt upon a rooftop and ended up breaking even the first year by selling over 40,000 pounds of veggies to local restaurants and the public, via weekly farmer markets. Brooklyn Grange has grown so large that it now covers two acres of rooftop farms in Queens and Brooklyn, and has added egg-producing hens and honey-producing bees.
Many urban farms, instead of accepting donations and grants, work together with local restaurants to build partnerships, in which the restaurants would grow their own produce and/or use unused space for their restaurant’s garden. One such successful urban farming project is Riverpark Farm, located in Manhattan; it grows thousands of pounds of produce for the Riverpark Restaurant. The restaurant’s employees actually run the farm, as the farm is located in an empty space adjacent to the restaurant. In 2008, construction halted on the Alexandria Center for Life Science West Tower due to the recession, leaving a vacant lot in place. Riverpark’s owners had the brilliant idea of using the space to farm, resulting in Riverpark Farm. Now the farm manager, Zach Pickens, grows food out of a milk crate system that if construction ever resumes will be moved somewhere onto the Alexandria Center Tower. As for right now, Pickens grows produce into December and January by building little hooped houses over the crates to shield the produce from the cold and snow. Although the winter doesn’t produce as much food as the peak summer months do, Riverpark Restaurant is still able to serve beautiful, tasty salads year-round.
So, you’re an urban farm that’s trying to establish relationships with a few local restaurants, but don’t know how to start? Here are a few tips on how to sell small farm produce to restaurants:
- Think about the type of restaurants you want to target, and form a small farm business plan. Decide on payment terms, delivery dates, and where you will store the produce for the restaurants.
- Develop relationships by approaching restaurants directly and before the season starts of what you are planning to grow. Bring recipe ideas, your best samples, and examples of invoices and packaging, making sure they are all top-quality.
- Give them quality. Always be sure you aren’t bringing in wilted produce; be sure it’s fresh, clean, unblemished.
- Grow Extra. Make sure to have enough supply for a restaurant; overestimating a restaurant’s need is better than not having enough supply and suffering for it.
- Diversify markets. Sell in other places and markets besides restaurants, such as farmer markets. But try to develop and network among a handful of chefs and restaurants so you are known among the community.
- Keep good records. Don’t mean to go all IRS on you here, but keep a good system of invoicing and payments! And don’t pester restaurants that are past due on accounts, but be sure to keep a buzz in their ear that it needs to be paid.
- Always go the extra mile. Customer service is always number one. It doesn’t matter what business you are in, if you treat your customers, restaurant owners and chefs with respect and go out of the way to give them extra freebies and samples while delivering their other produce, it will go a long way with your established relationships. And those relationships could build onto other relationships with other known chefs or restaurants wanting to cook and serve local food, hopefully creating more business in the long run for you.
Whether you’re a grower supplying food for your family, an impoverished community, or local restaurants, Urban Agriculture is a growing movement that hopefully will be here to stay. So, if you ever felt like you had a green thumb but weren’t sure how to do it living in an urban area, check out many online sites that can help you get started, like Urbanfarming.org, A Starter Guide To Urban Gardening, and many more. Good luck and happy farming!