Seattle Urban Farm Company Transforms Urban Landscapes with Edibles
Urban Farm Hub is launching a series of articles addressing the long-term economic viability of urban agriculture. We know commercial agriculture enterprises pencil in shrinking midwest cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but what about thriving metropolitan areas such as Seattle where there’s a shortage of developable land?
We’ll be interviewing small business owners, design professionals, urban farm entrepreneurs, and commercial developers in rapidly growing metropolitan areas to see what they have to say about reaping the green from urban agriculture. Last week we highlighted the work of Little City Gardens, a micro market garden based in San Francisco. This week we talk to the founder of Seattle Urban Farm Company, one of Seattle’s most successful edible landscaping businesses and award winning designer of the Crops For Clunkers exhibit at the 2010 Northwest Flower and Garden Show.
Based in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood, Seattle Urban Farm Company is transforming front yards and rooftops into mini food oases. Colin McCrate, founder and co-owner of the business, shares his thoughts about the struggles of small family farms, the future of roof top gardens (if you’re a regular guest at Bastille Restaurant in Ballard, you’ve probably even eaten some of their rooftop spinach!), and some incentives the city might offer to help urban agriculture projects.
What’s the story behind starting Seattle Urban Farm Company?
I was really interested in sustainable agriculture in college and spent my summers working on farms. This turned out to be the greatest formative experience of my life. The most amazing people I met were the small family farmers who put everything into their farm. But it’s difficult and very stressful to make a living as a farmer. On such a small-scale, it’s challenging to stay in the black.
After college I found myself living in Seattle doing landscaping work, which I didn’t find especially gratifying. I thought about becoming a farmer, but it was really intimidating to lease or purchase land to start a farm and I was unsure of my ability to make a profit. It occurred to me that maybe I could grow food for people in the city and make a living from it. This was in the winter of 2006. There weren’t any models I could look to for guidance. I had no idea if there was a market for this type of work. The general mentality in the landscaping business was that no one pays for someone to tend their garden. People interested in gardening will grow food themselves--it’s the part of gardening they enjoy most.
I’m glad I didn’t listen. My early customers would often say things like, “I wondered whether there were people doing this.” These folks wanted to grow food, but didn’t know where to start. I was busy from the beginning.
What was your experience in agriculture prior to launching this experiment?
I suppose it’s a combination of personal gardening, reading a lot, and learning from experience. This is my 10th or 11th year as a grower and I learn more every year.
I’ve also worked on farms all over the U.S.; a few seasons in Poulsbo, a few farms in the Midwest and one in Pennsylvania. My job-seeking model involved going to the local farmers market, meeting a farmer and seeing if they needed help. Most of the farms I worked on were between five and 20 acres—owned by a family, or couple with little or no paid help. Each experience was educational. Farmers are wonderful about sharing their knowledge with others.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced in getting your company off the ground?
Figuring out how to organize it. I didn’t initially write a business plan in the beginning. My intention was to move into it slowly and figure everything out along the way. But things happened so fast in the beginning that I was scrambling to keep up. I quickly realized better systems would allow our company to provide better service to our clients while increasing our profit margin. That first year I operated as a Sole Proprietor. Then in 2007, when Brad Halm became a business partner, we formed an LLC.
I find people in this field aren’t inherently business-minded. I know I had to switch my mindset, from a focus on growing food to growing a business.
What’s the range of services Seattle Urban Farm Company offers?
Our strength is definitely in growing things and maximizing the use of small spaces for healthy, organic food production. We plant a diversity of crops and aim to improve the soil, crop and health yields year after year.
Over the last few years our business has primarily been focused on residential design, installation and maintenance. Although our client base really varies, there’s definitely a pattern of young families and first time homeowners who want to create a more practical, useful space for themselves and their family.
We’ve also been doing more commercial installations, which are really fun. We see a lot of potential in rooftop gardens and are in the process of developing installation and maintenance models that will be cost effective. For these types of larger scale projects we’ll usually work with a landscape architect to develop a design.
What’s one of the most interesting projects your company has worked on?
The Bastille rooftop garden is really interesting. The owners bought a historic building and retrofitted it with extra trusses to support the garden, which was pretty expensive. We have it set up for high-volume production, much more like traditional farming. We’re trying to produce as much food per square foot as possible. Last year we did all salad greens and this year we’re bringing 40-50 tomato plants up there and a few beehives from Ballard Bee Company to provide honey for desserts.
It’s such a shame to see all of these new buildings going up without rooftop gardens. The best time to put one in is definitely at the time of construction. Retrofits later down the road can be pretty cost prohibitive.
How many employees does your company have?
We currently have two partners with three seasonal, full-time employees. If everything goes well this spring, we’ll hopefully be able to hire two more people. My goal is to find enough business to keep people on year-round. The challenge so far is that we don’t have enough business in the winter months to keep it economically viable for year-round employees. Larger commercial projects may fill this gap.
How can the city support your company and other urban agriculture projects?
I think the city wants to be supportive. My impression right now is that they’re trying to figure it all out. Given the nature of municipal government, things are just complicated and it will probably take a few years to get it all together. I know they’re trying to rewrite zoning codes to expand urban agriculture opportunities. I’d also like to see them give community and nonprofit groups access to more land for food production.
In terms of our company, I feel like we’re a small business similar to any other small business. The biggest issue we’re facing is water availability. It’s really expensive for our clients to irrigate, and rainwater catchment is not economically practical on a large scale. It would be great if the city offered more incentives for developers to install things like cisterns.
What’s your vision for Seattle Urban Farm Company a year from now; five years from now?
My goal is to develop economically sustainable models of urban agriculture. We need to keep coming up with ideas to lower the costs of food production. Although we provide access to food for a lot of people, there are large sectors of the population that can’t afford our services. I want to make living, but I also realize we have these skills I want to give people access to. It would be great to provide subsidies for low-income families. Perhaps we can develop a partnership with a local nonprofit to reach out to a broader audience.
It would be great to work with more people. Making people happy is the best part of this business! Seattle Urban Farm Company: Transforming the Urban Landscape with Edibles