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Los Angeles start up small farm... advice please

Posts: 3
Location: Culver City, CA
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Hello all,

I'm looking for a little advice. Maybe a reality check.

I want to start a small farm business in LA where I can produce food and be a model urban permie site. I have been here about a year and have gone from compacted clay to less compacted clay with a bunch of compost. We have bees, chickens, we are growing enough food to feed our large family but I want more. Not a lot more, just enough.

I am located on the west side of Los Angeles. I have access to about 2,000 sq ft. of potential veg. bed space at home. I know, 2,000 sq. ft. is tiny but it's awe inspiring to myself and my neighbors. I'm thinking about a SPIN -ish model where I find/get empty lots or other people's yards and sell at a farmers market and to restaurants. Eventually, one day, could get large enough to unite a network of urban farms/ gardeners all across the city.

I've identified one small farmers market, and a restaurant or two interested in whatever I sell. I have also been asked to give tours of the existing farm to tourists. There are 20+ farmers markets within a 5 mile radius of me, so the potential to expand is there.

Here's the rub. I have never run a business. I have taken some online small farm business classes, which help but most are geared to a more typical situation with acres or farm rather that sq. feet.

I have looked into volunteering on other farms to gain business skills in the area, but there aren't any farms, that I know of, that are doing this in my area.

All that said, my main questions are:
Has anyone gotten a empty lot in LA, or another large urban area, and if so any advice on the process?
Anyone tried getting their neighbors to let them farm their lots in a big city?
Should I go to some business school type scenario, any recommended resources on the matter?
I know there are SPIN farms out there, has anyone tried this in a dense LA-like area?
Also, in what order does one do these things?

I have been a loving lurker here for a while. I so look forward to any and all feedback from this awesome community!

Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Hi Kayleigh and welcome to permies!

I can only offer these words of advice speaking as a drylander (Phoenix) - and I understand that LA is not as hot or dry as Phoenix, but we do share some similarities.

Several folks here have thought of SPIN farming but have been daunted by the amount of time it take to build decent soil here (usually 3 years). There is a business here that has been successful but they are definitely not practicing dryland permaculture (raised beds, they use drip irrigation but raised beds need more water in our climate). That being said, they have a business model you might want to investigate. http://myfarmyard.com/growing-practices.html

I don't know about LA, but here in Phoenix I know of MANY folks who wanted to farm on vacant lots only to find out there was no water hookup. When they investigated getting a water hookup, usually the cost started at $4000 and went up from there. A few hardy types went ahead and built a garden there anyway. Only to find out that 8" of rain will not sustain a veggie garden that needs 65" of water per square foot in our climate. Those gardens called it quits almost immediately.

You might want to check out the Path to Freedom folks in Pasadena. Or contact TreePeople - they might know of some resources for you too (yeah, they're a tree and water org but they will probably know about folks in the market garden niche). Ron Finley is another well known gardener in LA.
Kayleigh Hillert
Posts: 3
Location: Culver City, CA
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Thanks for your feedback Jennifer. I will check into the businesses you mentioned. Didn't think to check with tree people!

Here's a technical question. Is there a way for me to link this post into the regional southwest forum or should I do a separate post?

Thanks again!!
Posts: 7926
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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I have 'split' this thread so that it now also appears in the SW forum.
Posts: 2
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Up in Vancouver there are now at least half a dozen multi-backyard farms set up. The Vancouver Urban Farming Society has some links to them. Most seem to operate on a CSA basis.

There is also an organisation called Sole Food which farms vacant lots.

Both of those would probably love to talk to you and give some advice.

The warning is that a lot of these types of businesses are not all that self-sustaining. I get the impression that most of the people doing backyard farming are putting in long hours and in the end earning less than they could waiting tables. Sole Food gets by through donations, aided by the fact that they double up as an employment opportunity for disadvantaged/homeless people in Vancouver's downtown east side. So be realistic with your business plan and have a plan B if it doesn't all pan out.
Posts: 3478
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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There is a lot of good hints here.

You need to stay LOCAL, as in walking/biking distance. Otherwise the gas and drive TIME will kill you.

CSA model gives you guaranteed cash-flow IN ADVANCE. That is critical to doing it without loans. Farmer markets are hit and miss.

Pay the landowner with a CSA share or multiple thereof (big yard may be worth a double portion). Landowner pays for the water, but you do everything to conserve it (mulch, drip irrigation, etc.)

The cooler space is still the part that shocks me. A coolbot may get the job done, but it might not be enough so then it you are into real money for that.

Posts: 2
Location: San Pedro, CA 90731
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Dear Kaleigh,

I don't know if the message went through the first time, so now that I found the "post reply" button, I sending it again.

I came across your inquiry and this blog while searching the internet for local people who are also into urban micro-farming. I am in the process of doing a lot of research, getting familiar with the major players in this field, and some knowledge of the major methodologies. I would like to get to know all the local players in this field (and others like-minded) and network with them, exchanging useful knowledge and mutual support.

It looks like the replies you’ve gotten so far have wise and valuable advice. I will add to them.

Methods and Foundations
You should get somewhat familiar with:

a.) Square Foot Gardening Method, developed by Mel Bartholomew and the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

b.) Mitteider Method developed by Jacob Mittleider and the Food for Everyone Foundation.

c.) Grow Biointensive Method developed by John Jeavons and Ecology Action. Their main training farm is in Wilits California.

d.) SPIN Farming developed by Wally Satzewich and his SPIN organization and the SPIN Corps.

SPIN Corps:
On Wally’s SPIN website is a list of members of the SPIN Corps. They educate, counsel, and assist people in their pursuit of starting up spin farms and getting them working. The nearest one listed is Ed Garrett in Davis California, and he can give you valuable advice by phone, and probably on site if you wish (I imagine they might charge something, or maybe not so much. Probably you could get a truckload of valuable advice for free over the phone.). Email him at

I think the quickest, easiest results would probably be had from the Mittleider Method, which might not be considered 1000 % organic in some people’s opinion, but looks like a surefire and very ecologically responsible method for healthy, high quality, nutrient dense vegetables.

Regarding Mel’s website, you can look up local certified Square Foot Gardening instructors who can coach you in getting started in SFG Method. They are mapped out, with distances shown. I see the one closest to you is Erin Mcclure at about 12 miles away. His email is

For others go to

If you get certified in SFG Method (as I plan to eventually get around to) then the SFG Foundation will authorize you to use their trademarks as part of your services. You can train others in the method, make, sell, and install SFG materials, kits, planters, and systems, and you can even possibly make money in the process. And you will be able to put yourself in the database for other people seeking instruction to look up. Right now the map shows only 5 certified instructors of SFG within a 25 mile radius of Culver City, and only about a dozen total within the greater Los Angeles/Orange County area. If you got certified you would be the only one within 11 miles. Perhaps one way you could make your tiny micro-farm more economically viable would be to use part of it as a training center. It is not expensive or difficult to get certified in SFG. Maybe it would be easier to grow a network rather than form a network.

You could do something similar if you joined the SPIN Corps. In that case you’d be the closest SPIN Corps instructor within a few hundred miles. However, you will need first to have at least one season of selling your produce from your working SPIN farm to qualify.

You know, if you were game for it, you could conceivable become one of the main leaders of the Urban Farming Movement in Southern California.

Local Farms:
And yes, in fact, there actually are farms around here inside the city areas of Los Angeles. You should go visit them and volunteer to help out and let it rub off. Maybe eat lunches with the farmers and hang out with them, and let them know entirely what you are aiming to accomplish.

1.) Silver Lake Farms
Check out Tara’s website and read it to know her story. She grows flowers and edibles, and is into the CSA stuff, and does workshops. She is micro-farming on a small piece of land, like you want to do, 13
miles away. Call her at 323-644-3700.

2.) Amy’s Farm
If you search Wally’s website you would find a SPIN farmer reasonable local enough to drive to. Amy’s Farm is about 50 miles straight shot east along the 10 and then the 60 freeways to Ontario. There’s maps to show how to get there. Call her at 909-393-2936.

3.) The Urban Homestead
One of your replies referred you to the Path to Freedom, as well as Ron Finley. Don’t just look at their websites. Look at their calendar of events. The Dervaes of Pasadena have gatherings at their house several times a month (“hootnannies” and workshops). Go there, meet the Dervaes family. Bring a quick rough pencil sketch of your garden and the 2000 sq/ foot parcel you seek to plant. The Dervaes are 20 miles away. Garden size: 1/10th an acre 3900 sq. feet. It is not even twice as big as your 2000 sq. feet. They are doing it, doing it well, have been for years. Maybe you can go lend them a hand. They make $20,000 a year off selling the surplus, beyond providing about half of their food needs for a family of 4. You couldn’t ask for better mentors.

Ron Finley:
You can drive out to his house in South Central and check it out, eat off of what’s growing in his front yard and parkway. You can also talk to him about helping out at his upcoming planting events, where he deploys a crew of volunteers to transform vacant city lots and odd parcels of land into edible gardens. Call him at 818-646-658.

Check out their website and youtube videos. They are located 17 miles away and they design, install, manage, and consult for urban farms, mostly in Los Angeles and very recently in the San Francisco Bay area. The website shows they are interested in hiring for a part time job opening for the position of urban farmer. Even though the add says the deadline for submitting an application was July 4th, it is likely the position might still be unfilled. You probably qualify, and the experience could be invaluable, with the time invested paying for itself directly. Even if the position is filled, you should still get familiar with this company.

There is a non-profit organization affiliated with the Small Business Administration called SCORE (Service Corp Of Retired Executives) who volunteer their spare time to help counsel, educate and guide people starting or managing their own small businesses. This public service helps the economy by helping small businesses succeed, creating jobs in the process. You get as many 1 hour counseling sessions as you feel you need; and for free. They also conduct inexpensive workshops too. They have mentors in many areas of experience. They have branches all over Los Angeles, including Culver City, where they meet at the city hall. You can go see any mentor in SCORE for help with your businesses and any prospective business ideas.

Whittier Fertilizer:
Check them out, in Pico Rivera. They have large bulk quantities of stuff and sell by the ton or cubic yard too, including pumice, redwood shavings, vermiculite, etc.

As for me:
As for me, I live in San Pedro, but when my health has permitted it, I teach a few subjects to the children at the BOND Leadership Academy, which is a wonderful little school located in Culver City. One of my subjects is urban farming. The first of several class objectives is to get each child to build a small (something like 4’x4’) raised bed Square Foot Garden, at their homes or reasonably nearby, and put them in charge of managing it. Then they will grow some food for their families, but gradually will learn to run their tiny micro-farm as a business. This will include marketing some of the vegetables and keeping financial records, drawing up budgets and examining their financial statements as a basis of making business decisions. Of course their profits will also be tiny, at least to start, but a few dollars a week means a lot to a child, and they will have the option of expanding their tiny businesses as far as their profitability (and the market) will allow. They will be doing all this while becoming familiar with plant biology and skilled in the Square Foot Garden Method. Mixing and testing soils, grafting, hand pollination, pruning of vegetables, and other good stuff will all be part of it. (Last semiester I had them get experience hand pollenating zuchinni). I want them to get an initial grounding in the Square Foot Gardening Method. After some point we will phase into the Mittleider Method and then other systems.

Maybe you can even come and speak at our little school sometime, or perhaps allow us to take the students on a field trip to visit your little urban farm? Check it out: http://www.bondleadershipacademy.org

I would like to drive out visit your little garden sometime, and even lend a hand. However, I’m afraid for the time being, I’m probably going to be pretty useless for a while, and not as mobile as I’d prefer, due to some medical issues. I may likely elect soon to have some overdue surgery, and for now I really must focus on my health and put other matters aside until I am sufficiently recovered. But for now I can at least give out some advice, while scanning the internet for systems, resources and future networkers.

Useful Links:
I have accumulated some lists of links and internet videos (mostly youtube) that may be helpful which I will share with you, and everyone else on this blog. They are listed below. You might want to click on each one in turn and add them to your bookmarks, in a special folder; that way it will list both the descriptive titles of each link next to a column of each website address. This makes it so much easier to figure out which one is which, and also it is so much more convenient to access these thru your own bookmark lists rather than having to try to find them in some old blog reply.

I hope to see you go forward and really get somewhere with this fascinating realm of urban farming. I encourage everyone to take a personal role in the understanding, growing, controlling, and enjoying of our food supply.

I think you’ve got enough to chew on for the present.

Happy Urban Farming!
David Cracchiolo

Urban Farming List
Urban Farming List 2

Kayleigh Hillert
Posts: 3
Location: Culver City, CA
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Thanks for the feedback David. I am familiar with quite a few of the methods you have mentioned, and I am excited to look into the others. Right now I am a little caught up on the issue of long term, secure, affordable land access in Los Angeles and of course the politics of growing food in a water insecure climate. As well as the whole financially sustainable bit. Though I will check in with the local farmers I know a bit more about that. Still, thank you thank you for taking the time to respond. I will look into the school where you teach and the information you shared.

Thanks again,


Posts: 68
Location: Orange County, CA, USA
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Kayleigh - I'm in Orange County, and I'm very familiar with the challenges of land and water in SoCal. Also I have run a business (was a partner in a technology company for 10 years until we sold in 2007 and currently I run a very small technology/consulting business). Here are some thoughts (one man's opinion).

I suggest you do some market research first. Markets apply to both the supply and the demand side of business, and in this case you are most interested in the supply market for tillable land. Find a bunch of typical lots that represent what's available around you - not assuming it's available or what you would use, just a sampling of candidates kinda like what you would want. Then talk to the owners. You aren't selling them, you are doing research. Tell them briefly what you are researching, explain to them your experience/qualifications, and ask them to help you decide whether it's a good idea or not. Give them plenty of room to answer free-form, then pepper them with questions.

This provides 2 good tests. The first is a test of you: it's one thing to come on permies and ask for help, but it's another thing to go to people in the real world with your idea. I expect you will pass this test fine, but it's still an important test.
The second test is your business concept. You might get a clear yes or no, but most likely it will be somewhere in the middle. But you will still have some info (and possibly some candidate properties) that you didn't have before. Then you come back here with more clearly defined questions, and we help you answer those.

Best of luck. If any of this resonates & you have more questions for me, feel free to reach out to me by "purple moosage."
Posts: 183
Location: San Diego, CA
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For those of you in the Long Beach area, Curtis Stone is doing an Profitable Urban Farming workshop in Long Beach on November 22 and 23. Workshop Info

If you are interested in learning about doing intensive urban farming for production (meaning as a career), then this workshop is a great chance to learn from someone doing it. This really isn't a gardening for hobby workshop, it is a farming for career workshop.

Curtis has had a ton of success doing this stuff, and it really isn't that hard. It just takes some drive and strategic planning.

If you haven't heard of Curtis (who is in one of the videos higher in the thread), here is pretty recent interview that I did with him. Podcast 083

The workshop is $200, but I think you will get more out of this workshop than most if this is a career path that you want to go down.
Posts: 33
Location: Sacramento
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I am a cynic so I just wanted to put that disclaimer up front. I help run a large community garden in Sacramento, I run a small B&B, and am starting an urban farm on 1/2 acre as well. So I DO believe in this stuff but that said...

Notice the number of people mentioned who run non profits, develop "programs" and license people to teach them? THAT is the end that is an actual business. Farming is a great way to make a small fortune you just need to start with a larger one!

A few have mentioned Ron Finley's Urban Homestead, four people working solid hours making $20k? Even if you say the food they eat is double that, that is $10k a year per person. Its sad but working at McDonalds pays more!

Most of these farms are labors of love, meaning the owners and volunteers subsidize them with labor and love. They are not a sustainable business. Their quality of life can be high, the emotional rewards wonderful, and certainly far tastier and healthier food but the people buying the food? They work real jobs and make in Los Angeles probably close $100k a year to afford to buy CSA food.

I am NOT saying any of this to discourage you but you asked about BUSINESS, not how to enrich your soul or your soil...

The money (and its not much) in all of this is in teaching others to do what you want to do, getting grants to do what you want to do (thus all the non profits that pay salaries to their managers), and staffing the whole thing with volunteers. Growing and selling raw veggies is also the lowest rung of all this, there is very little value added. A local company here raised $100k on kickstarter to make organic bloody Mary mixes...value added!

Now I am NOT saying "money" is the goal but you do need it to buy water, seed, gas, and a roof over your head so it IS important, although all of us here have a different value on it than the rest of society.

MY plan, is to open a cafe downtown, grow the majority of the produce and some of the meat for it, teach classes on the "farm" and create our own sort of closed loop setup where each space makes the other "cooler" and we not only add value as things move up the chain but we keep it all in house. If it becomes a roaring success I won't have to have a full time job to support it, LOL!

So, my advice is to first decide how much you need to make to live, calculate how much you need to grow to achieve that, and then understand that water is only going to get more and more expensive in LA so you will need to invest in rainwater harvesting to offset that cost. Now THERE is something that could be interesting. Ask the neighbors if you can capture the runnoff from their houses as well. They don't use it and capturing it from three surrounding properties could produce a fair amount of water. Now its urban runnoff so you will need to divert a fair bit and let the remainder settle in tanks but that should only set you back $10k but that IS something crowdsourcing or grants could pay for.

Anyway, best of luck!
Diego Footer
Posts: 183
Location: San Diego, CA
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Michael Bush wrote:Notice the number of people mentioned who run non profits, develop "programs" and license people to teach them? THAT is the end that is an actual business. Farming is a great way to make a small fortune you just need to start with a larger one!

I would say this is mostly accurate, but there people out there making money doing this, so let's not assume that it isn't possible.
Posts: 567
Location: Mid-Michigan
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Michael Bush wrote: Now THERE is something that could be interesting. Ask the neighbors if you can capture the runnoff from their houses as well. They don't use it and capturing it from three surrounding properties could produce a fair amount of water. Now its urban runnoff so you will need to divert a fair bit and let the remainder settle in tanks but that should only set you back $10k but that IS something crowdsourcing or grants could pay for.

Good call. If someone DID want to go that route, they'd want to be familiar with this guy:

Who's doing Slow Sand Water Filtration. (It's not much help to me in Michigan, where fresh water is abundant and the freezing season is long, but for you guys, could be extremely helpful.)
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