Sunday, January 13, 2013

Urban agriculture business opportunities on limited budgets

Description: Leake & Watts Educational Campus

[Updated April 2013]

We looked around for urban agriculture business opportunities for community groups with limited budgets.  While we didn't find much low-hanging fruit in terms of generating cash, we found other interesting possibilities. 

If your group has lots of cash to invest, you can rent a roof and build greenhouses for very profitable year-round production.  But perhaps your organization doesn't have that kind of cash, and would be satisfied with starting more gardens locally, increasing environmental literacy and food security.

In NYC, one of the biggest bottlenecks for urban agriculture is the limited amount of available gardening space.  Two innovations can be combined to dramatically increase the amount of gardening space in a community, at minimal cost. 

In this post, we look at how Food Bank for Westchester set up gardens on the grounds of nearby nonprofit partners, raising lots of vegetables for its food pantries.  This could be replicated in NYC, if community groups could find enough space in their neighborhood on which gardens could be started.  596 Acres is doing a great job of mapping vacant publicly owned lots

In the next post, we look at best practices in urban gardening, and innovations that would make temporarily available private lots suitable for gardening.  No one wants to go to the trouble of building raised garden beds on plots only available for one season.  But using inexpensive portable planters would make many spaces accessible. Sub-irrigated planters have much lower watering needs, and can be moved at the end of the growing season.  It's becoming increasingly popular to cut up straw bales, insert dirt, and use them as biodegradeable temporary planters.


Gardening on multiple small borrowed parcels

Combining resources enabled
Food Bank for Westchester (FBW) and its partners to raise over 9,000 pounds of organic vegetables for local hunger relief in 2012 - an estimated 40,000 servings.

Over the past six years, FBW has set up and sponsored vegetable gardens on the grounds of nearby nonprofit partners. They started with a part-time employee and a few volunteers. Two years ago, FBW hired Douglass DeCandia  as a full-time food growing program coordinator, under a grant from Westchester Community Foundation. The program raised its goals to include significant organic vegetable production as well as providing vocational training services. They turned more lawns into gardens, and expanded from three to five sites. Now at each work session managed by DeCandia between three and ten clients or volunteers may participate.

All food grown is donated to WFB, which distributes it to over 250 hunger relief agencies in Westchester County. Students and staff at each site can take home however much produce they want. Agreements with food distributors prevent the host facilities from using the produce directly.

FBW’s nonprofit partners

“The adult men incarcerated at Westchester Department of Corrections can take direction quite well and do not need constant supervision,” says DeCandia. The population rotates about every three months. FBW has operated a ½ acre garden at WDC for some time, raising tomatoes, callaloo, summer squash, dry beans and cabbage, and an assortment of greens: kale, swiss chard, collard and mustard.

At Woodfield Cottage, young adults between 14 and 17 years old attend school while awaiting trial. A one acre garden is planted with corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage and asparagus. Leake and Watts houses emotionally troubled high school age students, and a ½ acre garden.

Recently added to the program are Westchester Land Trust’s Sugar Hill Farm and the New York School for the Deaf.

Sugar Hill Farm is the only FBW garden at a private residence. Four separate lawn areas were recently tilled and combined into a ¼ acre garden. The number of community members who sign up for two volunteer days per month varies. Since there is no fence, FBW grows crops that deer don’t like: mustard greens, arugula, turnips, scallions, onions and leeks.

High school age students attend NY School for the Deaf at its Fanwood campus. A supervisor translates for DeCandia, and communication is improving as he learns more sign language. A ½ acre lawn was turned into a garden in the spring of 2012 and planted with garlic, scallions and mustard greens.

Gardening programs complement but do not replace WFB’s hunger relief programs, says DeCandia. He encourages groups implementing this model to get future food recipients involved from the start. “Teach the hungry how to grow food for themselves and their families. While providing them with nutritious food, give them access to gardening space, seeds and tools.” Contact him at 914.494.6986 / 914.909.9612 or  

How to replicate this model in NYC 

Decandia lists the basic ingredients to replicate this model: (1) a nonprofit with a desire to promote food security and the capacity to distribute food, (2) funds to pay for a farmer / educator, who can be either part-time or full-time; (3) funds to pay for tools, seed and other gardening supplies; (4) one or more cooperating facilities with a lawn that can be turned into a garden; and (5) labor, either from the site’s clients or community volunteers.

NYC nonprofits can explore this process with minimal investment, using existing staff and resources.  Rather than applying for a grant to hire new staff, a nonprofit can assign a current staff member to organize a gardening project as part of their duties.  Initial successes can lead to other grant funding opportunities, and eventually, perhaps income from the project.

While broad grassy lawns are certainly more abundant in Westchester, there are still many in the five boroughs.  S
tart with an inventory of nonprofit groups in your community that have lawns, but don't stop there.  Vacant lots can also be used for food production.  City officials and gardening groups are already working to make this more common. 

Activating nonprofits - and vacant lots

As explained in the report “Engaging Community Groups to Promote Energy Efficiency, Solar Power and Local Agriculture,” community based nonprofits can be effective marketing partners for sustainability programs, by leveraging their established reputations and strong network of local relationships.  By linking neighbors, community stakeholders and providers of gardening training, nonprofits can play a catalytic role in spreading urban agriculture. 

For this to work, other ingredients have to be added to the mix.  To give nonprofits the incentive to take such projects on, there must be opportunities to gain social capital, benefit its neighbors, and earn some income. And to create gardens in temporarily accessible spaces, or those where there is poor soil or no soil, there are innovative gardening practices to be applied.  

Details in the next post: Opportunities and obstacles for urban food production: how nonprofits can aggregate nontraditional temporary garden plots in their neighborhood using portable sub-irrigated planters, biodegradable temporary straw bale gardening, and the SPIN method.


  1. Hi Dan: A wonderful effort. If any of the participants are 50 or older I'd love have either a guest post or to do a profile of their project(s). All the best, Jackie AKA Little Old Lady

  2. Excellent News! This is a lesson that not everything going on is depressing! We need more on the ground local action like this!
    Thanks for the post Dan.
    Paul E McGinniss, The New York Green Advocate

  3. Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this information for my mission.

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