Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” by Michael Ableman (Chelsea Green, 2016).
The question of what to grow is one that requires some understanding of the community you are serving, the level of skills you have as a farmer, existing markets, local climate, scale, availability of skilled labor, and access to and cost of water.
I always advise to begin by producing those foods you like to eat; you’ll naturally do a better job growing them. If you are just beginning, you may want to focus on salad greens and root crops and expand your product mix as you build your skills and confidence.
Chances are that your product mix will be dictated by economics and by space. Limited urban space requires that we choose products that will have the highest financial return from the smallest area. Some of this is informed by regional differences, but the real edge comes when you are the earliest and or the latest to come to market with certain crops. Being the earliest at the market forges loyalty, being the last one to have something provides lasting loyalty. Both early and late often bring higher prices.
It is also essential to choose a small body of what I call “signature crops” that you become known for and that you evolve and perfect the production of. These become the crops that you make a commitment to supplying with consistent quality for the full range of the growing season. It is all too common for a less experienced grower to show up and sell a crop for a week or two, never to be seen again. Your customers want to be able to depend on you. Their loyalty will come when you can show up week after week with a dependable base body of certain products.
It is invaluable to informally survey local farmers markets, stores, restaurants, and CSAs and find out what is already available in your area. While it is true that you will likely find many similar products among growers, it is also true that the quality and varieties of those products will vary a great deal. Take that information, blend it with your comfort and skills, and then consider the production space you have available to create a list of six to eight items that you feel you can grow consistently over the whole season. Do not be intimidated by producing something that is already available if you think you can do it differently, more consistently, or earlier and later.
Always remember that unless you have zero financial needs, you will have to look carefully at the crop mix you select relative to its cost of production and its value in the marketplace. It is likely that the cost of production in the city (due to infrastructure and labor costs) will be higher, so consider that as you choose your product mix. What products can you grow in relatively small spaces that will provide the highest yield and the highest financial return per square foot?
I also make a practice of visualizing my display tables at the farmers market or my availability lists to restaurants when I am ordering seeds or producing a crop list. What is the relationship of the crops I am choosing to each other visually, in their culinary use, and in terms of rotation, soil fertility or space demands? Imagine your display and how it will look while making this list and while ordering seeds. How can I stand out at the farmers market or in the eyes of a chef? What can I do that will be unique?
Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” by Michael Ableman
Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.