I’ve been puzzling over an email that I received from local real estate developer Stewart Beal a few days ago, announcing a new “business concept” of his, called CITYfarm. “CityFARM,” said Beal in his letter, “is a company with a social mission (kind of like a hybrid of a for profit company and a not for profit company) that installs urban farms (aka large vegetable gardens) on our clients’ properties.” The email didn’t have a lot in the way of detail, but Beal mentioned that the company’s first undertaking would be a “demonstration farm” at 103 N. Adams, across the street from the bus terminal in downtown Ypsilanti. “We will use this farm to showcase our work and also will use it to fulfill the companies social mission of donating food to those in need, creating jobs, and beautifying urban spaces,” said Beal. He then asked for help, in the form of cash donations and volunteer labor. He also shared a link to a Kickstarter campaign that he’d started in hopes of raising $3,850 to get the project off the ground. The following comes from the Kickstarter page:
CityFARM wants to save the world by furthering the urban agriculture movement and improve our community by alleviating hunger in southeastern Michigan. We would like to start an organic urban farm in Ypsilanti, MI. We are very fortunate because the land was donated for the farm, but we need help with the transformation from lawn to urban farm. All the produce that is grown on the Adams Street FARM in Ypsilanti, MI will be donated to Food Gatherers–a non-profit organization that helps to feed the hungry in Washtenaw County. This urban farm will help fight hunger and improve the surrounding community.
Supplies needed for the transformation include a fence, raised beds, soil and compost, irrigation systems, water catchment, seeds/seedlings, and farming tools. The Adams Street FARM will be comprised of a series of raised beds that we will grow a variety of fruits and vegetables for fresh and local food donations.
I have a few questions concerning how much produce can realistically be grown in the yard of the home at the intersection of Adams and Pearl, and how exactly the money will be spent, but, generally speaking, I like the idea of more urban gardening, and I suspect that there’s enough need in our community to warrant the creation of another group supplementing the good work that’s already being done by the Ypsilanti non-profit Growing Hope. But I’m struggling a bit with the other side of the CityFARM equation, which is a for-profit entity, and how all of these pieces fit together. A friend reached out to them yesterday, with similar questions, and was told the following.
“The difference between our For-Profit model & Growing Hope’s Non-Profit is that our profits help our social mission: helping to alleviate hunger in Washtenaw County. For every raised bed you purchase we will install one of the same size at our Adams Street Farm (103 N. Adams, Ypsilanti) & donate the food grown there to Food Gatherers–a local NGO that works toward fighting hungry.”
As for the prices of building these raised bed gardens, my friend was told that installation costs would run anywhere from $700 to $3000 depending on garden size (smallest 6×10, largest 20×20).
I’m all for innovative business models, and I want to be supportive of this endeavor, but I don’t know that many people in S.E. Michigan have upward of a $1,000 to invest in the construction of a raised bed vegetable garden. And, to be honest, I’m struggling with how the dollars add up, especially when it looks as though a great deal of the work on Adams street is to be done by volunteers. (At least that’s my impression, based upon the request for unpaid interns they’ve posted on Craigslist.) So, if someone pays $1,000 for a raised bed garden at their home, I’m wondering, how much of that is going to the non-profit? Will the for-profit arm just drop off lumber and soil sufficient for the construction of an identical raised bed garden on Adams Street, or will they build it as well? And what happens when the space on Adams Street runs out?
With these questions in mind, I’ve reached out to Stewart Beal and Lauren Maloney, who is managing the endeavor for Beal, and asked them a few questions. Here’s our interview…
MARK:The price for a raised bed seems high. Clearly, the thought is that people will be willing to pay more, as they know that there’s this socially responsible angle, right? I mean, you’re hoping that people will buy into this idea that not only are they investing in their own garden, but they’re also building an identical garden for those without the resources…
LAUREN: I believe that are prices are not high. However, I understand that there may be a learning curve to educate people in buying something they have never bought before. We intentionally priced our services below what landscaping companies charge for landscaping in the area and our staff is significantly more educated in farming, gardening, and landscaping than the average company in the outdoor maintenance industry. For $32 per hour we offer an expert farmer designing, building, and maintaining your urban farm and gardens. Our price for urban farm packages includes everything you need to grow food for a season including compost/soil mix, mulch for pathways, organic fertilizer, NON-GMO seeds and organic seedlings, complete irrigation kits, garden hose, bamboo trellis, and tomato twine and stakes. This price also includes material delivery, ground rototilling, removal of weeds and grass, leveling the bed, forming the raised bed mounds, seed and seedling planting, irrigation setup and pathway mulching. Of course our packages are completely customizable, and I am happy to do a free at home consultation to create a plan that works for any vision or budget.
Yes we definitely want people to be attracted to CityFARM because of the socially responsible angle. However we aren’t charging more to support this at this time. We believe alleviating hunger is an extremely important issue in our community despite our urban farming business. Being a for-profit business is an excellent way to help contribute to our community. We have this social mission because we believe everyone should have access to healthy food. It makes sense to use our for-profit business to support our social mission. NGOs and non-profits are extremely important to creating positive change in our community. We are also trying to make a change and contribute to our community. Many businesses give donations to charitable organizations, we are doing the same through our social mission.
MARK: You mention Food Gatherers a few times in your materials. How did that relationship come about, and will they be helping to promote the initiative as well?
LAUREN: Food Gatherers is a great organization in our community that helps to fight hunger in Washtenaw County. We immediately thought of them when we started this project. I’ve been in contact them about the project and they are happy to receive our donations. They will help promote our business and social mission by make our fliers available to visitors at their warehouse. Once our Adams Street Farm is installed we hope to make weekly donations to Food Gatherers.
MARK: What happens if the Kickstarter campaign isn’t successful? So far, it looks as though you’ve raised about $200 toward your goal. Will this happen regardless?
LAUREN: Yes, Adams Street Farm is the backbone of our social mission and will happen regardless of the Kickstarter funding. If our funding is successful this will help us transform grass to food production much faster, and in turn this will allow us to donate more food sooner to Food Gatherers. Despite the Kickstarter, we hold true to our mission, a portion of our profits will go to building, growing, and maintaining a donation urban farm.
STEWART: I have been wanting to try out Kickstarter for quite some time. I am currently pursuing several internet based business ideas, specifically at least one having to do with “crowdsourcing” and am generally interested in these types of business. When we started CityFARM I realized that this might be a great way to try it out. Furthermore, Kickstarter is a great way to continue to promote the business through social media channels. For the overall success of the entire business, I think it is more important to have more backers in total instead of more money in total. More backers will encourage word of mouth advertising which is the back bone of every successful business.
MARK: Is there any concern that you might be stepping on the toes of Growing Hope, which works in a similar space, building community gardens, etc? Have you had discussions with them about how there might be synergies between your organizations?
STEWART: CityFARM and Growing Hope have similar missions in encouraging healthy living, urban agriculture, and improving our communities. I have personally donated money to Growing Hope and will continue to do so. However CityFARM is a fundamentally a contracting business which we hope will soon be operation in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Toledo, and Detroit. One of the first people I emailed about the business was (Growing Hope’s Director) Amanda Edmonds and I do look forward any possibility of collaboration.
LAUREN: I recently attended a workshop hosted by Growing Hope called Garden Planning. It was really informative and will help us moving forward. This was an event I paid for, and so it will certainly benefit both organizations.
MARK: Some could look at this and say, “This is Beal seeing a business opportunity, as more people move into the world of raised-bed, backyard gardening, and finding an emotional hook which will allow him to charge a premium.” And, others will no doubt say, “Here’s a guy who wants to provide healthy food for the needy, and he found a way to do it within the free market system, without relying, for the most part, on charity and grants.” Which would be closer to the truth?
LAUREN: Certainly the 2nd is most accurate. Our for-profit business helps to support our social mission and to further our social and environmental goals. CityFARM offers services to our clients that want to grow organic produce at home but do not have the knowledge or time. So, not only do our clients get our urban farming services, but they are helping others at the same time. This is a great bonus when using our services.
We believe that urban farms and especially the transformation of grass to food production have a great environmental benefit. Lawns, grass, and traditional landscaping are often sprayed with harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We are a practicing organic company, which means we only use natural fertilizer like compost and fish emulsion for our raised beds and integrated pest management instead of harmful pesticides that kill “good” predator bugs. Biodiversity can be beneficial even on the backyard scale.
MARK: You mention that the Adams Farm will create jobs. Will those jobs be paid, and, if so, how many people do you anticipate hiring?
LAUREN: CityFARM, of which the Adams Street Farm is a small part, launched with me being the only full time employee. All employees are paid, and this week we hired 2 more employees who have interest and experience in urban farming. As the business grows we will hire as many employees as needed including adding Detroit based employees. The field of sustainable agriculture is growing and as more urban farms get set up we will need experienced farmers to work those jobs. We would like to expand throughout southeast Michigan and Detroit and will need expert farmers in many different locations. Detroit is known for their empty lots, which a great place to fill with food.
MARK: What will you be growing on the lot at Adams and Pearl, and do you have any estimates concerning the level of productivity that might be possible? Is this project, in other words, likely to yield enough produce to make a significant dent in the problem that we’re facing?
LAUREN: Our Adams Street Farm will grow a wide variety of vegetables. We hope to have over 2000 square feet in production this season. Even one garden bed can produce quite a bit of food and we hope to have more than 30 beds at Adams Street. We will grow tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, arugula, peppers, cucumbers, peas, beans, beets, carrots, kale, collards, swiss chard, onions, melons, winter and summer squash, herbs, and more! All of our seed will be NON-GMO and we will also use heirloom seeds when available. We hope to make weekly donations to and any donation big or small can make a difference. As Food Gatherers says a $5 donation or 1 row in a garden can help provide food to those in need in our community.
MARK: Assuming the lot at Adams and Pearl fills up, what’s next? Do you have your eyes on other properties?
LAUREN: Beal Properties, LLC is happy to provide more open space for CityFARM if the Adams Street Farm fills up, because that means more food will donated to Food Gatherers. Beal Properties owns a very large lot at 812 River, Ypsilanti and owns a vacant lot at 711 Pearl, Ypsilanti that would make a great urban agriculture space. The great thing about urban farms are that they can be started on many different types and sizes of land: an open lot, a backyard or front yard, space next to a commercial building, a school yard, or even roof top.
Those interested in getting a quote from CityFARM, will find an online form here.