How to Start an Urban Farming Business and Eliminate Food Deserts

How to Start an Urban Farming Business and Eliminate Food Deserts
April 28, 2020
According to research by the United States Department of Agriculture, about 23.5 million people live in food deserts. Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options like fresh fruits and vegetables is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away. However, avoiding and eliminating food deserts is easier than you think! By starting an urban farming business, you can help eliminate food deserts while improving your local community and environment overall. An urban farm is not just a business opportunity, but a way to give back to your community. Interested in starting your very own urban farming business? Let’s look at the steps you need to take to start your own urban farming business and improve your neighborhood and local community.

What is Urban Farming, and Why Does it Matter?

Simply put, urban farming is growing or producing food in a city or heavily populated municipality. While growing food in cities is not a new concept, interest in urban agriculture is growing. That’s because consumers are seeing how far food travels to get to their plate and they increasingly want to shrink their carbon footprint by improving their access to fresh, locally grown food. Many urban farms have started to bring food justice to urban communities by bringing access to fresh food to economically disadvantaged communities. However, some are built as for-profit businesses, recognizing that the savings on food transportation can make urban farming financially viable as well as more environmentally responsible. What distinguishes urban farming from community gardening is that urban farming is a business, while community gardening is not. A community garden is on a municipal or private piece of land. People who use it generally take what they grow for personal consumption. Urban farm owners sell their crops to grocery stores, at a farmer’s market, to schools, hospitals, or local restaurants. However, the idea is to keep these healthy local-grown foods in the community. This helps eliminate food deserts, helps local economy grow, and creates healthier communities. The average urban farmer sees sales revenue of just under $54,000 a year. Farmers with hydroponic operations can earn an average of more than double that amount, while rooftop farmers earn just one-sixth of it. Also, farmers are eligible for subsidies from the federal government. Additionally, based on the size of most urban farms, it’s possible to start your business as a side hustle while you work a full-time job.

How do you Start an Urban Farming Business?

If you’re thinking about starting an urban farming business, then your business journey may be starting from the heart. While that’s very honorable, you’re going to need to turn that idea into a business plan. It sounds easy: get an urban plot, buy a greenhouse, get some seeds or plants, and start growing. However, there are many steps you need to take before you start your business. Start by defining the mission statement of your urban farming business. Outline what you want to achieve, how you expect your farm to change the neighborhood, and who it will impact. As important, ask yourself how your farm will give back to the community. Once your mission statement is in place, you can ask yourself the following business-based questions:

1. How do you Fund an Urban Farming Business?

First and foremost, you will need funding to start an urban farming business. The good news is that money does, kind of, grow on trees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been loaning millions of dollars to entrepreneurs who want to create urban farms. Also, there are several federal, state, and local grants available from non-government organizations. In addition, there’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program. A brownfield is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. The program empowers states, communities, and other stakeholders to work together in a timely manner to prevent, assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfields. It is estimated that there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S., and they may offer a great opportunity for urban farmers. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment. Many grants are available for the redevelopment of brownfields.

2. What Will You Need to Buy?

Before you request funding for your urban farming business, you need to calculate all your costs. From land to equipment to seeds, there are a lot of things you will need to buy, rent, or lease. This Microsoft Excel template can guide you, or you can create your own based on your startup needs. Let’s look some of the major start-up and startup expenses that you’ll incur:

3. Property Lease, Rental, Purchase, and Soil Testing

If you’re lucky, you already own a piece of land that’s ready to till. If you own property or can lease or rent space from family of friends, then you’re ready to start. If not, then it’s time to find some land! There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re looking for a place to start your urban farm. First, is it in or near a food desert? The closer you are to customers, the less fuel costs you’ll incur when you haul produce to market. Also, how big is the property? As a first-time farmer, you may want to use less than a quarter acre to start. However, more land will give you room to expand, store equipment, add a greenhouse, and even rotate crops. Additionally, how much sunlight does the property get? The amount of sunlight your property gets will determine what you can and cannot grow outdoors. If the land is shady, but the roof is flat and sturdy, you can garden on the rooftop. Is there a building on the property? Whether there’s a house or an industrial building on the property, it means there is access to water and electricity. It also means you can easily water plants, and even run a hydroponic system on the rooftop or indoors. Furthermore, if you plan to grow in the dirt, the soil must be tested before you buy, lease, or rent any property. Even if the property is not identified as a brownfield, can be found in urban soil, and will be costly to remove. Also, good fences make good neighbors is more than just a proverb. You will need to fence your property to keep trespassing animals and humans from pillaging your crops. Then there’s insurance: general liability, product liability, commercial automobile, and workman’s compensation are just a few of the types of policies you will need.

4. What About Rooftop Farming?

In certain metropolitan areas with premium space, such as New York City and Chicago, rooftops are a popular choice for urban farms. Many buildings in these cities already have existing green roofs that are ready to be used for farming. Green roofs are covered with vegetation and soil and have a built-in drainage system. Rooftop farming is also a possibility atop buildings that do not have green roofs. For example, hydroponic systems make it possible to farm indoors or on a rooftop using just constantly circulating water. Hydroponic systems use less water, less space, and make harvesting more efficient. However, hydroponic systems have a high upfront cost and aren’t practical for growing every type of plant. If you prefer good old-fashioned dirt, you can also farm on a rooftop using raised beds, pots, and buckets. Rooftop farming has several advantages. For example, there’s less likelihood of animals like rabbits or deer eating your crops. Also, there’s less chance that a human will steal your harvest. What’s more, rooftop farms can retain up to 90% of rainwater, which can in turn increase production and growth. While your crops will get more direct sunlight on a rooftop, that can also create a disadvantage. Rooftops create more heat, so a greenhouse will be a must if you want to control sunlight and temperatures.

5. What Tools, Equipment, and Storage Will You Need?

From tillers to shovels to gardening sheers, a lot of gardening equipment is needed on an urban farm. You’re also going to need outdoor storage areas, workstations, hoses, processing equipment, and more. Greenhouses can be vital to creating functional and viable urban gardens where growing vegetables and fresh food can be difficult. Greenhouses allow to create a temperature controlled environment that is more efficient and easily regulated in order to ensure adequate growing.[vc_row_inner][/vc_column_inner]
ShelterLogic has developed a wide variety of greenhouse units that are adapted to various growing needs. The ShelterTech High Tunnel Greenhouse is a customizable greenhouse unit that can be used in large scale urban gardening and community gardening. Learn more here.
[/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner]Safe food handling and storage is necessary for the health and safety of your customers. The vegetables you grow on your urban farm must be clean and stored at the proper temperatures. Therefore, your farm will need a hand-washing station, a separate post-harvest washing station, and packing station for storing your harvest. Refrigeration is also needed to keep your produce stored at the proper temperatures. Outdoor storage buildings may be necessary to keep your urban farm equipment safely stored and organizes. Metal sheds and fabric sheds are both excellent solutions for storing and safeguarding hoses and nozzles, farming tools, seed, and more. A fabric garage is excellent for protecting small ride-on tractors, or for keeping mulch and hay dry. Whether you plan to farm on the ground or a rooftop, a greenhouse is a necessary investment to protect crops. Greenhouses shield your yield from pests and surprise weather changes, and let you keep growing crops all year long. Also, portable canopy tents and pop-up canopies will be vital to your urban farming business. Both items are essential for providing you shade on the farm or for customers at the farmer’s market.

6. What Licenses and Permits Will You Need?

The licenses required to run an urban farming business will likely vary by municipality and county. However, any for-profit business would need to follow for a federal tax id and a state business license. The U.S. Small Business Administration can guide you through the process of obtaining those permits. At the local level, several different licenses, permits, and approvals may be needed to run an urban farming business. Zoning approval may be needed, as well as agricultural permits and home-based business licenses. In most cases, building permits are not needed for temporary structures like greenhouses or fabric or metal sheds or garages. However, it’s always a best practice to check local ordinances first. Also, you will most likely need local permits and licenses from the health department for proper handling and the weights and measures division to ensure proper pricing. In addition, you would need a certificate for sales tax collection, should food in the community be taxable.

7. What About Training?

Growing up on a farm or studying agriculture at a college or university are not prerequisites for running an urban farm. Continuing education classes on farming and agriculture are available in many communities. Online learning is also an option for people who want to learn more about urban farming. Another way to learn about farming is to offer your services as an apprentice. Learning online or in the classroom is one thing, but hands-on experience will really help you determine your next steps. It’s better to determine that life on the farm is right for you before you make the investment. Also, there are several tradeshows, conferences, and live events that are dedicated to the urban farming trend. You don’t have to travel far to find one, either. Apps like Eventbrite make it easy to find these types of events near you.

8. Help Wanted, Inquire Within

When you run an urban farm, you don’t have to be a one-man band. You can make it a family business and have all-hands-on-deck when you need extra help. You can also take advantage of the gig economy: hire temporary workers when you need a helping hand. But hired help options go beyond working in the fields. You may want to hire a farm stand clerk or manager, or someone who can get your crops to market. There also may be the need for an accountant to handle your books. Also, you may want a marketing specialist to handle your online and offline exposure.

The Urban Farming Trend is Here to Stay

Already cities and communities across America are discovering the benefits of urban gardening, reducing supply chains, and identifying more specifically where their food comes from. Urban farming is excellent for local communities as well as local economies. Follow our blog for more information about our urban farming and growers’ guide series.[/vc_column][/vc_row]