Small is beautiful…and profitable
Urban farmers in Philadelphia demonstrate that you don’t need a whole lot of land—or fancy equipment—to see black.

By Dan Sullivan

June 8, 2006: In the shadows of towering twin 5-million-gallon checkerboard-painted water tanks supplying the modest northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Somerton, a miracle is taking place. Here lies Somerton Tanks Farm, an experiment in bio-intensive urban agriculture that seeks nothing less than to put a new face on farming.

The farm represents a partnership between the nonprofit Institute for Innovations in Local Farming and the Philadelphia Water Department, which was exploring innovative and environmentally friendly ways to utilize the expansive grassy lawns that surround its many facilities. "We’ve converted many to meadow grass, but we were looking for something that was more productive for the city and for the economy,” says Nancy Weissman, economic development director for the water department. “We also want to encourage sustainable business activity in and around the city to protect our watershed.”

The goal was to see if the 1/2-acre farm could produce $25,000 in gross revenue, an initial benchmark met the first growing season. Last year, in its third season of operation, the farm surpassed $50,000 in sales ($52,200, to be exact).

“We consider it a huge success,” Weissman gushes on a warm spring day as a group of Philadelphia foodies gathers to tour the farm. “Our hope is that this development will encourage more farmers to take up land in the city.”

Of course, “land in the city” can come with a huge price tag, and while the Philadelphia Water Department remains committed to the urban farming vision post-911, security now overshadows any other plans for land surrounding the city’s water supply. “We did our first site visit to this spot on September 12, 2001,” Weissman says. “[911] made an earthquake of a change for water utilities across the country in terms of security issues.”

With that option a wash, land access continues to be one of the biggest challenges for new farmers, both inside and outside the city. One hope is that other entities with public landholdings will step forward. Other options involve public/private partnerships.

“My vision is to make Philadelphia a living lab,” says Roxanne Christensen, president of the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming. “We’ve got 30,000 vacant lots…there are lots of different opportunities. There’s no one model. A big issue right now is open space—they can’t pave it all. The policymakers need to realize that agriculture can be an asset all over the city.”

The “spin” on SPIN farming

When Christensen began developing the idea for farming public lands in Philadelphia, she happened upon the work of Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Realizing there was good money to be made growing high-value, multiple crops intensively, the couple had sold their 20 acres of idyllic, irrigated farmland, leased 25 residential backyard plots totaling half an acre, and become urban farmers (see Wally’s Urban Market Garden www.marketgardening.com/wallysmarketgarden for more).

Satzewich helped Christensen and Somerton Tanks’ first farmer draw up a plan of attack. A business partnership blossomed, and the two have since co-authored a primer, a set of case studies and other printed materials that break down their trademarked SPIN (small-plot intensive) Farming for those who wish to farm part-time for fun and a little extra cash or as a fulltime occupation. Their case studies profile a number of SPIN Farm scenarios, including:

  • a 5,000-square-foot part-time hobby farm model that generates $10,000 to 20,000 in gross annual sales;
  • a 20,000-square-foot intermediate full-time farm model that generates $54,000 annually;
  • a 1-acre full-time model that brings in $50,000 to 65,000.

The case studies include marketing plans, start-up equipment needs and costs, farm layouts and revenue targets, operating expenses and pricing strategies (find out more at www.spinfarming.com).

A diverse portfolio

The basic premise of SPIN Farming is that you can grow a lot of stuff in a small space. Current Somerton Tank farmers Steve and Nicole Shelly have done a fine job putting that theory to practice. Their 280 beds turn an average of three to four crops each season, and they grow 100 varieties of 50 different types of vegetables (it’s enough to make your head spin). Breaking $50,000 was accomplished within a 9-month growing season. This year, they’ve put up a 90’ x 14’ hoop house—with recycled materials at a cost of about $1,500—and aim to extend their growing season.

Not only is such intensive organic farming a lot of physical work, it takes some serious brainpower, especially when you consider factors such as fertility. On our tour, Steve Shelly explains that this is accomplished through a complexity of three-to-four-year rotations, by experimenting with cover crops—such as buckwheat—that sometimes double as food crops, and by trucking in (actually they use a van) readily available compost from nearby mushroom farms.

Somerton Tanks Farm’s crop diversity is rivaled only by its marketing channels, which include a 46-member (22-week) CSA, three farmers’ markets, an on-site farm stand, and a handful of restaurant and catering accounts.

Something the farm does not have a lot of is machinery—a 14-horsepower rear-tine tiller and a gas-powered weed trimmer are about it. There’s also a modest walk-in cooler and a tarped harvest station—complete with stainless steel sink (adequate water supply is not an issue)—that allow for the picking, washing and cooling of veggies in one-fell swoop. This all adds up to superior quality and a longer shelf life. “A lot of times people are kind of weirded out by our salad mix,” Steve Shelly quips. “Someone will come up to me at market and say “You know, I got salad mix from you awhile back, and it’s still good.”

Low-tech innovation is everywhere—like the as-yet unpatented homemade leaf miner traps Steve Shelly jokingly shields from the camera, and the “overhead sprinker” (a rotary sprinkler on a plastic sawhorse). Even the patched-up radio in the processing station—which looks like something the professor pieced together on Gilligan’s Island—speaks to good old-fashioned ingenuity.

Part of the magic of SPIN Farming is low start-up costs. Part of the reality for young farmers who hear a calling and want to follow it is that passion and dedication can take the place of acreage and fancy machinery, heavy inputs and fossil fuel.

The new American farmer

Nicole Shelly studied architecture and was in the profession “my second day” before realizing that it wasn’t the right path for her. After plodding along for a few years, she talked to Steve about putting their love for food and for the environment together and trying their hands at organic farming. So they signed up for a season at a certified-organic farm in Hillsdale, New York. They learned out about the fledgling Somerton Tank Farm project upon returning to Philadelphia.

“I call it farm karma,” Steve Shelly says.

The first year the farm was in operation, Nicole worked as an intern and Steve volunteered. Within three years they were running the place. “We like being outside and the independence of being farmers…and both of our families have businesses, so it was a good fit for us,” Steve Shelly explains.

Both farmers find farming and marketing equally challenging.

“You need to grow the right things for the right markets,” Steve Shelly says.

“Every day is a challenge—If something can go wrong it will go wrong,” adds Nicole Shelly. “You just have to learn to roll with it.”

Christensen envisions a world where every new school, shopping mall or housing development carries with it an agricultural component.

“What we’re trying to do is recast farming as a viable small business in the city,” she says. “SPIN applies small business practices to farming, and its sub-acre growing methods make it possible for many more people to follow their desire to farm. SPIN farmers can have the best of both worlds—they can couple their desire to own a small business with their urge to farm, and they can do it right in their own back yards or neighborhoods.”

Christensen, who has a marketing background, describes the new urban farmer as “a Smith graduate with a biology degree.” Coincidence or not, Somerton Tanks Farm assistant farmer Mira Kilpatrick is just that. While at Smith, she took a summer job at Brookfield Farms near Amherst, Mass., and never got over the farming bug (to learn about Brookfield Farm’s apprenticeship program, see The Apprentice).

Kilpatrick grew up in the Philadelphia area and likes the idea of becoming an urban farmer—her goal is to farm on her own next year—but she wonders about the challenges of land availability. “I’m looking in the city, and I’m also considering moving beyond the city as well,” she says. “It seems kind of difficult to get onto land in the city.”

So what of this dream of a wave of urban farmers revitalizing metropolitan areas and the face of agriculture?

“I think it could happen, but it’s going to take a lot on the part of the people who decide what happens on public land,” Kilpatrick says. “I don’t think there’s a big enough push yet to make it take off.” That push, she says, will come through public education and people saying this is what they want. “I think people get more excited about it when they come out and see it.”

And why does someone with a science degree from a prestigious Northeastern college want to become a farmer? That answer comes easy to Kilpatrick.

“It’s one of the most important jobs you can have.”

Fungus amongus
USDA/Rodale Institute collaboration finds on-farm application

Three years ago, USDA soil microbiologist David Douds toured Somerton Tanks Farm. Afterward, he offered his own services as well as enlisting the help of several million little friends—mychorrizae.

In collaboration with The Rodale Institute, Douds has been studying how these beneficial fungi interact with crop roots and improve both soil and plant health. Mycorrhizae invade plant root cells and take their energy from plant carbohydrates; in exchange, the fungi explore several inches into the soil, greatly expanding the ability of plant roots to absorb difficult-to-mobilize essential nutrients such as phosphorus and zinc.

“This whole idea of on-farm production of arbuscular mychorrizae fungi works well for the labor-intensive small farm like Somerton Tanks where a lot of things get planted by hand,” Dr. Douds says. The inoculum that’s been produced so far can’t be applied to large acreage with machines, Douds explains. Vegetable farmers, however, can inoculate their crops by incorporating the fungi into the potting mix used to grow transplants. “It’s an efficient way of using it labor-wise, and it fits right into the production practices.”

-- DS