Urban Agriculturalist is a series on the ways city and suburb dwellers use their land as a food resource.
What would you say if a farmer knocked on your door and asked to rent your backyard to grow raddichio or sweet peas? My guess is, you might inquire about his medication. But renting backyards is exactly what Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan started doing when they realized that their small-scale urban crops fetched a far higher profit than the large-scale vegetable growing that they did on a 20-acre farm north of the city.
People can’t believe their success with urban plots, says Vandersteen, “They think it’s too much work, but the truth is, this is much less work than mechanized, large-scale farming. We used to have a tractor to hill potatoes and cultivate, but we find it’s more efficient to do things by hand.” With fewer pests and gentler winds, empty urban lots sound downright ideal. But how could it be more profitable?
The operation costs are really low. City water management provides irrigation, there is plenty of compost around, the urban setting repels pests, and the market is not far away. With only 1/2 an acre, meted out in small plots, all the harvesting can be done by hand. And because the plots are usually unused anyway, rental costs are minimal. Many people volunteer their backyards in exchange for fresh produce and those who charge do so minimally.
So, less work and more profit sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider the environmental benefits, including minimal transportation to market, reuse of developed land instead of cutting new forest, and less machinery used to cultivate. So far, there are two prototype half-acre farms, Philadelphia’s Somerton Tanks Farm and Wally’s Urban Market Garden in Saskatoon. But Satzewich and Vandersteen are trying to change that with their company, SPIN.
SPIN stands for Small Plot Intensive – a farming system that maximizes profits by focusing on one crop, one small piece of land. The company offers guidance to first time growers – referred to here as “first-generation farmers” – on how to maximize profits and land use. You can download farming guides based on your plans: there is one for hobby farming, which is based on a model of $10-20,000 gross annual sales for each 1/8 acre; or you can get a guide for the Deluxe Farm Model, a $65,000 operation on 1 acre of land. There are specialty guides for different crops – leafy greens, salad mix, garlic, flowers or carrots and potatoes. Along with technical advice, SPIN offers guidance in marketing, work schedules or investments for the would-be urban farmer.
Hopefully this idea will catch on. With a smart, franchise-inspired business plan and a significant amount of money to be made, we could all see a spike in local, homegrown produce in the near future.
(Photo Courtesy of SPIN)