A year ago, my business partner, Caitlyn Galloway, and I started Little City Gardens. We grow salad greens, braising greens, and culinary herbs in the heart of San Francisco, which we sell to a restaurant, caterers, and individual subscribers. Little City Gardens is a lot of things: a market-garden, a small business struggling to succeed, and an experiment in the viability of urban micro-farming. We started the business with a desire to apply ourselves to the redesign of our local foodshed. We wanted to grow produce in the city and sell it. And, crucially, we wanted to be paid for our work.
When we started in the spring of 2009, the economy had crashed and was declining and our employment opportunities seemed scarce. Very few urban farming jobs existed in San Francisco and the slim pickings were between garden educator and edible landscaper positions. We wanted to manage a farm, build soil, test crop rotations, and develop relationships with customers. We determined that our most exciting option was to see if we could create exactly the urban farming jobs that we wanted for ourselves. Generating one’s own employment seemed challenging but timely.
From the very beginning, we conceptualized Little City Gardens as an experiment, designed around a simple question: Can two people earn a living wage from the cultivation and sales of vegetables within the city of San Francisco? We both had solid backgrounds in the field. We’d been employed on farms and done apprenticeship programs. As far as business skills, marketing and management, we knew we would be climbing a steep learning curve.
We asked ourselves why San Francisco—an urban center enchanted with farmers’ markets, CSAs, and food foraging–did not already have existing, successful, urban micro-farm businesses that we could model. Although quite hopeful, we were not entirely naïve; we saw clearly the challenges and obstacles that stood before us and other prospective urban farmers.
In light of the monopoly that corporate agribusiness, in tandem with the U.S. government, has over the economic framework of our food supply, it could seem that we would not even stand a chance. Food is cheap and for the many folks living below the poverty line, it must remain cheap. The labor employed by agribusiness, the soil fertility, and the mechanisms of distribution all come at an artificially low price. The economic dominance of agribusiness is built largely on the backs of an immigrant labor force, which is politically disempowered, paid miserably, and mistreated. Agribusiness is also dependent on the use of petrochemical fertilizers and other ecologically devastating industrial technology. We ask ourselves regularly: How can our farm, microscopic even in comparison to small organic farms, flourish under such an entrenched and heavy weight?
We are hedging our bets upon a community that is already starting to step forward and meet us, willing to pay a higher price while we establish ourselves and begin to demonstrate the benefit of our farm’s existence. We are banking on creativity. There must be hundreds of iterations of the popular CSA model that have yet to be employed. The city has assets that a farm can leverage: People and resources are densely congregated, the farm is permeable and proximate to its market, and transportation costs are greatly reduced. Many aspects of city living and materials going into the waste stream that currently make the city undesirable could be utilized towards the success of an urban farm.
Small business is our activist medium. Our approach to growing the urban agriculture movement is based upon the premise that urban food production will not reach its full potential unless there are avenues in the local market economy for growers to make a living through the sales of their produce. Currently, San Francisco’s urban agriculture is largely anchored in the realms of education and non-profit work. While a substantial amount of food can be grown—and is being grown by skilled and passionate home gardeners, school gardeners, and employees of education-based, food-justice non-profit organizations—the quantity pales in comparison to what could be grown if farmers could earn a living wage through the cultivation and sales of food in the city. We believe that the city will not see a radical burgeoning of productive urban farms, from the ground up, unless potential farmers see a realistic opportunity to employ themselves through the pursuit.
Collectively, I am sure we have the skills to build an abundant movement. I know from experience and association that I am part of a growing rank of young entrants into agriculture. We are passionate about working towards equitable food systems. Many of us would love to apply ourselves to urban food production, if employment opportunities were more abundant. I also suspect that some of the many immigrants to our city, displaced from their countries by the harsh economic realities caused by global trade policies, identify as farmers. At the very least, I suspect that many have agricultural backgrounds and knowledge. At present, the agricultural sector offers few opportunities other than the role of seasonal farm laborers. What if some of the immigrant members of our community saw a means to self-employment through utilizing and sharing their distinctive agricultural skills?
If there were more visible, functional, self-sufficient urban micro-farming business models that could serve as examples or dispensaries of advice, and if the economic/political will was slightly more hospitable, I believe countless people from diverse backgrounds would follow suit. I believe we would see collectivized backyard farms and food growing in public parks. No vacant lot, schoolyard, field, or median strip would be left under-utilized. There isn’t as much open space here as in a shrinking city like Detroit, but the population of San Francisco is crafty, competent and willful.
Little City Gardens has a business plan and we are doing our research. But we know we have a lot to learn through trial and error. Only through attempting will we discover if we can carve a rewarding space in the local market economy for ourselves. Only through modeling will we be able to encourage others to become urban farmers. If we succeed, we will know what have been the factors that contribute to success. We will have concrete ideas about what other cultural shifts or new legislation could help more people be successful urban farmers. If it becomes prohibitively challenging, we will know the obstacles which restrict urban agriculture from flourishing in San Francisco.
Our ideas will remain impractical and marginal, unless we test them and push them beyond the boundaries of skepticism. Little City Gardens is our gesture at moving the dialogue forward with determination and hope.
*As an experimental business, Little City Gardens does not have access to bank loans so we are raising money to cover the start-up and infrastructural costs of a new market-garden.