The Neo-Agrarians: Small-scale Farming, Large-scale Economic Impact


A conservationist specializing in ecological restoration, Melissa Miles long viewed her father’s well-kept, one-acre property in Lansdale–a placid Philadelphia suburb–as a waste of space.

When she stumbled across a website for SPIN-Farming–SPIN stands for sub-acre plot intensive farming–Miles knew exactly how she could transform her father’s land. She didn’t, however, plan on that transformation becoming a profitable, sustainable, full-time endeavor in its first year.

“I think the food system in our country is perilous, and rather than complain, I did something about it,” says Miles, who sells a variety of vegetables and flowers at her Two Miles Micro-Farm and provides recipes for a customer base that has grown from a few curious shoppers to dozens of regulars.

“I think the way to effect change is to start doing something yourself that you can be successful at and show other people how.”

Concepts like urban, small-scale and sustainable agriculture are not new. What’s emerging is a change in attitude. Miles and SPIN-Farming are impassioned parts of a movement looking to shift the future of U.S. farming from a high-productivity, commercial-industrial model to a neo-agrarian one that maintains a focus on profitability but returns to a small-scale, sustainable approach.

There are myriad organizations devoted to urban and small-scale farming, but the vast majority of them are non-profit entities with missions centered on inner-city youth or farming’s therapeutic benefits. Even Mildred’s Daughters, Pittsburgh’s oldest farm and a for-profit plot in the city’s Stanton Heights section, considers itself less an entrepreneurial endeavor and more of a “community.” Today, as more people re-examine or re-purpose their lives during the global recession, some are tapping resources they hope will help them live the re-emerging dream of living off the land.

“Urban agriculture has to get out of the non-profit rut it’s been in to become viable, and to become viable it has to support itself financially,” says Roxanne Christensen, SPIN-Farming’s co-founder, based in suburban Philadelphia.

SPIN-Farming, which boasts nearly 500 active members mostly in the U.S., recasts farming as a small business in cities and suburbs and attempts to remove the two largest barriers for new farmers–land and capital. Its growing techniques are not breakthrough, but the way a SPIN farm business is run, is ($50,000 in profit is possible from a half-acre of land). Its method promotes sustainability and entrepreneurship among both newcomers and those with green thumbs, all on plots of land an acre or less. Christensen has co-authored a series of 16 guides that gives step-by-step instructions on everything from tools, marketing and distribution for the would-be hobbyist or full-time farmer.

“In order for people to have access to good, healthy food, you’ll need a lot more people producing it,” says Christensen. “That speaks in favor of encouraging entrepreneurial farmers.”

The venture capital sector is starting to pay attention. NewSeed Advisors, which invests in alternative and sustainable agriculture companies, will co-host with SPIN a conference called Agriculture 2.0 in New York in September. Christensen will deliver the opening remarks for a first-of-its-kind event that hopes to attract investors, agriculture entrepreneurs and research academics.

One well-established national non-profit is establishing a program that will not only develop vacant urban land into a working farm, but aims to grow next-generation small-scale farmers from an unlikely source: North Philadelphia. The Salvation Army’s new Kroc Center is one of several state-of-the-art facilities throughout the U.S. funded in large part by McDonald heiress Joan Kroc’s estate.

When the Salvation Army polled residents on the neighborhood’s number one need, the top response was “a grocery store.” The North Philadelphia center, located in the troubled neighborhood of Nicetown/Tioga and slated to open next year, will have a .75-acre farm that Kroc Center business manager Dottie Wells hopes will sustain itself, help local youth with job readiness and teach locals how to grow vegetables on their own urban plots of land. The program’s still-forming advisory board will include SPIN-Farming representatives and Mike McGrath, the venerable public radio gardening guru.

“If we show this can work, it can definitely be replicated,” says Wells.

Grow Pittsburgh
is another mission-based non-profit trying to spread the seed of urban farming, and it is also concerned with making money. As foundation funding has declined during the recession, the organization’s $35,000 anticipated revenue for 2009 needs to be expanded. Executive director Miriam Manion says the group is developing curriculum for a training course that will commence in 2010 at a three- or four-acre urban farming site in Pittsburgh.

“The truth of the matter is we’ve had a very difficult time identifying people that are trained to do urban farming,” says Manion. “I can see the opportunity for numerous urban farms to form a co-op, at least for distribution purposes.”

Although she faces a funding gap, Manion says the City of Pittsburgh and its urban redevelopment authority are on board.

“They get it, that greening is one of the keys to economic development,” she says.

Others local leaders are paying attention, as well. In nearby Uniontown, Fayette County, the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council went to Washington, D.C. early this year to pitch a program it believes will create a new generation of small farming businesses that can kickstart the national economy.

In Philadelphia, there are more than 40,000 vacant properties on more than 900 acres. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority has collaborated with area urban agriculture groups and farmers to launch a pilot program to use city-owned space for greenhouse farming for up to five years.

While government funding for sustainable agriculture remains marginal, representing a fraction of one percent of the USDA‘s $100 billion-plus budget, there are many who believe a new agriculture can bolster the economy with a bottom-up approach. With recent international food scares, increased awareness of production shortcomings, and a global focus on sustainability, Christensen says people are ready to approach farming in an entirely new way.

“We market farming for the masses,” says Christensen. “People are doing this without policy changes and government support, using their backyards, front lawns and neighborhood lots, so it’s something all on its own.”

Joe Petrucci is a freelance writer inPhiladelphia and one of Keystone Edge’s Innovation and Job News editors. Send feedback here.

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All photographs by Heather Mull

Region: Southwest

Entrepreneurship, Features, Pittsburgh