Mar 9, 2012

Urban farming - take the city's survey

(The following is a contribution from Chris Bajuk about the benefits of urban farming for sustainable livelihoods, and sound business practices. Posted 3/09/12)

Imagine a future where you know where your food is grown, can actually see it being grown and where the majority of your produce comes from farms within five miles of your local grocery store.  Urban farming holds promise for providing a sustainable supply of fresh produce to city residents.  A sustainable farm will meet all three facets of the triple-bottom-line:

• People - Farming proximate to the locus of demand affords urban residents new employment opportunities.  These jobs cannot be outsourced.  Municipalities benefit from increased payroll and sales tax revenues and increased property values and utilization of underutilized land space.  Hourly wages for part-time farm hands may be in the $12-15/hr range.  Salaries for full time support positions range from $30,000-$80,000 per year, depending on position and size of the farming business. Local farming also provides excellent educational outreach opportunities for urban schools, colleges, and youth programs.  The City of Seattle recently released an online survey for residents to fill out to gauge interest in using vacant City-owned land for farming.  Some of the questions pertain to educational outreach.  The City’s goal is to encourage urban farming and help educate its residents.  The survey is open for anyone to take: City of Seattle Municipal Lands for Agriculture.   

• Planet - Farming locally reduces the logistics in getting produce to market.  The average item of produce in the U.S. travels 1500 miles from farm to grocery store.  The cost of transportation can account for up to half the price of a head of lettuce in the retail store.  Also, conventional agriculture is the largest user of land and water, the greatest source of water pollution, and the second largest source of carbon emissions.

• Profit - A sustainable farm must be able to sustain itself financially and generate returns for the farmer and shareholders.  Some successful examples of urban farming come from the non-profit and civic sectors, but they do not grow sufficient quantities of produce to meet demand. They rely on volunteer laborers and donated land used on a temporary basis, so the farm cannot install the type of fixed infrastructure necessary for year round production (i.e. greenhouses).  A for-profit farm, in contrast, hires employees and provides training to maximize productive output. They have long term rights to use their land through lease or purchase. The high upfront cost of installing greenhouse systems counterbalances some of the risk by creating larger yields and more efficient production. When their produce is sold within a short distance, local farmers can capture significant cost savings.

There are several, very successful companies currently engaged in hyper-local farming.  The following are a few examples that show how entrepreneurs can create value by growing food locally:

• Gotham Greens is a rooftop farming company in Brooklyn, NY. It operates on top of an old bowling alley and sells its produce to local grocery stores and restaurants. It started selling its produce last year and is already considering expansion. 

• Hantz Farms is the largest urban farm in the U.S. The founder is taking advantage of severely depressed land values to purchase blighted urban land and convert it to productive agricultural space.  Detroit’s city government is trying to downsize the geographic footprint of its municipal services coverage, so using the blighted areas for farming makes a lot of sense. It’s helping to create new jobs and educational opportunities for Detroit residents and the output is a healthy product: fresh vegetables.

• Bright Farms is one of the companies trying to completely eliminate the food supply chain. Their farms will be co-located with urban grocery stores. The produce they grow will not require any fossil fuels to reach market. Instead, their produce will move a few footsteps. 

Chris Bajuk is a graduate student at the University of Washington.  He completed an MBA in June of 2011 and will complete a M.S. in real estate in June of 2012.  Along with an MBA classmate, Chris is starting UrbanHarvest, a hyper-local urban farming business with operations in Seattle and surrounding areas.  He is using his urban farming business concept for competing in the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge and the UW Business Plan Competition.

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