A How-To-Guide for the Urban, Micro-Agricultural Entrepreneur: For Aspiring Farmers in Low-income, urban, neighborhoods.

Final Report for CNE12-099

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,967.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Laura Thornton
Sustainable Urban Development, Inc.
Expand All

Project Information


The project addressed the abundance of vacant lots in the neighborhood Haddington in West Philadelphia. These over 180 vacant lots and homes are located on almost every block of Haddington and are targets for illegal dumping and crime. As one of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city, disposable income in Haddington is relatively low and there is limited access to affordable, fresh produce. These lots are an untapped market for urban micro-agriculture. They are a resource to empower urban agricultural entrepreneurs to create affordable and accessible sources of produce to boost the local economy while fighting obesity and also beautifying West Philadelphia while combatting crime.

The project researched and developed a curriculum to explain the process of micro-agriculture in low-income, urban neighborhoods. The curriculum was taught over three evening classes on site at the 59th street community garden to address the steps necessary to run a successful urban farm, start to finish with an active audience. The classes were also videotaped in their entirety, to be edited down to shorter more defined segments to be posted on our website to create an accessible source for all aspiring urban farmers in low-income neighborhoods.

At each class, materials were distributed to supplement the discussion, and when combined, create the How-To-Guide for Aspiring Urban Micro-Agricultural Entrepreneur. The amount of interest, participation and active involvement in the classroom, deems this project a success.

Project Objectives:

Performance Target – Low-income neighborhoods, specifically Haddington in West Philadelphia, have a new tool through the how-to-guide to help guide them in their efforts to starting and sustaining an urban micro-agricultural for-profit farms.

Objective 1 - Reached out to local community members who are aspiring urban farmers in Haddington.

Objective 2 – The community of Haddington was invited to the lecture series explaining the process of starting an urban farm in Haddington from start to finish (i.e. Reclaiming vacant lots to selling produce for profit). Community members learned about this process and the resources available to run a successful farm.

Objective 3 - Publish the how-to-guide in both a PDF written packet as well as a recording of the lecture series taught live.


Many factors have hurt the local economy of Haddington such the reconstruction of the Market/Frankford Line, the national recession, the lack of attention from the city. Many businesses along the Market Street corridor have shut down and become abandoned; homes have been torn down leaving vacant, overgrowing lots. And, to top it off, the access of healthy food is very limited; and even if available, often too expensive for the community to afford. Many people within this neighborhood have recognized the potential in reclaiming these vacant lots to create for-profit urban farms; small businesses that will not only help create jobs and provide fresh, affordable produce but will also beautify West Philadelphia.

The goal of the small scale, urban farmer is to create an environment of “Community Food Security” through micro-agriculture. This exists when all community residents obtain safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through sustainable food systems that maximize community self-reliance and social justice. Currently, aspiring farmers are unable to create this environment because of lack of guidance. There is little opportunity to discover how to reclaim vacant lots in this neighborhood affordably and safely to produce a successful for-profit farm. The goal of this project is to give those most deserving the access to the information and knowledge necessary of any business venture, but with a specific focus on urban farming.


Materials and methods:

This project created a link between the information of how to start an urban farm in a low-income neighborhood to those people who were unable to previously access this knowledge. This project recognizes the connection between the vacant lot problem and the suffering local economy in Haddington and leads into the potential for aspiring entrepreneurs to utilize these vacant lots for for-profit farms.
To help make the community aware of this project, we used several community outreach tactics through advertisements in local papers (see attachment), a community liaison who handed out flyers at local churches and organizations in Haddington, and word of mouth to promote the lecture series.

While promotion of the lecture series was occurring, Laura Thornton, project manager, prepared for the curriculum by reaching out to sources most knowledgeable at all parts of the process. The research process;

1. A Conversation with David Hewitt, professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania and active participant with the Agaston Urban Nutrition Initiative at the Netter Center for Community Partnership, for guidance on the best resources for the program.

2. Several conversations with Amy Laura Cahn, Staff Attorney/Skadden Fellow, Garden Justice Legal Initiative at Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on reclaiming vacant lots in Philadelphia.

3. Internet research for the “ins and outs” of urban farming from soil testing to which produce grows best in Philadelphia.

4.Research for best business practices through the Penn State, the IRS website.

The project worked directly with those people in the community who were either curious about reclaiming vacant lots, urban farming in general, or looking to start a for-profit urban farm. The portion of the project, known as the lecture series, was hosted in person and on-site at the 59th Street Community Garden in the heart of Haddington; creating an accessible place for the community to meet. Originally, before research was conducted, the plan was to have the Lecture Series take place over the course of 6 classes. As we began outreach with the community we realized this is a major time-commitment for people in the Haddington Community, that cuts into work time and time to pick up children from day care, etc. So, the project was modified into three classes and the following is a detailed expression of The Lecture Series;
1. The community and aspiring entrepreneurs were able to direct the conversation as it was a combination of lecture and panel discussion, the students often asked questions that may not have been originally addressed in the curriculum.
2. Class one – Urban Farming, Reclaiming our Vacant Lots: Reclaiming vacant lots to grow for-profit farms, taught by Amy Laura Cahn
a.The first class utilized the help of Amy Laura Cahn and her expertise on reclaiming vacant lots in Philadelphia.
b. Began by asking the students the types of topics they would like addressed
c. Amy Laura described in detail, how to access the vacant lots – see video and How-To-Guide for detailed description
3. Class two – How to Grow an Urban Farm: Optimizing Growth on Your Vacant Lots and Staying Legal, taught by Laura Thornton & Melvin Vincent
a. Class two started out with an informal quiz on the topics to be covered
b. Topics were discussed in the following order:
i. Raised Bed Gardening – Advantages for your garden, advantages for you, problems you may encounter
ii. How to Build a Raised Bed
iii. Drip Systems and Irrigation – advantages and disadvantages
iv. Recommendation of Square Foot Gardening for optimal growth – Melvin Vincent took the lead on growth optimization
v. List of Resources outside of the classroom that can help; ie. The Penn State extension “Food for Profit” class; a brownfields hand out; and an emphasis on soil in an urban farm – safety tips, how to obtain a soil testing kit
vi. Introduced Urban Farming “Must Knows” specific to Philadelphia – Zoning, prerequisites (ie. Registering a business), and licensing (to be taught in more depth in the final class).
c. An informal post-test was given to the students, and follow-up questions answered
4. Class three – How Viable is Urban Farming: Start-up Costs, Potential Problems and Options for Selling Produce, taught by Laura Thornton and Jim Thornton
a. Class three began with an informal quiz on the topics to be covered
b. Topics were discussed in the following order:
i. Starting a small business in PA
ii. Expert Assistant Resources in the Area
iii. Obtaining an EIN
iv. Assistance with Fundraising – access and an example
v. Business practices – Marketing, Business Strategy, Insurance. etc.
vi. Connecting to the local market, options for profitable patrons
c. An Informal post-test was given to the students, and follow-up questions answered

Research results and discussion:

As a result of this project, a How-To-Guide for the Aspiring Urban Micro-Agricultural Entrepreneur in a low-income neighborhood was created and taught to community members in West Philadelphia’s Haddington neighborhood over the course of three classes in one week. (Please see uploaded PDF) Supplemental to the pdf attached, please see www.YouTube.com/SUDadmin for the video footage of each course. Or visit our website at http://sustainableurbandevelopment.org/?page_id=732

At the first class, despite the down pour of rain, 14 people in the community attended the meeting. These people ranged from aspiring farmers, people who wanted to clean up a vacant lot, a student at Saint Joseph’s University, mothers, and small business owners (ie. One gentleman owned a landscaping company). Each class we had a majority of these students at every meeting; in fact those who showed up the first day made sure to come to at least 2 of the 3 classes. On the second day of class, with the sun shining, we were able to host the class outdoors, which increased attendance – this day all 15 seats were full. As for the third and final class, attendance shrunk to 11 people – however, those who had attended the previous classes had sent someone to collect the hand outs or stopped by to obtain the handouts themselves.

After each class, we opened it up for discussion and questions amongst the students. We asked for feedback, wondering if the handouts seemed like they would be helpful for anyone looking to start the process. The feedback was positive – the reassurance that Laura Thornton and the other teachers were willing to assist anyone during any step of the process was comforting to the students. An informal evaluation was given at the end of the course to determine the liklihood of students utilizing vacant lots in the neighborhood for urban farming. Approximately 1 of 5 students, or about 1/3 of all participants said they were defintely going to pursue urban farming. About another third said it was something they would look into pursuing and finally, the last third seemed like it was not something they would necessarily do in the near future. Many of the latter students were interested in aspects of the course - ie. reclaiming vacant lots for other purposes beyond urban farming, or those who already had access to land were interested in how to urban farm.

Because of the advertisements in the paper and the community outreach, Saint Joseph’s University reached out to our organization, hoping to get more involved with Sustainable Urban Development, and the 59th Street Community Garden project - a community garden that was established in 2011. Over the course of six days (three days in late August and three days in early September) SJU sent over 60 students to the 59th Street Community Garden to begin helping us expand the urban farm (Phase II) on additional vacant lots in West Philadelphia. Although not directly related to the courses we were teaching - the opportunity to advertise Sustainable Urban Development for the classes in the West Side weekly and on the internet impacted the interest in our organization as a whole. By SARE believing in our organization and our mission to create accessible and affordable produce to revitalize neighborhoods, others have begun to believe in and support our organization and mission as well.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Outreach for this project was conducted through the communication network efforts of Sustainable Urban Development. Through this project, we were able to hire a Community Outreach Organizer, Anna Hargrove, a resident of Haddington who is extremely active in her community. Anna visited different organizations and churches throughout the neighborhood, distributing a flyer (see attached flyer). Advertisement was published on the following forums:

-West Side Weekly, a local newspaper targeted at West Philadelphia residents.

-Facebook, via www.facebook.com/SustainableUrbanDevelopment

-Sustainable Urban Development’s Website, www.SustainableUrbanDevelopment.org

-Advertisement at the 59th Street Community Garden, 15 N. 59th Street, Philadelphia PA

It was most important for us to reach out to aspiring farmers, or those who wanted to learn more about urban farming as a for-profit venture. Secondly, we wanted to reach out to local businesses, such as those that may potentially purchase local produce from our farmers. Thirdly, we wanted to reach out to community leaders as well – those at the Non-Profit Organization Achievability and the Partnership Community Development Corporation, to network with the leaders in these organizations to see the type of support they can also offer to our aspiring farmers.

The face-to-face outreach via Anna Hargrove and the advertisement in the West Side Weekly were the most effective means of outreach to the community. Access to the internet is sometimes sparse in Haddington, so word of mouth and flyers are the most typical way for community members to hear about an event. 90% of our students attending the lecture series heard about the classes from either the flyer/advertisement or first hand from Anna Hargrove.

Post-course, we now have made readily available video footage via YouTube www.youtube.com/SUDadmin and posted to our website http://sustainableurbandevelopment.org/?page_id=732 of the courses that are supplemented by the pdf version of the How-To-Guide (see outcomes and impacts for the pdf). Promotion of this pdf and the videos have been presented to churches through the continuous outreach of Anna Hargrove as well as a poster at out site.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

-After consulting with experts in the field of reclaiming vacant lots, farming techniques, and smart business practices, Laura Thornton compiled the How-To-Guide for Aspiring Urban Micro-Agricultural Entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods.

-Over thirteen aspiring urban farmers from the low-income neighborhood of Haddington were given access to the resources available in the city for urban micro-agriculture.

-The classes were videotaped and condensed into a series of shortened segments and placed on the internet databases through www.sustainableurbandevelopment.org to create an accessible source for all aspiring urban farmers.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The creation of the How-To-Guide for the Aspiring Urban Micro-Agricultural Entrepreneur, was created to help inspire those entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods. The goal of this guide was to create a resource that would allow aspiring urban farmers to pursue a small business venture that would green vacant lots and help boost the local economy in their neighborhood in a thoughtful, social entrepreneurial way.

The guide helps farmers throughout the entire process from reclaiming a vacant lot to selling produce for profit. The class created a forum where these aspiring farmers could meet each other and begin to build the local network of urban farmers in their neighborhood.

The guide is very accessible through contacting Laura Thornton, the project manager directly at Laura@SustainableUrbanDevelopment.org and will also be uploaded to the website www.SustainableUrbanDevelopment.org . Organizations who would like to network with Sustainable Urban Development or aspiring farmers, will be able to use this How-To-Guide as a reference for their clients as well. They have the ability to manipulate the information from the guide into a personalized version.

The vision of this project is to inspire low-income communities, ridden with vacant lots, to transform these once garbage ridden vacant lots into beautiful urban farms, for profit to help boost the local economy and create jobs. Because the correlation between low-income neighborhoods with food insecurity and obesity, urban farming is a way to combat the food crisis in America by providing an accessible, affordable and reliable source of produce.

Future Recommendations

A vision for future projects includes a continuation of education throughout the process of reclaiming vacant lots for our clients; keeping our how-to-guide up to date as codes/licensing tend to change; having the ability to teach courses frequently throughout the year.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.