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Urban Farms Are Popular, But Can They Be Profitable?

Although popularity and trendiness can be big boons to business, many urban farms haven't yet found a way to thrive in the market economy.

Sean Hagan shoves a digging fork into the soil and pries out a bunch of carrots. He ties the bunch together, then stops and looks across the crops to another farmer calling for his attention. She holds a gnarly root in her hand.

“Do we have something against large turnips around here?” asks Sonya Ciavola.

“I have something against turnips in general,” Hagan says. He’s not fond of their taste.

On a gloomy February morning, the blond, 29-year-old Hagan trudges through muddy row crops growing on six acres of agricultural land operated by Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, a nonprofit farm in Sacramento, California. Soil Born has two other acres for pasture and plans to plant a three-acre fruit tree orchard this fall.

But this isn’t exactly the bucolic landscape typically associated with farming. The fields sit on the outskirts of a residential area. Down the street is a high school, as well as a shopping center with a Dollar Tree, grocery store, and gas station. A check-cashing business is nearby.  

For all its uniqueness, Soil Born Farms illustrates a larger national urban agriculture movement. In recent years, urban farming has become all the rage. Farms and community gardens in city centers seem to have struck a chord with an American public increasingly hungry for fresh, local, organic produce. Urban food plots have become media darlings, profiled in The New York Times Magazine and O, the Oprah magazine. They are attracting big grants from major philanthropies and enjoy the support of chefs at upscale restaurants.

City farms are sprouting in all sorts of unlikely places: in empty lots next to apartment complexes, across from high schools, and in old industrial centers. Sizeable food-production plots have sprung up in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Milwaukee, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. The Food Project in Lincoln, Massachusetts involves more than 100 teenage farmers annually. Brooklyn boasts Added Value in the working class Redhook neighborhood. Phoenix has the aptly named Urban Farm.

Although part of the broader sustainable food phenomenon, many of the country’s urban farms seek to tackle issues that Whole Foods, with its relatively high prices and affluent customers, is not addressing. The urban farm movement aims to take control of food production away from large-scale industrial agriculture and root it within local food systems that attempt to ensure food access for the urban poor. Often located in low-income neighborhoods, many city farms operate off the basic premise that healthy, affordable food is a basic human right. “Food justice” is the mantra of most, if not all, of the organizations in the urban farming movement. That means serving the estimated 14 percent of Americans who experience food insecurity – 49 million people who are unsure where they’ll find their next meal.

Yet urban farming’s potential to address the challenges of our food system remains unclear. Although popularity and trendiness can be big boons to business, these urban farms haven’t yet found a way to thrive in the market economy. Most rely heavily on volunteer labor and grant funding. They may be at the forefront of ecological sustainability, but economic sustainability eludes them. And that’s a problem because they are unlikely to fulfill their aspirations and make a meaningful dent in the problem of food insecurity if they are forever running on the treadmill of foundation funding.

“The most fundamental question is about scale,” says Brahm Ahmadi, co-founder of People’s Grocery in Oakland.

By “scale” Ahmadi means the ability of urban farming projects to satisfy the demand for sustainable food that exists in a given community. According to Ahmadi, in many food-insecure neighborhoods 60 to 70 percent of food dollars are spent outside the community. Most urban farms are able to close only a fraction of that gap, about 10 percent.

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