The problem is the solution.
Ever since I was a wee little lad I’ve wanted to be a farmer. The problem is that my wife pretty much refuses to ever leave the city.
That there is 4,000 square feet of black plastic. Within hours of “securing” it to the ground, as the wind steadily picked up, it became the bane of my existence. Any fool can plastic off a tiny little garden plot, but HOLY KRAP, it’s darn near impossible at this kind of scale. I doubt I’ll ever attempt this method again, but I’m all in at this point, after having spent $137 for the two enormous sheets. Yes, you guessed it, this is the first big capital expenditure for my new urban farm. There. I said it.
Limitation is the mother of creativity. Lacking the support of a spouse to ever move out to the country and farm “some day,” I’m going to give it a go right now. Ironically, urban farming has the potential to be far more profitable than any misguided attempt to purchase significant acreage anyway. So, you see, the problem just might be the solution in this case.
I’m not bearing the burden of the high cost of land, and I’ll have plentiful access to city water right out of the tap. Locally Laid, by contrast, was forced to punch a well to the tune of $16,000 when they started. Just to access water…
I’ll be doing small plot intensive farming, with a goal of being multi-locational at some point. Multiple plots will spread out risk in a variety of ways that I look forward to:
- A diversity of micro-climates. This is surprisingly significant. One or two miles of distance from Lake Superior can mean a 20 degree difference, or more.
- The ability to run away from pests by moving all of the crop in peril to another location.
- If forced to move from one location, it wouldn’t mean complete failure for the business.
Alas, I won’t have such luxury this year. I’m still learning, and this one plot presents an intimidating challenge all by itself. There’s another 1,000 square feet not pictured that I plan to farm. Here’s a stripped down business plan:
- Put some seeds in the ground.
- Grow some food.
- Sell it.
Yeah, it’s gonna be hard as heck. I know. Especially the first year with weeds in particular, since I’m kind of rushing this. Plus, since I literally just started this excruciating process of killing the grass, I’m losing a ton of the growing season. Sigh… You’ve got to start somewhere. I’m pretty much over fear of failure. Failing to try is what really scares me.
Last November I interviewed Duluth’s newly elected Mayor, Emily Larson. After I mentioned that I had been laid off from a corporate job and was finding my way in the wilderness, she asked what sort of work I was looking for. I hemmed and hawed for a good long time. Finally, I stammered out, “I dunno, but it has to be something rooted in the community.” Thus, I’m continuing down this rabbit hole of integrating our family into a hyper-local economy.
Commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans, are unworkable in the city. However, quick growing produce that has a high yield per square foot can work (greens, radishes, beets, etc). The location is a fairly chilly one, so a primary focus on greens seems like the best strategy. My goal is to produce the freshest, best-tasting, most nutrient-dense salad ingredients in the city, while building soil and relationships in the process.
Startup costs are almost always significant when beginning a new business, but taking land expenses out of the equation is a game-changer in the agricultural world. I still will need to invest in copious amounts of compost, a sturdy cargo trailer for my bike, fencing materials, and much more. Here are some other needs. Please let me know if you can help, have any leads, etc…
- Refrigeration. I’ll probably be needing a large walk-in cooler at around 4′ X 4′ X 6′, but I’m open to other options.
- A beefy tiller. I’m planning on renting one for a day, but really it’d be nice to borrow one from somebody for a couple weeks or even a month. I’d be happy to pay $50 – $100 for the privilege. This way, after initial tilling, I could allow weeds to germinate for a week and plow them under again. Doing this a couple times, followed by some flame weeding at the end (perhaps another rental item?), would do a lot to stem weed pressure later on. I’ll move to a no-till strategy after initial setup.
- I have another 1,000 square feet to prep while killing the sod. I really love sheet mulching, but it’s not terribly practical at this kind of scale. I’d love a dump truck load of organic material in various states of decay, however! I thought about running chickens on a portion of this space for a season, who’d do much of the prep for me, but I think I’ll eschew this option due to its potential (unlikely as it may be) to bring conflict into valuable, newly forged relationships.
- I think I’m going to haul in compost one load at a time, which’ll save about 25% on the cost, but this might be completely stupid. I’ll need a minimum of 10 – 12 yards. I’d love to invest in more, but since I don’t own this land, I need to keep the cost down on inputs while being diligent to regularly amend the soil (I’ll also us organic fertilizers).
- Bike trailer ideas. Ideally, I’ll be able to not only haul tools, but also produce to market.
- I could really use a core group of customers in the Lakeside neighborhood. Even 10 families, committed to buying the freshest, most local produce available anywhere, would be a fantastic foundation upon which to grow. I might consider joining the downtown Duluth farmer’s market, but there are costs and logistical concerns to be resolved. Also, what is it that you want to eat? Not only do I offer you some great “beyond organic” produce, there is the potential of friendship and community. I’m pretty stoked to use some creative marketing techniques to round out the customer base, but really look forward to some core eaters who will regularly take produce off my hands and delight in it. I’m not starting a CSA. You’ll buy what you want, when you want it. What are the ingredients of your ideal salad? I’m even considering microgreens, and am open to dabbling in experiments.
- So, Hell just might have frozen over. I think I might need a smart phone in order to effectively pull this off (we’ve held out with our landline all this time), but I need to see $800 of value to justify the hefty annual cost. This is a big step for us. I hardly know where to begin, but do know we’d get an iPhone. Jeepers. Some corporate sponsor would be nice! You never know. It’d make a story for them (Amish-like fellow steps into the 21st century and frequently shares how it has proven to be a useful tool…). I’m not holding my breathe on that, but I could use some direction from somebody knowledgeable (which, LOL, just might include the rest of the human race).
I plan on being pretty transparent about this venture. Because I think it’s intensely interesting, I’ll even share gross income and net profit when all is said and done. Over time, and this might take some time, I’d like to demonstrate that small plot farming can be a viable career (or, as in my case, one leg of a stool that supports a family). Yes, I do realize that sounds a bit crazy.
We all can make this world a better place by passionately doing what we love and really believe in, and by really investing in the land, people, and community around us. Rather than get worked up about national politics, I’m planting a garden. What can you do that’s tangible, rather than send out rants on Facebook? Gandalf the Gray’s comments, from The Hobbit, seem appropriate:
Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.
Finally, I’d love to chat with you about anything and everything this Friday night. I’ll be joining Teague Alexy and friends onstage as part of a music, spoken word, and storytelling show at Teatro Zuccone. Check out the Facebook link for details right here.