“…urban farms, regardless of their mission, are relatively small and face similar challenges in terms of providing the primary farmer with a living.” This is a finding from an article called “Urban Agriculture: Connecting Producers with Consumers” published in the British Food Journal in 2016. The authors are addressing a reality that many of us in the food world and DC have seen firsthand – urban farmers are not earning an income that supports their quality of life.
The authors of this article recognize that their 370 sample size has constraints and that their findings cannot be generalized to the entire population of U.S. urban farms. Making a living is also subjective. Earning an income that comfortably pays for your urban lifestyle can look very different for different people. But the authors’ discussion about the financial reality behind urban agriculture is hard to ignore. On this topic they also point out that two-thirds of these farms have social missions, such as improving food security or providing community education.
This trend begs a couple questions. First of all, are social causes keeping farmers from realizing a higher profit capacity? And secondly, if urban agriculture is not financially sustainable, will it last? Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm offers an example of a more promising future for the urban farmer. We chatted over the phone about her for-profit and growing microgreens business.
Mary started Little Wild Things in December, 2014 and has been gaining customers and traction ever since. She started growing what she could confidently produce and sold by approaching businesses in her neighborhood, microgreens in hand. And what about the social missions present in so many of the farms captured in the article? Mary isn’t doing direct community education, but her business has a strong environmental focus. She works with veteran-owned business, Veteran Compost, for her compost and soil purposes. All of her farming is done without pesticides, toxins, or chemicals. And she refers to Little Wild Things as ultra-local. Mary grows in the cellar of the Pub and the People – a business that serves her microgreens – and the garden of a Monastery, both in the Bloomingdale and Eckington neighborhoods. “I’m really committed to being not only environmentally sustainable, but commercially viable,” Mary says.
But on the topic of making a living, Mary acknowledges how challenging it is for urban farmers. “I have an engineering degree, and I worked as an engineer in development, and this is way harder,” she says of the management and timing around her farm/business. In spite of the challenges, financial viability remains one of Mary’s primary interests. Fortunately, microgreens have a relatively high price premium, allowing Mary to turn a solid profit. She also markets the microgreens as organically grown in biologically intensive spaces, which also elevates the product’s price bracket. Microgreens are also gaining traction as a luxury food, showing up on high-end restaurant menus and usually available at organic grocery markets and Whole Foods. So Mary has developed a product that she feels is well placed to support her financial goals.
Little Wild Things City Farm has grown considerably since Mary began in 2014. While Mary still does development work on the side, the farm will eventually be her full time job and source of income. “I believe it’s possible,” she says, basing her assessment on the state of her projections.
In the British Food Journal article, the authors speculate that the lifespan of urban farming depends on factors such as “…whether those currently farming in the urban setting can earn high enough incomes to maintain the urban lifestyle they desire.” Through microgreens, Mary seems to have found a for-profit model that puts her on track for meeting that goal.