How to Know You're an "Urban Farmer"

Whether one is a so-called “urban farmer” or not may be more nuanced than you think. It might have much less to do with one’s geo-location than with the proximity of neighbors, available cultural opportunities and mindset (read: attitude).

Urban farming need not be defined by the city limits. As the urban/suburban interface blurs, what defines an urban environment also loses definition. It may have more to do with Board of Health regulations, zoning, noise ordinances and similar issues than with population density, vertical development and municipal government.

Whether one farms in the ground, in CONEX boxes (“freight farms”), on rooftops or hay bales, in raised beds or high tunnels, farming is production for market no matter the medium or technology.

In this day and age, unless you live in a legislated Right-to-Farm community, you could consider yourself an urban (if not urbane) farmer. Unless you live someplace where production agriculture is still part of the norm, where government regulations favor or protect your efforts and/or where neighbors understand and appreciate your work, you are, in effect, an urban farmer. As soon as external politics and/or cultural sensitivities begin to dictate where, how and what you grow, you pretty much share many of the same issues, insecurities, irritations, and limitations as your city-sited brethren.

So, how do you know you are one? There is a short list of critical criteria. The first is that you are a bit lonely on your farm. There won’t be any familiar farm-y noises, save any livestock you may be sheltering. Your neighbor might have a riding lawnmower, but that is likely the limit of their equipment. You won’t be able to call down the road for help with a blown hydraulic line, never mind to borrow a temporary replacement.

Second, your field crew will speak a plethora of languages you probably only vaguely recognize, or they speak fluent English but as novices, they'll likely need a lot of instruction. No matter where you farm, your labor pool will be made up of those either hungry for work or those hungry for basic skills development.

Third, because your farm is likely a non-conforming land use, some people will have different ideas about when it is OK to work, what is a neighborly land use and whether or not you should (heaven forbid) spray. Organic practice will be de rigueur (but you will still have to convince some neighbors that you are not trying to poison them anyway).

All that being said, contrarily, you will have a ready market likely within walking (if not pedaling) distance from your establishment. You will have a small plethora of restaurateurs who want your produce and name on their menu. You will become instantly popular with every PTA in the area and you will be deluged with incredible opportunities to do good by doing well. Your ability to reach out and effect positive change for children and adults will be difficult to estimate. Such opportunities will only be limited by your time and energy.

There will be 10 to 15 neighborhood farmers’ markets within a five-mile radius, and you will never be able to grow enough produce, eggs, flowers or meat to satisfy the burgeoning demand for fairly priced, high-quality fare. You will likely also be deluged by well-intentioned young people who want to volunteer on your farm, and you may be lucky enough to knit their availabilities into a blanket of full-time equivalents to get the requisite work done on time.

So, if you are feeling oppressed by onerous misunderstandings of various sorts, but have almost unlimited market opportunities, if your marketing network is a mix of worldly and insecure, if you feel like the proverbial fish out of water, then you are likely an urban farmer by default of your demographic, not your jurisdiction.

What an amazing opportunity to nourish your neighbors and the planet, demonstrate how much can be done for so many on such small acreage and have a love affair in a life-affirming style. Whoever declared that urban farming wasn’t possible was obviously dead wrong, because it is the major growth sector in the Massachusetts economy.

This story appeared in the Fall 2016 issue.