Over the last decade a food revolution has taken place: more and more people have changed the way they eat and what they eat, turning increasingly to local food sources. The Seattle Urban Farming Company installs backyard gardens for those who may not have enough time to put into planting and maintaining a fresh vegetable garden but wish to cook with fresh, organic elements. In “Reclaiming Our Food” (Storey Publishing, 2011), Tanya Denckla Cobb highlights people and companies passing along their time and knowledge on ecological sustainability in order to encourage others to begin growing their own food themselves, participating in the growing grassroots food movement. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1: “Food From Home.”
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A New Breed of Farmer: Selling Gardens to City Folk
Seattle Urban Farm Company
The Seattle Urban Farm Company, a for-profit enterprise, provides services to home-owners and businesses in designing new backyard gardens, developing multiyear gardening strategies, installing ready-to-go vegetable gardens, weekly garden maintenance, pest management, and the design and installation of backyard chicken coops.
As college students, Colin McCrate and Brad Halm lived at Denison University’s “Homestead,” what may be the nation’s only student-run intentional community with a focus on ecological sustainability. Here they learned to tend chickens, goats, and gardens and to live “off the grid.”
Today, as pioneers of an entirely new kind of business, McCrate and Halm are still off the grid in how they think about approaching their life and work. When McCrate founded Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007, it was among the first in the nation to fill a new but increasingly common desire: people want to grow their own food. And though people may want to garden, and people may like the idea of gathering fresh vegetables and herbs from their gardens for home-cooked dinners with the family, who has the time for any of this?
McCrate and Halm thought they had an answer. Perhaps people could have their carrots and eat them, too, alongside their fast-paced lifestyles, if someone else designed, installed, and even maintained the garden for them. Perhaps this little bit of a helping hand would tip the scales, so that a garden could move from a desired impossibility to an easy reality.
Each had been working in various garden and farming jobs after college, and each shared a love of growing food. “Our strength was definitely knowing a lot about gardening and growing food,” says Halm. Neither had any business training, however, and others suggested they go slow, creating a business plan to figure everything out before taking the plunge. McCrate wasn’t having any of that. He told them, “People want gardens right now. This is the time to do it.” So with a little bit of savings and some loans from family, McCrate launched the Seattle Urban Farm Company.
Building a business around backyard gardens
Soon McCrate and Halm were leading the way in making dreams of a home food garden come true. Hundreds of gardens later, they are able to reflect on some of their choices and lessons. A business plan would have helped, they now agree, as they went through very difficult times, but neither regrets their choice. As the first business of its kind in Seattle, the company gained important name recognition. Besides, they say, struggling through a business plan would probably have robbed them of their enthusiasm and initiative.
The Seattle Urban Farm Company didn’t need to do much marketing to be successful, says McCrate. “There wasn’t evidence that people wanted it, then all of a sudden there were newspaper articles written about us every week. We were there at the right time. People in Seattle wanted it to happen.”
Every urban garden project is somewhat different. Sometimes people know exactly what size garden they want and where they want it. Sometimes what they want is not realistic, given the conditions of their yard. McCrate says they may need to talk people out of setting up gardens in undesirable locations, such as very shady spots or areas that don’t drain properly. People often have strong ideas about how they want their property to look and function, so Seattle Urban Farm Company helps them design a garden within their desired budget. This is not always an easy task. McCrate explains that a client may want a 3-foot-high raised bed, so she doesn’t have to bend over to work the garden, but the lumber cost alone might exceed her budget. Every garden requires a conversation and careful consideration. “There is always something that can be done; it just depends on how much people want to do, and how much they want to spend,” says McCrate.
The Seattle Urban Farm Company offers a very flexible menu of services, primarily in garden planning, installation, and maintenance, but the company is also there to help when unexpected issues arise.
Its simplest service might be to just design the vegetable garden for a family that wants to dig and build the garden on its own. For this the company customizes the crops to the family’s desires and provides a plan for what should be planted when and where. Or the company might also install the garden, including drip irrigation, plant the seeds and seedlings, and return weekly to weed and check on the watering system. Sometimes they even help the family decide how to use the harvest. At times McCrate and Halm are called in the spring to do just the spring garden cleanup and planting. Other times a family who had intended to maintain the garden themselves have forgotten what they are supposed to do and will call for help.
Supplementing with backyard chicken coops
When they began, McCrate and Halm thought they could create complementary off-season work by building backyard chicken coops to supplement their urban garden installation service. Often clients wanted the company to build a customized coop from salvaged materials. This soon proved impractical, as it required significant time in salvaging the materials, designing a coop around those materials, then actually building the coop. McCrate said they learned they would need to charge a lot, and it became too expensive. Now, whether for ready-made designs or a customized design, they use a mix of environmentally responsible store-bought materials as well as some materials from local salvage companies. The company also offers a monthly cleanout of the coop, but McCrate says nobody has ever requested this service.
“Raising chickens is really easy,” says McCrate. “They really change the atmosphere of your yard. They’re awesome!” But he also warns that chickens are more complicated than gardens. People need to store the food properly; spilled feed can attract rats. And if the coop is not properly secured, ground and aerial predators can be a problem. McCrate and Halm believe that raising chickens can be rewarding and a good experience for children, and they plan to keep this as part of their business. Overall, however, the interest in chicken coops is small compared with the interest in backyard gardens.
A new breed of farmer
Perhaps the business of installing urban gardens is ideal for a new breed of farmers. This business is for farmers who don’t want to own their own farmland and who may prefer living in an urban or suburban community rather than the rural countryside. It’s a business with very low start-up costs — a minimal amount of equipment and a small backyard greenhouse for starting seedlings. Also, given McCrate’s description of his company’s work, another departure from the mind-set of the classic rural farmer — “leave me alone so I can farm” — is that the urban farmer needs to be entrepreneurial and enjoy constantly meeting and working with new people. Becoming an urban farmer is arguably an ideal profession for someone who wants to facilitate connecting people with the land and food.
Neither Halm nor McCrate envisions staying in the city forever, and they talk about trying to find a model for small-scale farming that could be profitable and sustainable. But for now Seattle Urban Farm Company is proving good for them. “It was important for me to have my job be something I love,” says Halm. “I see so many people get into jobs they don’t enjoy. I think that’s a poor way to live. I want a business where I can be happy and spiritually satisfied with my day-to-day work.”
McCrate agrees. “I’ll only move on if I find something else that feels right and that inspires me to keep working hard every day.”
Lessons learned: Running a garden installation business
Use quality materials.
Purchase the best-quality materials with the best reputation, says Colin McCrate of Seattle Urban Farm Company. His company always imports soil for the garden beds it builds, and though it’s important to balance cost, quality, and access to your material sources, he has learned that it’s better to err on the side of quality. When his company was getting started, it bought soil from sources that were easy to access and offered a good price. But the soils were unreliable over time and sometimes resulted in customers calling them back with concerns. Though even the best sources can have inconsistencies over time, he says, they now buy soil only from the highest-quality sources.
Implement a record-keeping system.
Unlike an average landscaping job, which McCrate says may take a month, the typical backyard garden installation takes one or two days. This has significant business implications, as it means the company must be constantly doing new projects to stay busy (and solvent). “You’re always scrambling to get a new project and get it done efficiently,” says McCrate. Though each project is different, he says that eventually you can apply the same lessons, becoming better and more efficient.
To manage this constant scramble, Halm says, the most important thing is to establish a system. You need to have a seeding schedule, a way to keep track of tools, a system for billing, and a system for tracking the hours on different jobs. “For a while our record keeping was sporadic and haphazard,” he admits, adding that, like most other farmers he’s met, he personally hates keeping records. But he’s learned that all of these systems are crucial. “I’ve found on all the farms I’ve worked on, and this one, record keeping and systematizing has been crucial to keep things successful and reliable.”
Diversify your customer base to include commercial businesses.
The Seattle Urban Farm Company began with a focus on installing home backyard gardens, but after only one year they learned that it would be important to balance the short-term home garden projects, which last one or two days, with longer-term commercial projects, to reduce the constant scramble from one job to the next.
To be successful over the long term, McCrate says it will be important for his company to expand its work with restaurants and developments, because they are bigger-ticket and longer projects, they advertise their new garden, giving his company free marketing, and they also send him new customers. Chefs are an eager clientele, he says, and there is particular interest in rooftop gardens. The gardens can be a “big selling point” for the restaurants, McCrate suggests.
For future expansion McCrate wants to connect with architects and builders. He envisions a time when Seattle will have a new status quo, where every new development will automatically have a garden. If prospective projects come through — garden installations for newly constructed homes and a large-scale production farm for a high-tech company — his vision may begin to take hold.
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Excerpted from Reclaiming Our Food (c) Tanya Denckla Cobb, photography by (c) Jason Houston used with permission from Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Reclaiming Our Food.