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!


  1. NIce duck pond! I think as farmers we need to just be eternal optimists.

  2. Hi Poki, thanks for posting the honest real world financial results. Very brave of you I think. But I also think that to not include the financial benefits of your "homesteading" lifestyle gives a negative slant on the results. For example, let's take the average "wage slave" who makes $25,000 a year. At least 20% goes to taxes. Then a huge proportion will go to mortgage or rent. Add more for child care, car upkeep and extra mileage, money spent at the gym to stay fit and extra money for needed vacations and eating out because they are so stressed by their job. They would be lucky indeed to come out ahead $5,000 at the end of the year and are more likely to end up in more debt each year. Your $5,000 result should show that your labor also netted you a place to live, healing and healthy food and exercise and a purposeful life. The financial equivalents of these aspects can't realistically be calculated. And you didn't have to worry about the price of gasoline going up! I know many young people today are looking for something they feel has meaning and can't be affected by the contraction of the US economy. No one can take away skills in soil building and food production. Rather than saying you only made $5,000 profit, when you look at the benefits and tax savings - I would say it was superior to someone who made a$25,000 salary but who has more than that in expenses and taxes. I think you will be an inspiration to many - cheers, Jan