Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Economic Viability of a Small Urban Farm


All and all, 2013 has been an amazing season.  We grew twice more than we did last year even though we got hit twice by hail and were prevented by the City in June from using groups of volunteers and lodging farm interns in tents or trailers. 
We managed to grow our crops with the same limited amount of water that we worked with last season, using a precise watering regimen. Each bed received 3X10 minutes of water per day on drip tape.  Plants are set every 8” on a drip line (rated at 20gal/hr/100’ of drip line).  Each plant therefore receives exactly one cup of water a day.   Our farm consumes the same amount of water as 12 Santa Fe residents (107 gal per person average).

We grew about $2,000 worth of produce each month for 6 months. The rest of the year, we sold seeds, worms, plant starts, compost tea and, this year, during the four weeks prior to Christmas, healing salves.

Breakdown of 2013 revenues

Compost tea
Plant starts

We have 1/3 acre under cultivation so our yield for this season was $63,000/acre.

These figures could look impressive compared to the average yield of a small market farm (1-3 acre) but when one looks at the economic reality of a 1/3-acre urban farm, these figures are far from being compelling.  The cost of operating the farm in 2013 (building new structures, food for interns and volunteers, equipment, irrigation supplies, printing, seeds, organic amendment, gas, farm supplies, poultry feed, utilities, repairs, farmers market fees, organic certification fee, etc.) was around $16,000.

Gaia Gardens' NET revenues for 2013 were $5,000

(NOTE: The 2009 US Census states that the net earnings from farming activities on 90.5 percent of all farms in America (with sales less than $249,000) was on average $2,615!)

We don’t have labor costs and do not pay rent for the land we use for farming. I don’t pay rent for my housing as I manage the rentals on the property. My partner Dominique doesn’t draw any revenues from the farm.

After two farming seasons in Santa Fe, I can’t help but wonder how to make the economics of an urban farm like ours work if we are going to: 1) inspire young people to get into urban farming as a livelihood, 2) help foster an urban farming movement in Santa Fe.

Growing some 20 varieties of market vegetables, building soil, running a 22-member CSA, tending to a flock of chickens and ducks, and maintaining a year-round presence at the Farmers Market is not a part-time occupation!  Whoever chooses to get into urban farming cannot work another job, and ought to make a decent living at farming.

I am used to living on very little but I can’t expect people interested in urban farming to live by the seat of their pants like I do!

In reflecting on these financial figures as well as the reality of being prevented by the city to operate with a volunteer workforce, I can’t help but think that, unless we build a large greenhouse in order to grow year-round, and education is allowed in the text of the urban agriculture ordinance currently being re-drafted by the Food Policy Council, a small urban farm like we operate is NOT A VIALABLE economic model.

Building a large greenhouse (20’X100’) would extend our growing season and considerably add to the farm’s revenue potential. Allowing education on urban farms would let us welcome small groups of people and offer workshops, also increasing our revenue potential.  In addition, if the future urban agriculture ordinance allows school visits, urban farms can be structured as educational non-profit organizations, and thus be able to write grants and solicit donations, increasing their ability to be viable operations. 

Because I consider Gaia Gardens a community endeavor, we all need to wrap our creative minds around how to improve what the farm is doing.  Are the crops we grow relevant to this climate?  Are the prices we charge proportionate to the care that goes into growing our crops?  Is the style of farming we practice too labor intensive?  Is a 1/3-acre farm too small to expect making a living from it?

As the year comes to an end, I have a lot on my mind as far as how to proceed into next season, what to grow, and how to make it work so urban farming is truly regenerative, not just for the environment and the community, for but also for the people who choose to do this work because they believe it’s the right thing to do to bring about a healthy new culture. 

Your suggestions and participation are not only welcome but needed.  Feel free to email your ideas to

Thanks for all your support and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holy Cow, Holy Shit!

Greetings to you on this beautiful snowy day!

I recently attended a Biodynamic preparations workshop in Colorado where we made Horn Manure which is the basis for soil fertility and the renewal of degraded soils.  I have been using various Biodynamic preparations since we started the farm, in particular the Field Spray which aids the transformation of organic materials already in the soil into humus, and the Compost Starter used for creating healthy, effective compost.  But getting the "transmission" from Lloyd Nelson was extraordinary.  Needless to say that this winter, I will be busy reading Steiner's major writings on agriculture!

It's been a while since I found the time to write anything substantial on this blog.  For one thing, the farm being prevented by City codes to operate with groups of volunteers has kept me quite busy to say the least! And in addition to running the farm, I have inherited the management of the property as the owner now lives in Colorado, and have been dealing with the many building repairs imposed by the City.

If you've been wondering how we've been doing, I am happy to report that we are doing quite well.  As much uncertainty as we are in regarding the fate of the property and our ability to continue operating as a farm, we've been proceeding as if we will indeed do another farming season here.  As the harvest season came to a near stop (we still have chard, kale and collard growing), we have been busy putting the garden to sleep. During the winter, much activitiy goes on underground and nourishing the soil with both compost, cover crops and love is essential to building the soil health that next year's plant will depend on.  During the summer, we made over 30 yards (over 9 tons!) of compost from food scraps donations from the Food Depot and coffee grounds from Dulce.   All that yummy compost has been turned in the garden beds and they've been mulched with straw.  The straw keeps the soil protected from the damaging effects of UVs and in the early spring, keeps the weeds from growing.  I find all that work winterizing the garden very nourishing, as if putting a child to sleep.  Along with the garden, I get ready to go underground, dreaming of the sun's return and slowing down after a season that had the furious pace of a marathon!
Despite all the hurdles thrown at us by the City and neighbor, two hail storms and some major crop failures (cucumbers in particular) we managed to double the volume of food we grew last year.  In our tiny 1/3 acre farm, we managed to grow some 10,000lbs of the most delicious and nutritious produce.

This fall, we've been creating some new beds on the farm slopes. They will benefit from a better and longer sun exposure and some (berms) will only be watered with rainfall. We used corn and sunflower stalks, garden waste, horse manure and recycle potting soil from the Santa Fe Greenhouses nursery to build the bulk of the soil in these new areas.  Some of the berms edges have already been seeded with wild flowers.

Remember Brian DeBenedetti (left), my friend from Seattle who helped us build our first greenhouse last year?  Well, he's back in Santa Fe and is busy building our new luxury walk-in chicken coop (formerly an old root cellar) with the assistance of Kim (right), one of our beloved volunteers.

Speaking of volunteers, ever since the City restricted us to using only 2 volunteers at a time, our volunteer help has dwindled.  I am not one to ask for help very often but we need to beef up our circle of volunteers to support and nurture our project if we want to have a successful impact on urban agriculture in Santa Fe.  Any help is appreciated.  We are always busy building, preparing beds, sorting seeds, organizing, turning compost, tending to our feathered friends, writing grants or magazine articles and even making a documentary!  If you have any time and energy to spare, we can always find something interesting for you to do.  Our intention in this grand adventure is to share our experience and knowledge with our community in order to make it more resilient and self-sufficient.  If interested in volunteering, please email Dominique.

The City also prevented us from lodging interns (wwoofers) in a trailer.  In June, the workforce that we were planning to depend on for the operation of the farm was taken away.  We receive a lot of requests from young people interested in urban farming and we want and need to be able to accommodate them next year.  Because we don't have the facilities to lodge them, we are looking for host families for next season.  Wwoofers usually stay from one week to a month.  We provide them with a bicycle and give them a $40 stipend a week for food.  If interested in hosting one of our wwoofers next year, please contact me ASAP as we already have a waiting list of interns for 2014.

The situation raised by our project has revealed the inadequacy of Santa Fe's codes to support urban farming.  An ordinance specifically tailored to urban agriculture is in the works and in the hands of the Santa Fe Food Policy Council which has just released the draft of its Food Plan.

Thanks to our input, they've incorporated the following goals in their draft:
  • Work with Santa Fe County to incorporate land use allowances for agricultural activity into the Sustainable Land Development Code. Potential Partners: Santa Fe County Growth Management and Land Use Department, Santa Fe County Board of County Commissioners, Water and Soil Conservation Districts, local farmers and non-profits
  • Develop a Residential Agriculture Home Occupation Permit to protect neighborhood and farm interests within the city by setting policies for uses, traffic, infrastructure, employees and visitors. Potential Partners: City of Santa Fe Land Use and Zoning Department, Santa Fe City Council, neighborhood associations, non-profits, farmers, and community members 
and acknowledged us as a CONTRIBUTING STAKEHOLDER along with the following organizations;  Santa Fe County Community Services, Santa Fe County Emergency Management, Santa Fe County Growth Management and Land Use Co, Santa Fe County Open Space and Trails, City of Santa Fe Economic Development, City of Santa Fe Emergency Management, City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, City of Santa Fe Environmental Services: Sustainable Santa Fe, City of Santa Fe Parks Division: Chamber of Parks Advisory Commission, City of Santa Fe Wellness Department, Farm to Table New Mexico, Cooking with Kids, Kitchen Angels, Adelante, The Food Depot, Food for Santa Fe, Bienvenidos Outreach, The Community Farm, The Street Food Institute, Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, La Montanita Co-op and Cooperative Distribution Center, Santa Fe Community Co-op, Homegrown NM, Gaia Gardens, Santa Fe Watershed Alliance, La Familia Medical Clinic, Santa Fe Public Schools, Institute for American Indian Arts, Santa Fe Community College, Area Agency on Aging, Eight Northern Pueblos Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (ENIPC), New Mexico Income Services Division, New Mexico Department of Health.

I've never been particularly interested or involved in local politics but with a 2014 Mayoral election and several vacancies on the city council, I have been attending house parties, labor movement gatherings and other meetings to gauge the position of mayoral and city council candidates on the issue of urban farming.  I will soon post my recommendations for the upcoming elections on this blog  (Please make sure you are registered to vote.  We need to elect a good Mayor and city councilors)


Last year, the Santa Fe chapter of Architecture for Humanity chose Gaia Gardens as the recipient of its Design Santa Fe grant.  With the help of many volunteers, they built a beautiful structure that will be used as a future (when the new urban agriculture ordinance passes!) classroom, meeting room, farm stand and food preparation area.  Thank you AFH for your kindness and generosity!

We have begun a conversation with a variety of individuals and organizations about the prospect of purchasing the Gaia Gardens property and preserving it as a trust for urban farming.  If you have the financial means to help us acquire the property, please contact us.  

In closing, I want to express my gratitude to all the people who have supported us and believe in the work that we do.  First and foremost my heart goes out to my beloved partner Dominique who keeps an undying faith in our mission and nurtures the land with so much beauty and joy.  To Jay Tallmon, the owner of the property, who from the beginning has thrown his faith in our cause. To the children who bless our land with their giggles. To the Santa Fe Farmers Market, the Santa Fe
Farmers Market Institute (on which Board of Directors I now serve), our CSA members, volunteers, generous donors, our fiscal sponsor the New Mexico Community Foundation, the Los Chamisos Homeowners Association, our neighbors, our attorney Kyle Hardwood, our architect friend Wayne Lloyd who helps us negotiate with the City, David Craver our mechanic who keeps the farm truck running, Aromaland for donating water barrels and Scrapper the cat who keeps us entertained day in and day out.

Thank you all for being part of this wild and fabulous adventure!

Happy Holidays!

PSST!.  Gaia Gardens is a non-profit project of the New Mexico Community Foundation, a 501(c)3.  Consider donating here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Offerings for the Holiday Season

We'll be at the Farmers Market every Saturday this winter selling seeds collected at the farm.  Until Christmas, we are also offering healing salves made by Dominique using many of the herbs and flowers she grew at the farm this season.

Osha-Sage infused Honey
with a splash of rum                  $13 (2oz)
A classic and well paired combination of Oshá and Sage, two herbs well known for their powerful healing effects on the respiratory tract. Both are diffusive and warming, with expectorant, soothing, and stimulating effects that make them ideal in situations where there are signs of respiratory congestion, coldness, tiredness, an achy sore throat, and possibly chronic respiratory infection. 
Oshá is an emmenagogue and is not recommended for pregnant women.

Hecate’s Healing Salve                  $13 (2oz)
Soothing and healing agent for cuts & scrapes, dry & cracked skin, rashes, fungal irritation and burns. It also helps eliminate the itch of bug bites.  Ingredients: Olive Oil**, Sunflower Oil**, Calendula Flowers*, Comfrey Leaf *, Plantain Leaf *, Yerba De La Negrita*, Golden Beeswax, Cocoa Butter**, Essential Oils of: Lemongrass, Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Rosemary, Rose Geranium & Roman Chamomile, Vitamin E Oil, and Grapefruit Seed Extract (*grown at the farm)(**organic)
(Hecate is an ancient Greek Goddess associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, fire, light, the Moon, magic, and knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants.  She has rulership over earth, sea and sky, as well as a more universal role as Mother of Angels and the Cosmic World Soul.  She was one of the main deities worshiped in Athenian households as a protective goddess and one who bestowed prosperity and daily blessings on the family.  May the mystic nature of this Great Goddess and the potency of the herbs come through in your healing).

Wormwood Ginger Liniment              $10 (2oz)
Used to increase blood flow to an area that has poor circulation. Prevent stiffness & soreness after heavy workouts. Provide relief from swelling and pain. Aid in lymph drainage. Ingredients: 80 proof vodka, organic fresh ginger, organic wormwood* (*grown at the farm)

Bharati’s Joint & Muscle balm      $13 (2oz)
These herbs will help heal joint and muscle disorders, alleviate the pain and swelling of rheumatism and arthritis.   Ingredients:  Olive Oil**, Sunflower Oil**, Arnica Flowers*, Comfrey Leaf*, Chili Pepper*, Holy Basil Leaf, Nettle, Tumeric, Wild-Harvested New Mexico Sagebrush, White Willow Bark, Wormwood, & Yarrow, Essential Oils of: Lavender, Ginger, Rosemary, Eucalyptus, & Clove Bud, Vitamin. E, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Beeswax.  (*grown at the farm) (**organic)

Bharati’s womb & belly butter        $13 (2oz)
This fragrant mix of warming, analgesic, and antispasmodic herbs and essential oils, combine gracefully to create a soothing balm for both cramping and sluggish digestion, i.e., the lower abdomen.    May be used by both men and women (not recommended for pregnant women as cinnamon is an emmenagogue).     Ingredients: Coconut Oil**, Sunflower Oil**, Castor Oil, Cocoa Butter**, Beeswax, Lemon Verbena*, Wormwood*, Essential Oils of: Lavender, Lemongrass, Ginger, Cinnamon, Rose Geranium, & Chamomile, Vitamin E and Grapefruit Seed Extract (*grown at the farm) (**organic)
(Bharati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, and science more commonly known as Saraswati, helps the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in the creation, maintenance and destruction of the Universe.  It is our hope that this balm assists you in regaining your health, so that you may step into your creativity with more vigor and vitality!!)

Seed Varieties
    •    Bachelor Button (polka dot)
    •    Calendula
    •    Dill
    •    Gaillardia (red)
    •    Giant sunflower
    •    Hollyhock (pink and yellow)
    •    Indian corn (blue and rainbow)
    •    Marigold
    •    Mullein
    •    Scarlett Runner beans
    •    Tobacco (pink and yellow)
    •    Zinnia

 $3/packet        $5 for 2 packets       $11 for 5 packets

We are happy to ship if you live outside of New Mexico.  
Email us your order and we'll send you an invoice including shipping (or pick up at the Santa Fe Farmers Market on Saturdays (8:00am-1:00pm).  
10% discount for orders over $50

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity

Wendell Berry, a quiet and humble man, has become an outspoken advocate for revolution. He urges immediate action as he mourns how America has turned its back on the land and rejected Jeffersonian principles of respect for the environment and sustainable agriculture. Berry warns, “People who own the world outright for profit will have to be stopped; by influence, by power, by us.”
In a rare television interview, this visionary, author – and farmer – discusses a sensible, but no-compromise plan to save the Earth.