Doing the math on urban farming

Urban garden

Urban gardening can save money, but start-up costs can be high if not done carefully. Image: Flickr / mat_the_w / CC-BY-SA

With food costs continually going up, front-yard gardens and urban farming are again in vogue. These city gardens are often touted as a way to save money. Some enterprising farmers, however, are trying to turn backyard gardens into full-fledged, profitable farms.

The argument for urban gardens

For a variety of reasons, urban gardening is gaining in popularity. Some homeowners see these gardens as a way of putting their property to work. Others use these gardens as a way to grow their own food the way they want to — organic, no fertilizers or to rock music twice a day. Urban gardens are usually billed as a way of saving money. The math seems pretty logical. Spend $5 on seeds and another $5 on equipment and get $50 or even hundreds of dollars or more worth of produce.

The math of an urban garden

Saving money with your own garden does make sense. The math of an urban garden is a bit more than seeds and water, however. Setting up an urban garden takes significant amounts of time and at least some monetary investment for the first year or so. First, garden space must be developed. Grass must be pulled out or killed, or raised beds need to be built, which costs $20 to $100. In some areas, testing the soil for mercury or lead is a good idea; that costs $150 to $300. Seeds must be purchased or acquired, which can cost $1 and $100, depending on what you wish to grow. Compost, if you do not have your own compost bin or pile, is another $5 to $20 per cubic yard. All in all, setting up an urban garden can cost as little as $25 or more than $500, plus hours of hard work. The good news is, properly cared for, a garden will cost significantly less in following years. Over time, an urban garden can save you significant grocery money. At an average cost of 55 to 60 cents per pound, a garden would need to produce 50 to 200 pounds of vegetables to break even, depending on what you spent to create it. Of course, cost is not the only consideration with gardening; there are many reasons beyond cost to grow your own food.

Turning an urban garden into an urban farm

Some enterprising entrepreneurs are turning urban gardening into urban farming. Rather than trying to purchase large portions of land outside a city and driving the food in, some businesspeople are using backyards of friends and neighbors as their farms. Sometimes, they pay a small rental fee. Other times, the farmers offer a basket of produce in exchange for using the land. This is not always a recipe for quick profit — one Canadian company, FoodCycles, points out:

Farming is like any other business — you need a marketing plan, a financial strategy, a risk strategy.


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