The Urban Farmer

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By Tim Ellsworth

Having lived on a farm as a youngster, I have this love of the country that just won’t quit. I think there are quite a few people that are so afflicted. I have a good friend, a city “boy” from Connecticut, who bought a place in the country several years ago, and he and his wife have now moved to their acreage and they both love it. Instead of selling stocks and bonds, he is now raising rabbits and chickens.

Just what is it that makes the country life so appealing? Well, one thing I am pretty sure about is it is not based on the economics of the arrangement. For me the appeal was getting back close to nature and longing to have more involvement with neighbors and people in the community. A number of years ago, I did buy an acreage and really enjoyed being back in the country. But after a while the lengthy drive to and from work became a hassle (particularly the icy roads during the winter) and taking care of the acreage, while enjoyable, began to eat up the majority of my free time. A change in my work circumstances dictated a move back to the city. I haven’t returned to the country since but still have that yearning. My commitment to country living might be a little like how I do camping. I love to camp out in a tent and cook over the open fire. However, after three or four days of camping, I am ready for a shower and my comfy bed. I guess that’s why RVs are so popular.

Facing this quandary of loving the outdoors but also missing the conveniences found in the city, I’ve concluded that the best solution might be to live in town with a place to go for the weekends out in the country. From perusing the ads in the newspaper, I don’t think I am alone in this desire. The shocker is the price for land right outside of town. What used to sell for a thousand to two thousand dollars an acre now costs $10,000 per acre or more, though I have noticed that the larger the parcel, the lower the price per acre.

This gave me an idea about organizing a community farm. An arrangement that is getting more popular for buying one’s vegetables is the concept of “community supported agriculture” or CSA. Under this arrangement, as I understand it, the customer pays money up front to the farmer to provide him or her with a certain amount of fruits and vegetables. This arrangement helps the farmer by providing needed capital and a known buyer, while the customer benefits by receiving a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. The customer is also motivated by knowing that he is helping a local farmer and buying greener with less transportation costs. In addition, some arrangements have the customer providing some labor out on the farm. The idea is to provide something a bit more hands-on and personal than the typical purchase at a store such as Walmart.

Why not take this concept a step further and simply buy a small farm that people can join as members? Rather than incurring a large financial obligation for a hobby farm, the member could participate based on a small annual or monthly fee, let’s say somewhere in the range of $10 per month. Services and benefits would be provided to the member on a pay-as-you-go basis. It would be up to the member as to what items he or she purchases or what programs he or she participates in.

With a group arrangement, what you could not afford individually would be attainable through the group. One of my ideas was to have a decent-sized greenhouse on the farm where plants could be grown from seed. I think members with gardens in town would appreciate the savings that they could achieve by growing their own seeds out at the green house. Space could be provided on a rental basis just like is done with community gardens. Or, if a member does not have garden space, that space could be provided on a rental basis at the farm. A member that wanted to have the experience of raising chickens could do that out on the farm, free-range style, if they so desired.

By having a group of people involved with the farm, an individual is not so tied to daily chores. Work and responsibilities can be shared. You want to take a vacation, that is OK.

Arrangements can be made to cover the responsibilities that you otherwise would have had. If we can achieve certain cash flows, people could be hire to do the daily chores so you and your family can enjoy the farm just on the weekends. Let’s say you are the type that wants to check things out before fully committing to a project. A group-based farm would give you that opportunity. If you want to limit your involvement, that would be your choice as you pick the timing and type of projects you want to participate in.

We want this experience to be fun and family-oriented. We want the farm to be a place where you don’t just drop off the kids but rather spend a day or afternoon together as a family. One of my ideas is to have a fun-and-travel club. There are many neat places in Nebraska and Iowa to visit. Doing this in small groups can be a lot of fun. Camping out is one of my favorite hobbies, and when our church sponsored this type of activity we always had a great time.

How do you finance something like this? The primary initial outlay will be for the purchase of the land. Hopefully, we can find the investors interested in this project to put up the necessary money. The economics of the arrangement will have to be carefully planned to make sure it cash flows. There will be challenges, but there always are in anything that is worthwhile. Our church not too long ago went into debt to build a gym and meeting center for our young people. At the time there were concerns about getting all of this paid for. However, now the congregation is double in size compared to what it used to be, and the youth center has been a great asset for our church. I think with God on our side and careful planning, most worthwhile goals can be achieved. The biggest challenge oftentimes is having the courage and taking those initial steps to get started.

If this is something that you would be interested in, we would be happy to share our ideas with you and include you in the process of forming “The Urban Farmers.” We will be having some organizational meetings so we can get started. The times and dates are shown in the ad on page 15 in this paper. Hope to see you there!

 

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