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Urban Farms Fuel Idealism. Profits? Not So Much

Big Muddy Farms, an urban farm in northern Omaha, Neb., is seen among residential homes last October. Urban farms have become a celebrated trend, yet earning a living at it is tough, a new survey finds. Nati Harnik/AP hide caption

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Nati Harnik/AP

Big Muddy Farms, an urban farm in northern Omaha, Neb., is seen among residential homes last October. Urban farms have become a celebrated trend, yet earning a living at it is tough, a new survey finds.

Nati Harnik/AP

Pick a farm trend in the past decade and urban agriculture is likely to top the list. But for all the timely appeal of having a little house on the urban prairie, the practice often raises a simple question: Can anyone earn a living doing it?

The answer: Not by much, according to a new survey of 370 urban farmers across the U.S., published this month in the British Food Journal. But researchers suggest that the modest profit to be had might not be as big of a downside as you think.

The average urban farm sees sales of just under $54,000 a year, according to the survey, although hydroponic operations earn more than double that and rooftop farms one-sixth of it. That modest paycheck may be why 1 in 3 urban farmers reported earning their living from their farms. And keep in mind that "this does not provide information about standard of living," study co-author Carolyn Dimitri, an economist in New York University's food studies department, said in an email.

That doesn't necessarily mean urban farms are outliers for American agriculture. Seventy-five percent of all farms in the U.S. post less than $50,000 a year in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the bulk of American agricultural output comes from farms with sales of $1 million or more. What's more, many American farmers hold a second job, off-farm. Recent USDA data suggests that American farmers depend on second jobs for anywhere from 10 to 83 percent of their incomes, depending on what they raise.

Many urban farmers, however, see themselves less as profit-driven businesses and more as social enterprises addressing concerns like food insecurity, education and community-building. Two-thirds of the farms surveyed identified those three concerns as their primary focus, while about a quarter said they were driven by market concerns. (The remaining 10 percent of farmers indicated missions that could not be neatly classified in those four categories; Dimitri said these farms were generally occupied with a social mission other than those listed.)

"I don't think [urban farming] has anything to do with feeding people in the sense of supplying their basic calorie needs," says Rachel Laudan, historian and author of Cuisine and Empire. Most of the world is fed not by the vegetables popular on urban farms, she says, but by calorie-dense crops like grain and potatoes.

"It's not anything to do with sustainability; it has to do with all these other kinds of values ... that is really worthwhile," Laudan says.

Much of urban farms' smaller balance sheets can be traced to their scale of production, which is generally limited by the amount of land to which they have access. While the average American farm was 434 acres in 2012, nearly 60 percent of all urban farms are less than 5 acres — and 20 percent are less than 1 acre — Dimitri says. In thriving cities like New York, that's often a function of hefty real-estate prices. But it can also be an issue in struggling cities, where leaders may be wary of committing real estate to unorthodox use.

In Detroit, Greg Willerer and has been running Brother Nature Produce since 2009, growing microgreens on vacant lots in the city and running a CSA. As business grew, he tried to acquire additional land in Detroit, but couldn't get the city to sell him more than a couple of vacant lots directly adjacent to his home.

"Getting land is a difficult thing," which limits profitability, Willerer says. "If [the city] made it a little easier, people would give it more of their time and energy."

In 2011, Willerer and his now-wife, Olivia Hubert, began to lease land in Riley, Mich., an hour outside the city, and now cultivate an additional 1 1/2 acres there. Last year, says Willerer, the farm brought in roughly $1,200 a week, or just under $40,000 for the season. He thought the researchers' average sounded "high."

But the financial limitations don't bother Willerer — much.

"We have an example here of what you can do in a city that's economically depressed, and quit the rat race and take care of ourselves and make the neighborhood better," Willerer says. "Profit is kind of important, because we need to make money to fix up the house and invest in our future. ... But there are more important things."


Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a New York Times best-seller, and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. You can follow her on Twitter @tmmcmillan.