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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

The Urban Agriculture Network, Washington, D.C.

Smit and Joe Nasr founded The Urban Agriculture Network (TUAN) in 1992 as a non-profit clearinghouse for information on the topic. With a stable of 22 experts around the world, TUAN also offers consulting services to anyone interested in starting an urban agriculture project. Smit says that while the first year might be a struggle, by the third year any projects modeled on these success stories should be profitable:

- One-woman sprout-growing operation in Chicago ? This started 10 years ago in a plastic greenhouse on a vacant lot on the North side. Today, a staff of 12 raises sprouts sold to more than 30 retail customers.

- Rooftop garden in Manhattan ? Eli Zabar, owner of two restaurants/gourmet food shops, uses biointensive production methods on the rooftop of a building on the high-rent Upper East side to raise specialty produce and sprouts sold in the store. Smit points out that grocery stores could raise some of their own produce on their unused roofs using organic waste from spoiled produce and from nearby restaurants for compost, as well as waste heat from their cooling equipment. The stores could lease out the rooftop or grow the produce themselves.

- Network of growers and restaurants chefs ? Chefs at the Clyde’s of Georgetown chain of 20 restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area have contracts to buy produce from 40 growers in the suburbs. Chefs and farmers meet face to face several times a year to decide what should be grown, based on what the chefs plan to serve. There is also daily electronic communication between the chefs and producers. Each restaurant location and each farm has a computer terminal on a closed list server. At the end of the day chefs can type in their needs for the next day, and individual growers can respond, indicating who has the needed items so that the restaurant pick-up service can retrieve them. The results? Although Clyde’s pays 20% more than it would otherwise because of the cost of the pick-up service, business at the restaurants during the slow summer season has increased 25% since this network was established. Clyde’s advertises that the food is prepared using seasonal ingredients “just picked today”, and customers have responded to the fresher taste Clyde’s offers.

- One farmer in touch with 16 markets ? Charles (“Skip”) Planck in Wheatland, Virginia (outside of Washington), started raising specialty produce in 1978. Today he sells to 15 farmers’ markets within a 40-mile radius. The drivers of each of his 10 delivery trucks use hand-held computers to enter the going price for each item so that Planck can track where he’ll get the biggest profit the next day and next week.

- Delivering produce like pizza ? In Auckland, New Zealand, a retired business executive, David Silwood, started growing lettuce and other vegetables in a greenhouse in his backyard. His son, who was unemployed at the time, ran the deliveries. At the end of their second year, Silwood and his son had lined up 30 restaurants and six supermarket customers on contracts with the promise that if the produce is not delivered within one hour of ordering, there is no charge. They’ve been so successful, they took over the lot next door and now have seven employees.

- One hundred-woman virtual corporation ? Five years ago, 100 women in Bogotá, Colombia, growing food hydroponically on rooftops, stairways, and patios in a squatter area, got together to create a virtual corporation. Their board of directors consists of six producers and two supermarket executives. The corporation is an independent entity, marketing directly to retail outlets. Two to three times a week they prepare produce for pick-up by retailers. Based on market needs, the corporation decides what the women will grow. The business has been so successful that it also operates a consulting service. And the growers, working at home, are all making more money than their husbands.

The key ingredient in all these successful business models, says Smit, is direct communication with their markets.

Planner’s Quest

Smit, a city and regional planner, sees urban agriculture not only as a vehicle for economic development but also as an important means of conserving natural resources and cleaning up the environment. He points particularly to the ability of plants to clean low-lying ozone close to the ground, where young children are. “Children’s health is adversely affected by ozone, and urban agriculture can clean the air at their level.”

Smit has been interested in agriculture since he was a teenager, and first tried landscaping as a career. “But I found I was working for rich people, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Then he became a city planner, “but found I was working for rich suburbs!” In regional planning he finally was able to address the broad range of social, economic, and environmental problems facing cities. Smit was the project manager for the Chicago Regional Plan in the late 1960s.

Frustrated with the lack of interest in urban agriculture in the U.S., he took his expertise overseas, working for the United Nations, Ford Foundation and national governments. He visited 30 countries and co-authored with Joe Nasr and Annu Ratta the U.N. Development Program’s best-selling publication “Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities” (1996 first edition now out of print; second edition to be available in September 2000).

Smit firmly believes that independent, for-profit urban agriculture ventures are essential to community food security, improved nutrition and natural resource conservation. “Community gardens alone will never be able to expand and feed as many people as independent, for-profit producers,” said Smit. “An enterprise has to be economically viable to deliver benefits to the maximum number of people. According to the National Gardening Association, there are 11 million people in the U.S. growing vegetables in urban and suburban locations, and community gardeners only account for 400,000 to 500,000 of these, fewer than 5%. Urban agriculture businesses may not be as lucrative as fast-food restaurants, but they will pay living wages and return a profit to investors, as well as provide more nutritious food locally, employ people in the community, put abandoned land to productive use, cut air pollution and runoff, and increase biodiversity.”

For further information contact:

Jac Smit

Urban Agriculture Network

Washington, DC 20005

202-483-8130, F: 202-986-6732


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