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  • Urban Farming 101: What you need to know to get started

    January 21, 2024 9 min read 0 Comments

    row of yellow stemmed swiss chard under shade cloth cover on an urban farm

    Starting an Urban Farm

    Starting a farm in the city may seem like an impossible task but that is exactly what I did two years ago. I have always wanted to own a farm, and while that is still the goal, I realized that I could jump-start that plan right here in my urban setting. 

    Growing food has always come naturally to me since I grew up on a farm. After moving to the city I naturally continued growing my own food. After many years of doing that I finally pivoted to growing for profit, direct to consumers via local farmer markets and food co-ops. 

    If you want to start an urban farm but need more knowledge both on the production and business side of farming, this article will guide you on how to get started. 


    Urban farming is any farming activity that takes place in a city or any heavily populated area. “CDFA (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture) defines "urban" as a geographic area within 25 miles of an Urbanized Area with a population of 50,000 or more.” 

    While the term evokes images of high-tech farming in warehouses, it is becoming more accessible and feasible for such farming to be done creatively in backyards, small plots, and even spare rooms. 

    Urban farming differs from backyard gardening as the goal is to produce enough to sell for profit to the local markets via various sales channels. Now more than ever before, with the available resources, anyone with a passion for growing food can pursue owning and operating an urban farm.  

    Urban farmer avrile remy at a farmer's market


    If the recent pandemic has taught us anything, heavy reliance on outside sources for our food can be very detrimental. Having a robust urban farming economy is critical to withstand similar issues in the future. Urban farming also allows beginning farmers the opportunity to pursue their dream of growing for local markets and restaurants. 

    Plus, locally grown food results in a lower carbon footprint from reduced transportation for delivering produce. Food apartheid is a problem many cities face, and having urban farms is a way to provide accessible fresh produce to the community.

    Urban farming is a growing movement transforming the way food is produced and providing opportunities for social and economic development.

    Greens growing in row on an urban farm


    There are various ways to get started with urban farming, but the most important step is to assess your resources and knowledge. If you are already doing some gardening, you will already have an idea of what it will take, but careful planning is critical for success. 

    Land Assessment  

    The advantage of urban farming is that you don’t need acres of land to get started. If you have a large backyard or a front yard, that is a great place to start. This has the benefit of minimizing your startup cost and risk exposure. 

    Check with your city or HOA if it is permissible to grow vegetables in the front yard before starting. Typically, no permission is needed to utilize your backyard so start planning out your beds. My urban farm is in an older part of the city so I didn’t need clearance from an HOA to get started. 

    Alternatively, you can research your local area and find land that you can rent. Renting land allows you to conserve your startup capital that would otherwise be gobbled up if you purchased land outright. 

    Woman tilling up rows with bcs tractor

    Soil Prep 

    If you go in-ground with your growing technique, you can easily rent a garden tiller from your local home improvement store. It is not necessary to purchase this type of equipment in the beginning. 

    Even if you want to do a no-till urban farm it is often necessary to do an initial tillage of the soil to work in amendments such as compost, worm casting, or manure. Spend adequate time preparing your soil as it is very critical for the success of your crops. The value of proper site preparation and soil improvement is immeasurable. 

    If you have access to a local composting company, consider purchasing compost in bulk to save money; most of them will even deliver bulk amounts. 

    broccoli in raised bed planter

    Planters and Raised Beds

    Alternatively, if you don’t have a lot of land, farming can be accomplished with permanent raised beds, grow bags, and other types of containers. You can successfully have a combination of inground beds and garden planters. Especially if you are going to utilize a front yard space for growing, setting up some nice planters can add more grow space while keeping your front yard aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors.

    Similar to inground growing, using planters will require bulk purchasing of potting mix, compost, and manure. If you would like to take a deeper dive into using grow bags on your farm, check out this article here

    Racks of Sunflower Sprouts

    Vertical farming 

    Another approach to urban farming is growing crops vertically. You can accomplish this in an even smaller footprint because it involves growing crops in layers stacked vertically on shelves. Multiple techniques can be used for vertical growing, such as hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics.  

    Microgreens, as well as mushrooms and lettuces, are among the most popular crops in recent years that can be grown vertically. A spare room in your house can easily be converted into an indoor vertical farm. Microgreens are an excellent choice for vertical urban farming because of their relatively low start-up cost compared to the other growing methods. 

    They can be grown all year round and can easily be scaled up with demand. It is a fantastic gateway crop to get you into a farmers market to start building your customer base. Microgreens are the crop that helped me transition into urban farming for profit.

    irrigated row of greens under a shade cloth cover

    Watering & Irrigation 

    Water is a critical input in farming regardless of the size of the farm. During your planning and design phase, consider having some sort of automatic watering system which will alleviate the burden of watering your crops on time. 

    While farming in a city offers the advantage of readily available municipal water, some cities have water use restrictions so also consider adopting efficient irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and if possible, reuse of water. 

    A rooftop in an urban setting can provide an abundance of rainwater, which can help offset a little of the cost of city water. Plus, crops thrive on rainwater. Using drip irrigation which can be controlled automatically is a great way to water your crops efficiently. 

    Irrigation equipment can be sourced from local home improvement stores or specialty suppliers. Once your water system is set up, adopt water retention methods to minimize the frequency of watering.

    Soils high in organic matter result in less runover and increased water infiltration. Consider mulching to reduce evaporation and adding shade cloth during high temperatures which can create a great microclimate for plants. 

    bsc tractor and shovel

    Tools & Equipment 

    Investing in good quality tools and equipment is very critical in the beginning. This will ensure that you are not replacing those items frequently. 

    For example, if you are going to grow microgreens, invest in quality trays. Since microgreens require weekly growing and sanitizing cycles, those trays must be durable enough to handle that frequent use. 

    For most urban gardening, complicated tools are not required. The typical urban farmer would need hand tools, seeders, rakes, wheelbarrows, trellises, and a good wash station. It is always best to start small, add tools gradually as needed, or rent them if purchasing them is outside your budget. 

    Another budget-friendly way to acquire tools is to buy used ones. Your local home improvement stores often phase out their rental equipment and that can be an opportunity to pick up items such as tillers and other small cultivating tools. 

    In fact, the tiller that I have used for the past eight years was purchased from my local home improvement store. My favorite way to get new-to-me tools is to check out the garage at an estate sale. 

    Also, consider adding season-extending items such as shade cloth or frost blankets. These items will help protect crops from extreme temperatures. This past summer we had record-breaking temperatures in Phoenix so I saved our cucumber crop by adding a shade structure with 50% shade cloth.

    Post-Harvest Handling 

    You are also going to need equipment for processing and storing your harvest. The most critical piece of equipment for post-harvesting is cold storage. Depending on how much are growing one or two standing fridges will do, or you may need to invest in a walk-in cooler. I was able to purchase two used fridges from Facebook marketplace for a really good price.  

    Plastic food-grade tubs and totes are handy for washing, storing, and transporting your produce. If you plan on doing leafy vegetables, those will also need to be kept cool during deliveries, so a good quality cooler for transportation is a must. Additionally, if you are going to sell at the farmers’ markets, you will need containers to sell your product, such as clamshells and bags, and for displaying your product.

    urban farm in phoenix arizona


    Pick crops that are suitable for your region and fast maturing. With your limited space, you need to have these quick-growing varieties that allow for multiple plantings for the season.

    If you are new to the area or farming consider apprenticing or volunteering with a local farmer to increase your knowledge base and skills for the crops suitable for your climate. This has the added benefit of allowing you to learn the nuances of certain crops and decide which you like growing.  


    Things to consider when selecting crops:


    • Select high-yielding, high-value crops such as leaf salad, microgreens, cucumbers, or tomatoes. Crops like cucumbers can be trellised and grown vertically, so you can grow a lot in a small space. Microgreens can be grown all year round. They can be the main crop you grow or supplement your produce when outdoor growing conditions limit the availability of your other crops. 


    • Talk to other local farmers in your area to see what varieties they have had success with. Experienced farmers have a wealth of knowledge, and most farmers would be happy to talk to you about what they grow.


    • If you are doing part of your farming in containers or raised beds, be sure to consider if the variety you have selected is suitable for that planting style. Carrots, peppers, and tomatoes are a few examples of crops that do well in containers and raised beds.


    • Trial multiple varieties to determine if they are a good fit for your growing conditions. Keep careful records so that you can evolve and dial in what works for your farm for future crop planning.


    • Visit local farmers markets to see what is already being offered at the markets to determine what else you can offer your local community to help build your customer base.



    For urban farming, it is essential to plan ahead to have continuous produce available for the market. This is best achieved with succession planting. This will allow you to extend the harvest season. 

    Depending on your growing zone you can have multiple crop cycles during that season. Starting seeds indoors before the last frost is a way to give new crops a jump start on the upcoming season. If you are late with starting your seed starts, consider purchasing starts from your local nurseries for the first round of crops.



    While it is convenient to run down to the local nursery to purchase seed to jump-start your farm, it can also be costly. Set yourself up with good quality seed-starting tools and supplies to have the most cost-effective source of plants for your farm. High-quality cell trays are a great option as the trays are reusable season after season. 

    Soil blocking is another method of seed starting that is environmentally friendly, low waste, and an effective way to grow healthy seedlings, which can be up-potted or planted directly into your beds. 

    Starting your own seedlings gives you complete control over the varieties you want to grow. Bonus tip if you grow too many seedlings, consider selling them directly to backyard gardeners at your farmers market.



    Now that you have grown all of this produce, where will you sell it? 

    Farmers markets are the natural choice to start selling your produce; many cities have them multiple times a week. With consumers becoming more enlightened about sourcing better food there is an increasing demand for locally grown produce. 

    Another option is to join a farmer co-op, which already has an established customer base of restaurants, residential customers, and local grocery stores. Consider working with your local food bank network as many of them have an annual budget to purchase locally grown food from farmers just like you. 

    To successfully sell produce from your urban farm, it's important to utilize multiple sales channels.

     pea shoots under the sun on a table

    Keys to a Successful Urban Farm 

    Starting an urban farm is no small task so taking the time to plan is key. Farms are this incredible dynamic entity that is unlike any other type of business. Farming is a business and needs to run as such for long-term survival and success. 

    Starting small and scaling up gradually will be helpful to avoid burnout. Focus on increasing your knowledge and skill set, and try different growing techniques to see which makes the most sense for your farm. I regularly attend sessions hosted by the University of Arizona Extension Office, which is designed to support small-scale farmers like me.

    Record keeping is an essential tool that will help you accomplish that and be flexible to change course as needed. 

    Written by Avrile Remy, Shamba AZ