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PHOTO: Rachael Brugger
The picture of urban farming life usually involves dreamy days of harvesting beautiful produce from the ground. While it’s true that the rewards of fresh vegetables and homegrown eggs outshine the counterparts found in grocery stores, they come at a price: time, patience and hard work are something. In between the idyllic moments of harvesting your own food, real farmers do a number of unexpected chores. If you’re ready to dive into this lifestyle, here’s what you can expect to be doing while you’re waiting on your crops to grow.
At the heart of it, farming is the activity of cultivating edibles from the soil, and that means it’s an often dirty business. Whether raising livestock, grains or vegetables, farmers spend a lot of time washing things. Poultry keepers wash eggs, feeders and waterers. Vegetable farmers clean seedling trays, storage bins and harvest tools. And everyone puts serious wear and tear on their laundry machines to clean soiled clothing. If you don’t like doing dishes, farming might not be for you.
Every farm encounters creatures they want to keep in or out of certain areas. In an urban setting, farmers might choose to install fencing to conceal compost bins or keep pets and kids out of gardens. Urban chicken and goat keepers also need to keep livestock in and predators out. Fencing, no matter how well conceived and constructed, requires maintenance.
“Snow, wind and kids can damage fencing,” says Kate Hodges, who runs the 1/4-acre urban homestead Foraged & Sown in Columbus, Ohio. “To keep it functional, I look for weak areas and repair as soon as I notice one.”
Excellent farmers are excellent forecasters. They consider weather, seasons, customer demands, food trends and more to decide where to put their farming efforts. Many make details plans on paper, maps and spreadsheets.
Beginning urban farmers, without developed intuition and often on a shoestring budget, spend extra effort planning.
“Pay attention to your infrastructure,” says Chelsea Gandy of Fox Hollow Farm Naturally, in Fredericktown, Ohio. “It can be hard to justify putting in the hours to maintain it, especially when animals or plants are plaintive expressing their needs, but the work you put in will repay you in spades later. Keep as much of your infrastructure as cheap and portable as you can, until you have a clear idea of what systems work for you.”
4. Record Keeping
No farmer—at whatever scale—can keep up their efforts for very long without a record-keeping system. Farmers who own a farm business especially need good records to keep their business afloat, but the same concept applies to urban farmers, even if you only intend to produce food for your family. Track things like seeding and harvesting dates and input sources to make adjustments in following seasons.
Some farmers keep notebooks of written information while others create or adapt spreadsheets. Finding the record-keeping system that works for your takes concerted effort and refinement, especially if you continually expand or change what you grow.
Every Friday, when we harvest microgreens on my urban farm, I play what I call Fridge Tetris. This is the game of trying to fit all our bagged and boxed produce into our refrigerators. We don’t keep any more appliances running than we need to for energy efficiency reasons, so we attempt to maximize fullness in the minimal number of fridges. In addition to their harvests, farmers gain efficiency when their tools, seeds and supplies are well-organized.
6. Managing Excess Harvest
Most farmers are most talented at growing food. They have particular intuition about when and where to plant vegetables, are skilled at caring for animals, and love to be outside. Often, growers are so practiced at their trade they end up with excess produce during the year.
When faced with a landslide of homegrown butternut squash or a mountain of backyard tomatoes, it’s hard to think of any going to waste. Develop a backup strategy for when your family or others you provide for can’t handle the windfall. Cultivate a relationship with a small restaurateur, trade or swap with other growers, sell or give to friends and family, or find a local food pantry or feeding program that accepts produce.
Since the advent of agriculture, moving food and supplies has been a constant challenge for farmers. Urban farming is no different. You often make regular trips to outlying feed and farm supply stores, and may need a large truck to transport things like soil amendments, tillers, coop building materials and more. Also, many farming events and tours that you can learn from tend to be outside of the city, prompting you to hit the road. Driving is a chore that’s hard to avoid.
Ultimately, urban farmers must be jacks and jills of all trades. We are able to enjoy much of our time outside tending our crops and animals, but every successful farmer has to hit the road, keep the books and wash the dishes, too.