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Celt's Garden - Thoughtful essay on urban agriculture in Boston

" The third reason, she said, is that we’re paying more attention to the structure of our cities. Rust Belt cities that formerly relied on manufacturing, such as Detroit and Cleveland, “were in a state of utter catastrophic fall.” The land in Detroit is relatively inexpensive because there is no market for it, Tumber said, making agriculture a viable use. Another appeal of urban farming is that “people are losing confidence in the food system,” Ladner said. They are “realizing how perilous it is and how fragile it is and how broken it is, and they’re starting to wonder what the heck will happen when it breaks down.” 

Full article: http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/fenway-kenmore/2012/12/the_spro...

The article points out the challenges of creating a realistic business model for urban agriculture. The author has a lot of good points, including the legacy of industrial pollution and the regulatory hurdles.

My take on it is that trying to make a profit, much less a living wage, from urban farming misses the point. By now, a vast number of people have found out that growing their own provides fresh, delicious food which they may not be able to buy, because they can't afford it or they live in a food desert or they can grow much higher quality veggies than they are willing to pay for. Just knowing what's in the food on their plate is worth the effort for many people.

Trying to make a living from urban gardening means facing all the usual challenges of leveraging a hobby into small business ownership. Anybody who has ever tried to leverage their excellent skills at massage, house cleaning, jewelry making, photography, car repair, jam making, catering parties, or even plumbing into a legal business knows all about it. Regulatory hassles and problems finding the right scale are not unique to farming. 

Most of our excellent skills are used for ourselves, our family, our friends and our community service activities. Gardening doesn't just improve our lives. Gardening often provides a surplus. This is a wonderful opportunity.. to give it away. Most of us are not going to have enough at the right time or put in the work to connect with our market to sell the surplus. But, we can use it to build and strengthen the connections in our social network. 

Excess food is a great social lubricant. It is also a way of building reciprocal connections in the gift economy. This is not exactly barter, although it can be. Barter is something you do on the spot with people whom you don't know or don't trust to reciprocate later. The recipient of your excess jam who returns the clean jars, excellent, that's polite of them. The jam recipient who calls you six month later to glean their apple tree, keep that friend. They get it. 

There is some actual cash to be made in niche crops. The article quotes Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City, "Carpenter believes the only practical business model is growing a specialty cash crop." This is highly seasonal and requires advance work and keeping up your customer list. If you have cherries, hops, basil, pears, eggs, seeds, starts, or suchlike, it's totally doable to make a little cash on the side to subsidize your gardening habit. Most people are going make whole tens of dollars, but it's worth it for the connections alone. 

I found that when I worked at selling herb and heirloom tomato starts, my best year grossed a few hundred dollars, which was enough to break even on gardening overall. Business crashed when heirloom tomato starts became widely commercially available. And here is just another pitfall of leveraging a hobby into a side business: the nano-capitalist has neither the facilities (greenhouse) to go for economies of scale nor the motivation to quickly switch to another product and chase the market when even Wal-Mart has heirloom tomatoes now. So these days I grow starts for my family and long time customers, now friends, who request them.

Happy holidays and happy garden dreams! See you at the 5th annual Bellingham Seed Swap in January.

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