Puzzle pieces laying over a city building.
Updated: March 17, 2021
By Neith Little

Introduction

It’s been raining for weeks, the weeds are strangling your crops, it seems like there are fewer customers at the farmers market every week, your landlord just called to say your rent is going up, your summer helpers decided they would rather work indoors, and on top of it all that unrealistic Extension Agent keeps bugging you to write a business plan.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If it does, you’re not alone. Surviving the day-to-day challenges of farming can be overwhelming, leaving you exhausted and struggling to remember why you started in the first place.

As Extension educators with a combined 96 years of experience working with farmers, we have seen a lot of farmers struggle with this paradox. We want to see farmers succeed, and we’ve seen too many burn out or go out of business. That’s why we wrote this book, to help you figure out how to move from reactive crisis management to proactive risk management.

Risk management

Risk management is proactive planning so that you can make the most of opportunities and minimize the impacts of threats.
For example, adopting preventative pest management strategies can reduce the impact of pests when they do occur, reducing the impact of a threat. Conducting market research can enable a grower to identify which crops and products are in high demand relative to their supply, enabling the grower to take advantage of an opportunity. 

We also recognize that, compared with rural farmers, urban farmers face unique challenges. Urban farmers often produce a dizzying number of different crops at multiple small locations; draw income from alternative enterprises like agritourism and value-added crops; and want to use their farms to achieve diverse financial, social, and environmental goals.

That’s why it was important to take the time to listen to urban farmers about what has worked and what has not worked for them. In focus groups, we asked urban farmers what financial success looks like to them, what strategies have helped them achieve their goals, and what strategies did not work as well for their urban farming realities. We incorporated that input, as well as results from surveys and interviews of urban farmers in Maryland, outcomes from learning activities at Urban Farmer Field Schools, and input from urban farmer on the rough draft of this guidebook, to craft the tools and information you’ll find in the following pages.

The purpose of this guidebook is to help current and aspiring urban farmers move from crisis management to proactive risk management. As an urban farmer or urban ag entrepreneur, it’s easy to spend all your time putting out metaphorical (or literal!) fires, triaging your To-Do list and chasing that fabled big grant or trendy new crop that you hope will solve all your financial problems. But by investing the time to clarify your goals, and what steps you need to take to achieve them, you will be better able to achieve financial stability and prevent yourself from burning out.

If you’re new to urban agriculture, please read the “What is urban ag?” section next.

But if that sounds too introductory, please skip to the Goal Setting exercise, which will help you make the most of this guidebook.

What is urban agriculture?

Interest is high in urban agriculture, with many not-for-profits, businesses, municipalities, and individuals launching urban agriculture ventures. These individuals and organizations engage in urban agriculture to achieve a range of lofty private and public goals: to improve their own health and economic situation, to improve food access in their communities, to create income and jobs, to beautify their communities, to educate about gardening and farming, to create a feeling of community, and to provide ecosystem services for their communities (Santo, Palmer, & Kim, 2016).

But what is urban agriculture? How is urban agriculture defined by government agencies and researchers? What does urban agriculture look like in real life? What production systems and business models do urban producers use?

What is the definition of “urban agriculture”?

Urban agriculture has been most concisely defined by Wagstaff and Wortman (2013) as “all forms of agricultural production (food and non-food products) occurring within or around cities.”

Government agencies and the peer-reviewed literature have reached a consensus on this broad definition of urban agriculture, which includes all production in or near cities of plants or animals, whether for personal use or for sale, whether soil-based or hydroponic (Diekmann et al., 2016; FAO, 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer, Dimitri, & Pressman, 2014; USDA, 2016). Agricultural production near cities is further defined as “peri-urban agriculture” (Diekmann et al., 2016; Hendrickson & Porth, 2012; Oberholtzer et al., 2014).

What is the definition of “urban”?

Because urban agriculture includes a broad variety of agricultural production systems unified solely by their location in and near urban areas, defining “urban” becomes necessary to defining “urban agriculture.”

Most definitions of urban and rural areas are based on measurements of population density and land use, but different branches and agencies of the United States government use slightly different thresholds and scales to

delineate between urban and rural areas (John & Reynnalls, 2016). Both the USDA-Economic Research Service and the Office of Management and Budget define rural and urban at the county level (Cromartie & Parker, 2018; Donovan, 2015). This can be helpful in identifying counties where land prices and markets are likely to be influenced by nearby metropolitan areas (Heimlich & Anderson, 2001), and thus where agriculture might be considered “peri-urban.”

However, for the purpose of defining urban agriculture, the US Census Bureau’s Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters are more useful (Ratcliffe, Burd, Holder, & Fields, 2016), because they are defined and mapped at a more fine-grained scale (Figure1). 

At the local level, zoning boards often differentiate between locations prioritized for urban development or for rural open space preservation. These zoning maps can also be helpful in defining urban agriculture (Figure 2).

Map of urbanized areas in Maryland, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau
Figure 1: Urbanized Areas in Maryland, as defined by the US Census Bureau. Map made by Neith Little, using open-access mapping software Grass GISand TIGERLINE shapefiles provided by the U.S. Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/geo/maps-data/
Figure 2: Urban Rural Demarcation Line in Baltimore County, MD, as mapped by the Baltimore County Planning Department: https://www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/planning/index.html
Figure 1: Urbanized Areas in Maryland, as defined by the US Census Bureau. Map made by Neith Little, using open-access mapping software Grass GISand TIGERLINE shapefiles provided by the U.S. Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/geo/maps-data/

What does urban agriculture look like?

Figure 3: Outdoor urban agriculture can be done in raised beds or containers, in-ground in native or imported soil, and in high tunnels or hoop houses. Picture taken at Whitelock Community Farm, Baltimore, MD by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 3: Outdoor urban agriculture can be done in raised beds or containers, in-ground in native or imported soil, and in high tunnels or hoop houses. Picture taken at Whitelock Community Farm, Baltimore, MD by Neith Little, UMD Extension.

Urban agriculture encompasses a broad spectrum of production methods and business models. Production systems can be broadly categorized as

  1. Ground-based outdoor urban gardens and farms (Figure 3)
  2. Hydroponic or aquaponic indoor production (Figure 4)
  3. Rooftop gardens and farms (Figure 5)
  4. Landscaping and nursery businesses
  5. Urban livestock

More detail about different urban agriculture production systems will be covered in Chapter 1: Urban production systems.

Figure 4: Basil grown hydroponically in a modified shipping container at Urban Pastoral, in Baltimore, MD. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 4: Basil grown hydroponically in a modified shipping container at Urban Pastoral, in Baltimore, MD. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 5: Okra growing on a retro-fitted green roof at Up Top Acres, in Washington, DC. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 5: Okra growing on a retro-fitted green roof at Up Top Acres, in Washington, DC. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
 

Similarly, urban agriculture encompasses a spectrum of business structures:

Buisness structure diagram


Many personal and community urban gardens exist, but for-profit and not-for-profit urban farms also grow crops for sale or distribution. Whether they are organized as for-profit or not-for-profit businesses, most urban farms include benefiting their communities among their goals. Not-for-profit urban farms might focus primarily on producing healthy, affordable food for their community, or on employing community members who face barriers to employment, while for-profit urban farms often use a “Robin Hood” business model, selling high-value crops to chefs and at farmers markets in order to be able to subsidize selling produce at affordable prices to their neighbors. Urban agriculture can be economically important to the grower, whether by producing food for personal use, creating supplemental income through a “micro-enterprise”, or enabling urban residents to start businesses and become entrepreneurs.

Additionally, much grey area exists between gardening and farming. For example, “market gardening” is a term for a type of small-scale market-oriented production: growing a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits on small plots for direct marketing to local customers. And some community gardens are experimenting with Community Supported Agriculture subscription programs, whereby community members can access food either by the sweat-equity method of working in the garden, or by the market-based method of buying into the garden.

Those doing urban agriculture use a variety of words to describe themselves and the work they do, but usually government agencies and academics differentiate between gardening and farming by whether money changes hands. As soon as a product is sold for money, or a person is paid to do work, additional legal responsibilities begin to apply to an urban farm, related to regulations, taxes, and liability. More information about legal topics important to urban farmers will be covered in Chapter 4.

The rest of this guidebook will be written with urban farms in mind, with “urban farmer” defined as anyone who grows or raises agricultural products in an urban area, for sale, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.

Urban farms usually “direct-market” what they produce, that is they sell directly to their customer through farm-stands, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and direct sales to restaurants and institutional customers. Economies of scale, and proximity to customers, means that selling to wholesale distributors is less economically viable for small-scale urban farms than direct-marketing produce to urban customers. More information about markets and marketing of urban farm products to which urban farms sell their products will be covered in Chapter 3: Marketing challenges and opportunities.

Literature cited

What does success look like for you? Setting goals for your urban farm

What does success look like for you? Setting goals for your urban farm

Having clear, concise, prioritized goals is the foundation of success. If you don’t know where you want to go, you will not get there.

Having clear goals is also a necessary pre-requisite to risk management. There is no one right way to be an urban farmer, no one right set of choices for everyone, because everyone’s situation, values, and goals are slightly different. Being able to verbalize what success looks like to you will help you weigh risks, rewards, and the time and resources available to you, and make informed decisions.

Please take the time to work through this section.

Start by putting your goals into your own words below, then use the prompts on the next page to refine your goals.

Then use the last page as work-space as you read the book to identify concrete actions you can take to work towards your goals.

For simplicity’s sake, this section will use the word “farm” to refer to the urban agriculture operation. You could ask the same questions about a garden, landscaping business, or other urban agriculture endeavor.


In your own words, what is the purpose of your urban farm? What does success look like?

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Prompts to refine your goals:

Prompts to refine your goals

What does financial success look like?

  Goal for five years from now
 

Current status

Minimum necessary to continue

Ambitious but realistic goal

Your salary      
Number of people employed      
Hourly wage of lowest paid employee      


What other large expenses does the farm income need to cover? __________________________________________________________________________

What role should the farm serve in the community?
For example: employer, workforce development, gathering space, place where people can grow their own food, source of affordable food, source of high-quality food, education, beauty.

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Who in the community should benefit from the farm? ______________________________

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How should they benefit? ______________________________________________________

What environmental services can the farm provide?
For example: storm water management; habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife; shade; improved air quality

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When these goals inevitably conflict, what is the one most important goal that you would be unwilling to sacrifice for the others?

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Use this space to re-write:

In your own words, what is the purpose of your urban farm? What does success look like? ­­­­

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What actions will you take to work towards your goals?
For each chapter you read, come back to this page and write down one action you will take to improve the stability of your farm and get closer to achieving your goals.

  What achievable, concrete action can you take? How will this action move you closer to achieving your goals? What steps do you need to take to achieve this action?
Chapter 1: Production systems Use row covers to exclude pests before flowering Preventing insect damage will increase marketable yields, which will help me produce more food. It will also reduce the need for spraying, which will protect beneficial insects. Purchase row cover fabric, read or watch videos about how to effectively use row covers, train others, monitor for pests getting past the row cover, remove the row cover before crops flower.
Chapter 2: Economic assessment
Fill out a cash flow spreadsheet
Identifying the points in the year when cash is short will help me know when financial problems will arise before they happen, which will help me plan ways to keep everyone employed. Identify sources of income, identify expenses, gather data from last year if available, estimate where necessary, identify most helpful data to collect going forward.


Write your own:

  What achievable, concrete action can you take? How will this action move you closer to achieving your goals? What steps do you need to take to achieve this action?

Chapter 1: Production
systems
 
     
Chapter 2: Economic assessment
 
     
Chapter 3: Marketing
 
     

Chapter 4: Legal
risk management
 
     
Chapter 5: The human element
 
     
Click here to download Getting Started Worksheet (pdf)
Click on image to download pdf document "Getting Started Worksheet"