Written by Cristobal Tinoco, President of Urban Farming Education
One concept that kept bothering our management team throughout the process of starting Agave Farms and UFE was the lack of profitability. Though most gardens do not set out with that as their goal, we felt it would help support the long-term sustainability of the projects we undertook if they could ultimately keep themselves going. So, we did an extensive analysis quantifying the amount of produce we could yield based on different size gardens and used a mix of crops at typical average cost per plant. What we found is that we could achieve a return on investment in three growing seasons using a 48-bag system or larger. This is remarkable because what other hobby pays for itself?
To be profitable, it is all about the math and the marketing. What size does the garden or farm need to be to cover basic overhead and direct costs of production? Some of the gardens we have built are limited in space and cannot supply enough produce to their community. If it takes 4 bags to grow enough food to impact one person and if the community has 50 people, we will need 200 bags, but sometimes the space we have to work with is limited. Furthermore, at what scale can a farm generate enough profit to be worth the effort? Can you find a buyer who is willing to pay more for locally grown and theoretically superior (in nutrition and taste)
produce? The cost of urban farming and small farms is going to be higher than conventional farming due to the economies of scale (leading to lower costs of equipment and labor) that large conventional farms have.
Although our team thinks it is a very good idea to run any gardening/farming operation as if it were a business, with the goal of profitability as a metric of success, we all came to the conclusion that making a profit is perhaps the least important reason to have a garden or farm. That is because many of the biggest benefits are not easily quantifiable.
How do you measure the value and social impact of a community coming together and relationships being forged? How do you measure ecotherapy and the value of recovery from psychological dysfunction? How do you measure the value of education and learning? How do you value supplementing a person's diet with nutritious food, when they might otherwise not have met their daily vitamin requirements?
Although we never made profits when we were growing produce at Agave Farms, by turning over the farm to other nonprofits and by starting UFE, we now realize that the measure of success is far different than what we thought it would be when we started. We can see it on the faces of the people who are experiencing the benefits of their own labor.
In recent years, as my mother grew older, I witnessed her health begin to decline. My brothers and I moved her to Phoenix from a very congested area in Los Angeles, and we helped her get her own home so we could be closer to her. The move into aquieter setting has had a positive impact, particularly because it has allowed her to continue an activity that she has enjoyed her whole life: gardening.
Even though I work as a landscaper and urban gardener and am president of a nonprofit company that builds gardens, I never actually put two and two together to realize that my mom might benefit if she was able to garden again. Excited about the potential benefits of our Ready-Go-Garden system, which makes gardening hassle-free, I installed it in her backyard in about an hour. After the soil was moist enough, I helped my mom plant seeds and some vegetables starts to speed up the growing process.
Watching my mom getting her hands in the dirt with a smile on her face, it finally hit home how all the things I have been working on professionally really do impact people's lives. My mom has always cooked, and food is a big part of our Mexican culture and her way of life. This spring, she has been able to walk out of her kitchen into the backyard to her own elevated garden and grab peppers, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro for her favorite dishes. We do not have to worry about her throwing out her back or falling down.
I can see that my mom feels like she is a part of something, and she seems more connected to the world around her. Her transformation has been remarkable; whenever we talk, she goes on and on about what she is growing. She knows more about gardening than I do. My brothers treat me like a hero, but it came as a surprise and shock to me how much of impact there has been and how fast it happened.