In the US, it was once commonplace to see vegetable gardens and small-scale farms in urban settings. WWII victory gardens once grew nearly 40% of the country’s produce, and farm animals ran loose in city streets. Over the decades, the divide between urban and rural became more stark, as the US agricultural system moved drastically towards monocultures and large swaths of urban gardens were replaced by high rises and urban sprawl. This divide and its causes are detrimental to not only the planet, but to our communities, food systems, and relationship with our food itself.
Luckily, urban farming is coming back.
I spoke with Lindsey Beatrice, founder and head farmer of Meant to Bea Florals, an urban flower farmette in Boulder, Colorado. We chatted about the benefits (and limitations!) of urban farming, how to get started in a small space, and why urban farms are more beneficial than you might think.
Tell me about your farm! How did you get started with urban farming?
I have always loved flowers. I was a botany major, and always thought I would work with plants, but didn’t really know in what capacity. Of course this first season I did have to till, but after that I want to use no-till methods and plant a mix of perennials and annuals for better soil health. I’m using native perennials to support native bee populations, and drip irrigation to reduce water usage. I mainly sell direct-to-consumer through farmers markets and local retailers.
When you think “urban farm,” I think a lot of people don’t realise you can have just a small plot of land in your backyard. Can you tell us a little about how you found land?
I think that a lot of people are interested in using their yards for something other than a lawn. I connected with a woman in my town through Nextdoor who was willing to let me use her yard and well water for free. So if you can find people who maybe are elderly and not able to take care of their yards, or are new homeowners and don’t really know how to do anything with their gardens, or they want their space to be used for something but they don’t want to do it themselves, that’s the sweet spot.
From an environmental standpoint, what do you see as benefits of urban farming?
If you’re growing tomatoes for your neighbours and they’re only travelling 300 feet by foot, then you’re drastically decreasing the food miles of that item compared to something shipped in from another country. No matter what scale you’re growing on, you’re reducing the footprint of all of its inputs.
In terms of land, the yard that I’m using was just turf grass and weeds. By growing plants that flower, I’m growing things that support not only honey bee and native bee populations, but also hummingbirds and different types of butterflies. Especially if you’re growing veggies that need pollination, you’re probably going to plant a couple of flowers to attract pollinators. When you’re removing grass and adding different plants that are productive, it’s going from a monocrop to a more biodiverse system. If you’re growing perennials like asparagus, or different type of flowers, you’re also actively contributing to soil health because you’re making sure that roots stay in the ground all season, and that things are left in the ground at the end of the season so that birds and pollinators have habitat in the winter.
Has it been challenging growing enough to sustain a business on a small plot of land?
I think there’s this misconception that you need a ton of land in order to start, when, especially if you’re selling locally, even at just a local farmers market, you don’t need a ton of land to have a very productive crop. I think people don’t realise that if you do intensive plantings – especially for vegetables – you can grow a ton of food or flowers in a very small space. If you’re doing lots of companion planting, where instead of doing rows with a foot of space in between, you’re doing blocks where you’re planting tomatoes and basil plants and marigolds, you’re doing a lot more in a smaller space. My plot is probably only 1,300 square feet.
What do you think are some of the drawbacks of farming in an urban setting?
Luckily this isn’t a problem for my lot, but what if your neighbours are applying pesticides or herbicides that wash into your space? That’s a big one. In close proximity to other people, you don’t have control over what they’re using in their own yards.
People’s pets can be an issue–if you’re farming in someone else’s backyard and they have dogs or pets, that can be disruptive. And squirrels. It might be necessary to put a fence around it to keep out rabbits and squirrels and raccoons and things that would come and eat your veggies. If you’re farming in an urban environment in other people’s yards, it can also be a lot of driving, and it’s not super easy to be on top of things that need immediate attention. Since it’s not your land and you’re not living on it, it can be hard to diagnose problems quickly.
One of the big critiques of urban farming is that no matter how efficient you are, it’s nearly impossible to grow enough on rooftops or in backyards to feed an entire city. Why do you think it’s worth doing anyway?
If you have a community garden and you’re just growing enough salad greens for five of your neighbours for the summer, you’re not feeding them their entire diet, and that’s okay. I think for me the biggest thing about small-scale farming and gardening is creating a deeper connection for yourself and your customers with their immediate environment and the earth, and gaining a deeper understanding of what it takes to grow things. All of the effort that goes into producing food, all the water, all the labour, all of the things that farmers face on a larger scale–you get a taste of that on a smaller scale.
Let’s speak a little more about that connection with the earth. Why is that so important?
Starting small may feel like you aren’t doing that much, but if you think about it from a lens of helping your neighbours see: What does it take to grow food? How can we connect with the earth? What does it mean when we have seven days of 90 degree heat in a row? How does that impact what you’re growing? You can connect to bigger themes with climate change just by starting on a smaller scale. I think it helps both you and your customers gain a deeper appreciation for local food systems and local farms. Those main tenets of fostering a connection to the earth and to local food systems–that should be at the centre.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s trying to start an urban farm of any scale?
If you’re starting small, especially with veggies, pick a few crops that you can grow a lot of in the early, middle and end seasons. That way you have a good quantity of things but you’re not trying to grow 80 crops at once. Take it slow and then expand. If you’re ready to move onto bigger projects, look into your local resources for community garden space. Nonprofits or foundations in your areas might offer microgrants to people who want to start a community garden. Contact a local park and see if you can use a small space to grow food for free in the community. Reach out to your neighbours on online forums. I borrowed a farm tool from a neighbour simply because I saw it in their yard and knocked on their door.
And if you are using someone else’s land, have a contract. Make sure that you know exactly who is responsible for what. Do you have to pay to rent the land? Do you have to pay for the water? Are they entitled to a portion of the profits? It kind of makes it seem less wholesome, but it really helps you navigate conflict better and makes sure both parties are in agreement on the responsibilities.
From responsible food production to community connection, urban farms of all sizes offer a multitude of benefits. Urban farming may not be the sole solution to the many problems within our food system, but don’t underestimate what can be accomplished in backyards, warehouses, rooftops and vacant lots all over your city.
- Visit Lindsey’s website and social media to learn more about her regenerative farming practices.
- Support local growers by seeing if urban farms in your area sell at farmers markets or offer community supported agriculture (CSA) shares, in which individuals or families can pay at the start of the season for weekly produce boxes.
- Learn more about the history of urban farming.
- Make seed bombs to distribute in your urban area – there are tons of recipes online!
- Check out resources for land sharing like Lend and Tend.
- Participate in programs like WWOOF to learn from other farmers.
Featured image by Lauren Dunteman