Abundant Benefits from Small Plots: Urban Farming

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Can you start a farm on a city lot? What do you need to know to be greens.jpgsuccessful? Urban farming isn't just a scaled-down version of conventional agriculture--urban farmers have struggles and opportunities that are uniquely their own.

Last fall,  PA-WAgN toured urban farms in Philadelphia to help urban growers explore farming in the city.

At Greensgwro, we talked with urban farmer Mary Seton Corboy, who had some advice for new urban farmers. 




Urban Farm in inner-city Philadelphia is a pioneer in urban agriculture. On a site that was once a toxic post-industrial brownfield, Greensgrow founders Mary Seton Corboy and Tom Sereduk built high tunnels, raised beds of compost, and hydroponic plantings. Greensgrow also developed green energy projects like green roofs; composting and vermicomposting; and biodiesel produced from local restaurant waste oil.

flower-bouquets_1_1e103.jpgGreensgrow's latest project is a community kitchen used for producing value-added farm products, teaching cooking classes, and even taping a local foods cooking show. The community kitchen is also an important addition to the CSA program designed for low income customers; they are able to pay for their discounted CSA shares with food stamps and share in nutrition classes held at the community kitchen.

When we interviewed Mary Seton Corboy, she explained that the farm has evolved over its 13-year history. "Thirteen years, in terms of urban farms, is practically forever," Mary said. When she first began farming, she sold hydroponic lettice primarily to restaurants. Now the farm is primarily a nursery and collaborative CSA with a community kitchen and has over $900k in yearly sales. Through the CSA, Greensgrow is an entry point for other new farmers who want to reach urban consumers.

Advice for New Farmers

Mary had a number of suggestions for prospective new urban farmers:

• Value the fact that farming is a Holy Trinity: it's creative, physical, and has a social conscience component. Unlike many people, at the end of the week you know what you've accomplished--food and flowers for people. That physical hands-on aspect of farming is worth a lot.

• Consider that your neighbors probably will not understand what you're doing or why you're doing it; i.e., why not just go to the Thriftway? So an important part of your job is educating them.

• Be prepared for significant difficulties accessing capital and land. Also be prepared for environmental problems on the land that may require raised beds or hydroponics. Just about all urban areas have some level of contamination. Greensgrow involved Penn State Extension to help determine how best the land could be used. You must be creative in meeting these challenges.

• Identify your market. Like all farmers--urban and rural--you must market the crop before you grow it. Mary was fortunate to have a background in the restaurant business, which helped her in developing restaurant clientele. Remember that 50 percent of farming is selling what you grow.



Your Feedback:

If you attended the field day, and/or would just like to talk about the topic of urban agriculture, please leave a conment below. You can also post your photos or videos to share with others.


Other Resources

Beginning Farmers: Comprehensive site for new and experienced farmers

City Farmer: Resource Centre on Urban Agriculture and Forestry

Brooklyn Food Coalition's Urban Farming and Gardening Resources

YouTube Video made by CBS at Greensgrow



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Thanks linda.There is great need to inform women of the changes they can bring through urban agriculture. may you send me some articles on women's contribution to urban agriculture. Iam doing a university study on the role of women in urban agriculture.


I believe that urban farming has a great future. One of the challenges faced was mentioned in the article--having the space/land to grow your crops. Also, winter weather can negatively impact urban farming (as well as country farming). For this reason I feel that indoor hydroponics, using grow boxes and grow tents, may ultimately be the real story behind urban farming. There are two main benefits: 1) you control the environment and 2) you can get by with a footprint of eight square feet.

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