Urban farms are exploding in popularity across the country. No matter the size of your city, you can bet someone is taking advantage the space in a vacant lot or an empty rooftop to grow fresh produce. Chicago has become one of the most popular cities for urban gardening, and entrepreneurs there are innovating in growing methods like agroponics in abandoned warehouses. In smaller cities, like Little Rock, the urban gardening trends are taking off in schoolyards and large lots in busy neighborhoods. Today, we talk to two farmers about the hurdles to starting an urban garden in small and large metro areas.
Founder, owner of Verdura
Sara spends her days designing, installing and maintaining onsite culinary gardens for hotels and restaurants, typically on the roof. She uses good old-fashioned dirt and irrigation systems to grow specialty items that restaurants would normally order in bulk and most likely sacrifice freshness and product in the process. She says growing in Chicago has its issues.
“It’s hard to compare to other cities. It’s not as jam-packed as New York — there’s actually a decent amount of space here, and I see a lot of urban farms popping up indoors and in warehouses,” she said. “Space availability can be a challenge to source, but there is a lot available. Certain areas are a bit more compact and clustered but there are a lot of areas particularly on the south and west side that have lots of open land. That may be part of the reason the urban farm movement in Chicago is very prevalent.”
And even if you found a vacant lot, chances are your efforts would be hampered by poor soil quality.
“If you’re going to grow in ground, you have to get the soil tested, because most likely it has high levels of lead. So, you’ve probably got to build raised beds and put a barrier down and bring in fresh dirt.”
She says city gardening generally means fewer bunnies and pests, but urban gardeners will encounter other rodents. And while rooftop gardening may seem glamorous, access to those high spaces can be tricky. She feels fortunate when a hotel has and elevator with rooftop access, but she’s also had to haul dirt and supplies up a ladder and use lightweight materials.
“Most of these buildings are very old. I always have to calculate weight and provide it to the client and they make that final call. Generally, if I’m on top of a roof, I use super lightweight container soil like Good Dirt.”
She faces red tape when it comes to liability and the hazards of working on rooftops.
“My insurance dictates a few things with regard to liability and walking on the rooftop, and the restaurants I work with have insurance,” she said. “You’re setting up a farm, and the food is going to be brought down to a restaurant. I would never start setting up projects on top of roofs without thinking of the liability aspects. You want to be cautious.
Her clients are interested in growing specialty items, like rare edible flowers, they would not find in a farmers market.
“They would normally order from a company and have it shipped. That’s expensive to do and it doesn’t travel well, or you’re ordering in bulk and a lot of it is wasted,” she said. “A rooftop garden provides the opportunity to harvest as much as they need, and harvest right before they’re ready to utilize it. And for people who are dining, they know these things were grown right above my head or right outside the door. And it’s a nice way to promote that and bring it full circle.”
Felder Farm Little Rock
As cars and city buses barrel down busy Woodrow Street in Little Rock, the tall tomato plants of Felder Farm draw the attention of neighbors and commuters. In addition to his stalks of tomatoes, he’s growing eggplants, peppers, and flowers.
“Everyone tries to stop and talk to me about these tomatoes. I cause trouble with traffic sometimes. People want to stop right there,” said owner and farmer Nathanael Wills pointing to the street. “I tell them to pull off in the driveway,” he said with a laugh.
He’s been urban farming for five years and admits he’s made his share of mistakes, everything from figuring out drainage and runoff to spacing and timing of plants. He said that’s why most urban farmers will suggest newbies work with an established farm or on rented land before they try it on their own. For Wills, Felder Farm began as a school project, but when the school closed he found a home with a large lot and moved his farm there. But the lot was overgrown with weeds and shrubs and trees, so clearing it was, and still is, a hassle.
“We had to cut out a ton of trees and privets and slowly beat back all the weeds. We still have pretty bad weeds. Underneath every piece of ground is tons of interwoven roots, and we had to bring in soil, and that would be silly in a rural farm.”
Not long ago, he spent a week with a rented excavator pulling up stumps just to make an additional 25-foot bed, something a traditional farmer probably wouldn’t do.
“But it’s worth it to us because of our location. It takes me one minute to get to my farmers market. So that’s a huge advantage,” he said. “So, in the end, I chose to spend all that effort to make one extra bed.”
His city farm, and limited space, also dictates what he plants.
“I can’t grow sweet corn or melons or winter squash, because those are things you need a ton of space for. I’m still learning which crops it makes sense to grow. That’s a huge learning curve,” he said. “You’re not going to be an urban farmer and grow watermelons and do well. So, I’ve got to grow more specialty things, I grow a lettuce mix and things like that.”
The other problem he has to face, sometimes things walk away from the farm.
“People definitely steal stuff,” he said. “I had someone steal almost an entire compost pile, a dump truck load, so always joke with the rural farmers at my market like, ‘I don’t think y’all have those kinds of pests.’”
Sometimes he’ll face an inadvertent code violation with a greenhouse or something else unexpected, but he thinks his farm ultimately adds to the landscape of the community, and he’s all in. Totally committed.
“You can’t just grow five or six blueberry bushes, you have to be all in. It doesn’t do me any good to grow 10 feet of flowers, you have to learn flowers and be into flowers,” he said. “And flowers are a great thing, and I think it helps the community when people drive and see the blooms. It looks good.”