Sitting under the hand-painted sign for Milwaukee’s Riverwest Community Garden School is a small bin of organic, green peppers and a sign that says, “free.” Janice Christensen, one of the garden school’s administrators, clips lettuce greens for her dinner from one of the 24 raised beds.
A few blocks away, another urban farmer, Nick DeMarsh, tends to a row of yellow, crimson and orange nasturtiums. Honeybees whizz from one edible flower to the next, taking up pollen and drinking nectar from deep inside the horns.
Farther south by 6th and Howard, the Farm Manager at Sugar Bee Farm, Carolyn Mello, checks over her variety of gourmet mushrooms. A building that once made pipe organ instruments is now a venue for urban agriculture. Within a few dank rooms, bright pink and ghostly grey mushrooms bloom like corals out of bags of straw. Atop the roof is an apiary surrounded by an ecologically friendly green roof.
All of these farmers have different approaches, but they’re each trying to bring fresh and good produce to the consumers who want and need them. A recurring challenge for many of them is that urban farming does not bring in much money. Many of these urban farmers are dependent on land from the city, grant money, volunteer work and fundraising to get off the ground. Although there is potential for economic gains, these farmers are not motivated by fortune but an inner richness instead.
If you’re looking for the next Bill Gates of urban farming, you’re not going to find one. Traditionally, farming has been a low paying job. So why should we expect any different from an urban farmer? If your goal as an urban farmer is to make money, start small, stand out and be creative. Urban farmers must find their own ways of adapting to a market saturated by the products of large scale California farmers.
One of those businesses is Sugar Bee Farm. By offering rare and unique edible mushrooms, they have found a niche in the Milwaukee’s food scene. In a small building located appropriately in the city’s Garden District, the farm is able to turn out a harvest every five weeks. At this rate they are able to provide their mushrooms to area restaurants, farmers markets and grocery stores. In addition to the mushrooms, Sugar Bee’s apiary produces honey when the hives allow it. The farm also functions as a compost and worm-casting producer.
While the mushrooms are awe-inspiring, being a farmer here is a full-time gig. Farm Manager, Carolyn Mello, spends an upwards of forty hours a week working at the farm. She also manages their website, social media and networks with the farm’s customers. Networking is a crucial part of being an urban farmer if you wish to sell your goods. Forming relationships with restaurateurs and farmer’s markets develops a fan base and reputation for your product. In order to work with restaurants, a farmer must provide a consistent quality product on a consistent punctual basis. Like any business, public interest is crucial in being successful.
“Urban Farming depends upon an interest by the public in your product. And why it’s different than going to the grocery store,” says Mello.
Public participation is necessary in any movement. The urban agriculture sphere is no stranger to that. Presence is gaining traction in Milwaukee area. There are over 20 farmer’s markets in Milwaukee County alone. Not to mention the winter farmer’s market at the Mitchel Park Domes, where Sugar Bee and other vendors sell their products.
There’s also room to grow in this city. The City of Milwaukee’s website reports that it owns and maintains more than 3,000 vacant lots. That’s roughly one lot for every 200 people in this city. There’s also need to produce and distribute more food locally. In 2012, the Wisconsin Food Security Project reported that between 12-18% percent of Milwaukee citizens are food insecure. That’s close to the national average of 16%. Farmers around Milwaukee are trying to shrink those numbers while raising some numbers of their own.
The city of Milwaukee recognizes the potential of urban agriculture as both a social and economic resource. Often the social impacts of urban farming are the most recognizable effects.
Erick Shambarger, Director of Environmental Sustainability for the City of Milwaukee says, “part of it is basically getting people outdoors and into the community, tending the earth and growing things. I think there is an inherent value to that, to reconnect people to the land.”
The Environmental Collaboration Office and its HOME GR/OWN initiative are working towards making the practice of urban farming more accessible to average citizens. Through Groundwork Milwaukee, a non-for-profit, citizens can rent vacant lots from the city on a 3-year lease. On these lots they can now build tool sheds, which can double as a rain collection structure. Gardeners and farmers working on these converted lots can now tap into fire hydrants to access water thanks to permits from the city. It is also legal to sell your crops on site, as long as they are produced on site.
From a business perspective, Shambarger Tim McCollow, HOME GR/OWN Project Manager, agree that the money to be made as an urban farmer is often found in the niche products.
“I don’t know that urban ag is different from any other kind of venture. When people open restaurants, some people do really well and some people don’t. I think it is parcel to small business development, frankly,” says Shambarger. “Our role is to remove artificial barriers to that. It is up to the individual entrepreneurs to figure it out, to do their part to make it work.”
Back in Riverwest, at Farm a Sea of Green,” Nick DeMarsh is doing his part to make urban agriculture profitable. Within walking distance of Kilbourn park, DeMarsh’s pseudo-secret farm hosts rows of edible flowers along with parsley, mint, and other herbs. He sells these herbs to a few restaurants around the city.
Through trial and error, DeMarsh is making each season more successful. In 2015 he made just over $250 selling his herbs and flowers and he hopes that the has doubled that this year. He has learned that cilantro is the least profitable crop per pound. He has also learned that the slightly sweet and peppery Nasturtium flower is a strong contender for his farm. Nasturtiums lend themselves well to urban agriculture. They are a hardy plant, but the flowers are delicate and require close proximity to their buyer. At 10 cents a flower, profits come gradually.
DeMarsh is honest about the economic prospects of urban farming.
“It’s not like this is some sort of lucrative business. Urban farming is a piece of an income,” says DeMarsh. “It’s a saving account in the form of plants.”
Apart from his small farm, DeMarsh is a graduate student of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Urban Studies program. In addition to furthering his education, DeMarsh is a fellow through the Milwaukee Idea for Economic Development, where he is placed at Groundwork Milwaukee. At Groundwork he helps lead the Young Farmer’s program.
His current approach to farming is well suited for someone in school. It’s ideal for a student as he can be a farmer most of the summer and a student during the school year. The goal for his farm, aside from the personal enjoyment of farming, is to create a little more stability for himself. It’s not a fortune, but it helps pay the bills. He hasn’t rounded this numbers yet, but he thinks he’s doubled his profits this year. For DeMarsh and others, farming is a labor of love. The act of farming and gardening is certainly laborious, but meditative as well.
As a student of urban planning and as a farmer, DeMarsh feels that his actions help to couple theory with substance. DeMarsh is interested in studying and facilitating community based food systems. It is important to create your own definition of success. DeMarsh thinks that people tend to view urban agriculture through an economic lens. He suggests that if people wish to get involved, they should start small and grow things for themselves.
Executive Director of Groundwork Milwaukee Deneine Powell says the community acceptance of urban agriculture as a big challenge. Often when gardening plots are installed, people new to it get excited but lose interest as it requires a lot more effort than they expected. Powell agrees that urban agriculture is an important opportunity for economic and social growth, but it is also limited.
“Community supported agriculture is about the only way to make money as an urban farmer. But you cannot support a family,” said Powell.
That is true for Janice Christensen and her partner, Dr. David Schemberger of the Riverwest Community Garden School. Except their goal was not to make money so much as affect their neighbors. The garden school functions as a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) where people can purchase a share at the beginning of the season and receive weekly deliveries of produce. They also allow free gardening education to anyone who would like to become a student and volunteer. The school is a fully functioning farm, but also functions as a shared community space for people to enjoy as natural environment.
This year they were able to distribute over 750 pounds of produce to eight families who purchased shares. She is still crunching the numbers after the 20-week CSA season, but believes they will break even.
“I could have sold to fancy restaurants, but didn’t want to do that. I wanted to feed people,” says Christensen.
In a sense, their farm has been subsidized in a non-traditional way. Christensen estimates the start up costs for the farm at around $10,000.The farm was truly community supported as much of that money was raised through crowdsourcing through a gofundme. (*how should I write that in AP?) The crowd-sourced donations helped pay for supplies like soil, building materials for their greenhouse and water shed, seeds, the cost of hiring designers for the farm’s layout and green house, and carpenters to assemble it all. They also received lumber donations from Blifffart Hardware and Lumber, another Riverwest institution. The land they operate on was leased to them through Groundwork and the city. In addition there was a good deal of friends, and neighbors who volunteered to help and make the farm a reality.
Christensen believes that farming is a young person’s game. The students/volunteers have been a large part of the school’s success. For her this is not a business venture but a research project. She does however treat this as business, being as professional an
“The garden is not a cure all by any means, but it’s a positive setting,” says Christensen.
The school is as much a cultural space as it is an agricultural space. On the corner of Bremen and Clarke, it functions as default space for neighborly interactions. By offering free produce in bins and also dollar bundle of produce or flowers, passersby immediate become engaged in urban agriculture.
A goal of Christensen’s for the school was to promote more conversations about food and to encourage people to think more critically about it.
The flagship of urban agriculture in Milwaukee, Growing Power, began with a similar mantra. Will Allen started a roadside produce stand on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Allen’s pursuit of providing good food soon became the pursuit of producing it too.
“I never wanted to create the world’s largest urban farm,” says Allen. “My goal was to train more urban farmers.”
This goal of Allen’s does hold true in Milwaukee. Farmers like Nick DeMarsh and Janice Christensen have worked at growing power and been inspired by Allen’s work.
At a recent conference held at their warehouse, Allen and Growing Power stressed the importance of scaling up urban agriculture.
“I think part of the success would be to turn this into an industry, to create jobs.,” says Allen. “Traditionally this work has been done on a small scale by non-profits. But non-profits aren’t going to be the ones to scale this up, it’s going to be entrepreneurs.”
Allen believes California’s agriculture is somewhat on the decline, due to lack of water and effects of climate change. Also, with urban expansion and the potential destruction of our agriculture lands, urban agriculture may no longer be an opportunity, but a necessity.
“We’re going to have to have a local food system to survive in the future,” he said. “We can’t depend on shipping food from all over the world into our cities.”
Not only could urban agriculture be an opportunity to help resolve some of our current issues, but it could help us prepare for larger issues in our near future.
Allen says, “A lot of the growing will have to be done in hoop houses and green houses to be able to have a controlled environment to grow in. Those are jobs, and to me that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about creating the next generation of people that are going to make sure our food is there for us.”
At the end of the day Allen and other urban farmers believe urban agriculture seeks to change the perspective people have of their food. If our food system were not flawed to begin with, the need for urban agriculture would be non-existent.
Overall it will take the general public participation as consumers to make a change. For urban agriculture to become a profitable business, more people will need to choose to purchase and consume the products produced by urban farmers. While the goal of making healthy and organic food more accessible is becoming more of a reality, business is another challenge.
“I would love to be put out of business by people growing their own food,” says Carolyn Mello, of Sugar Bee Farm.