The Big Grow: Urban Farming & Agrihood Pros
November 27, 2017
Urban farming and growing your own gets more popular with each passing year. Along with it comes an increasing attraction to agrihood living for all income levels. But most urban farmers’ business model echoes that of the rural farm; growing food to sell. Farmscape, however, sells no produce. Still, they grow a mountain of fresh harvests for others around Los Angeles and Oakland, California.
The company has planned and installed more than 700 urban gardens and farms since launching 8 years ago. Quite an accomplishment considering how scarce available land is in California’s cities. It’s not just because of the climate. Reaching out to Farmscape principal Lara Hermanson confirmed my suspicion. By blending the beauty of ornamental landscaping with food production utility, you bypass common urban farming barriers.
The biggest roadblock to private urban gardens and farmsteads, mass agrihood adoption, and outdoor urban farming, in general, is superficial. Most people’s approach to it is backward for locations where curb appeal is king. (That pretty much covers all urban and suburban properties.) Anything that detracts from property values never wins approval.
Make it beautiful and aesthetically appealing 12 months a year, and resistance melts away. Winning over the city, the developer, and the neighborhood is easier if approaching the planning, installation, and maintenance like a landscape designer. But Lara and I, being raised by successful landscapers, might understand this concept more than most. Combining that with her organic farming experience and a few other skills lays the groundwork gaining entitlement approvals.
So, how did Lara and partner Dan Allen grow Farmscape into the largest urban farming and agrihood venture in the US? In the beginning, it was one yard at a time. Private residential gardens were soon joined by restaurants, commercial businesses, and schools as the business grew and interest in just-picked freshness expanded. They even do some rooftop farming and dabble in aeroponics at the AT&T stadium. But they have no interest in indoor farming, the Tower Gardens were already in use when Farmscape entered the picture. California is perfect for growing food outdoors all year-long.
Then along came the agrihood, a private farm as a neighborhood nucleus and amenity. To date, they have 5 agrihoods up and running with 20 more in the works. Unlike similar urban farming businesses, Farmscape represents the developer or residents in winning the approval for the gardens to go in. As any professional contractor knows, entitlements start with city hall, the board of directors, and the community at large. Lara and Dan’s ability to gain approval added a new dimension to what they do. Now, they’re consultants with other agrihood and urban farm developers in Texas and Nevada. But interest and inquiries grow nationwide.
Unlike many urban farmers, Farmscape doesn’t grow their own seedlings, instead, they buy them from quality area nurseries. Generally, it’s the “big seed” crops like beans and peas that they direct sow. Fruit trees and ornamentals that become part of the planting design are all either natives or sustainable and climate-appropriate.
Since they currently maintain over 300 of their own urban farming installations every week, that planting model allows for streamlined on-site services. That’s really important with an operation this big that also does 2-3 new garden builds a week.
While most of the gardens Farmscape designs are for urban sites, they also have clients in the country. Not surprising, given the pace we all move at today. Having a professional urban farming company come in to properly prep and amend your soil makes it easier to get that garden pumping out fresh homegrown produce. Especially when a soil test is needed, though most often it isn’t.
Though occasionally urban farming design allows for growing crops in the ground, most often Farmscape’s city installations are all raised planters. Polluted soil is quite common in Oakland and Los Angeles, making raised beds the viable solution. This also makes gardening more accessible for the elderly and handicapped. And then there’s the endless paving impediment to conquer. But gardening above ground level is more enjoyable because you have far fewer weeds to deal with!
So, what is Farmscape’s preferred brand of potting mix? They use a 50/50 compost-Kellogg potting mix blend in all urban farming planters. Crops get a fresh dose of organic Kellogg nutrition monthly with a balanced fertilizer, plus appropriate supplements as they grow. Plants get a shot of fish emulsion during the growth stage and a bone meal-based booster for flowering and fruiting.
Though more of the gardens they install are maintained by those who live or work on the site, sometimes things get out of control. So, they offer assistance services to past clients. Thinking that the most common request for help is probably for pest or disease control? Nope. Lara says its usually needing help getting weeds back under control.
Lara loves her work, being outdoors, growing things, and having a continual source of fresh things to eat. But it takes more than passion and fun to create such a business model. She says it will work in any location from warm, sunny California to blustery Chicago and beyond.
Learn more by visiting the Farmscape website.
Images courtesy of Farmscape.
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