Across the planet, large amounts of open, lush, and fertile land produce absolutely nothing. Worse, billions of dollars and huge amounts of natural resources are spent every year to keep it that way. In North America alone, more than 40-million acres exist in this high-cost, zero-output state. It’s common enough that basically every person on the planet has seen it. These chunks of resource-hungry land are called lawns, and a growing movement of people are working to radically change them.
These grassy expanses are the target of an urban farming movement trying to change lawns into food-producing farms. You can join in and turn your lawn into a farm in just nine steps.
The urban farming movement
During the last 20 to 30 years, movements supporting “eat local” and “grow it yourself” have spawned in the United States and other developed nations. This interest in reconnecting with the food being eaten gave rise to the modern urban farming movement.
There are lots of resources to look if you are considering turning your front yard into a food-producing plot of land.
Canadian Curtis Stone, who writes books, leads seminars, and offers online courses on how to be a profitable urban farmer, promises techniques in growing high-value crops on small plots of land, and boasts of growing $75,000 worth of crops in an eight-month growing cycle.
Stone has a series of snappy videos (like the one below) and online resources designed to help even the most inexperienced farmer become a pro.
Then there’s the more socially focused Food Not Lawns, an organization that started in Eugene, Oregon, in 1999 and has chapters across the US. It creates networks of front-yard farmers who can share tips and resources.
There’s even an upcoming online reality series, “Yardfarmers,” which will feature six young people competing to create farms on their parents’ yards.
The one aspect that seems to connect the various experts and leaders in the field is a desire to share knowledge and encourage more people to take up yard-based agriculture.
If you want to make a living off your yard, save the planet through low-emission agriculture, or simply want some fresh produce constantly at hand, then yard farming may be for you.
Here are a nine steps to take to turn your lawn into a productive farm:
1) Why are you doing this?
Understanding your motivation will be key to staying focused, working hard, and being successful. Luckily, there are a wide range of motivations to choose from. Stone’s No. 1 reason to become an urban farmer is to earn a living. Organizations like Food Not Lawns are much more ideologically driven. The organization’s website specifically says they “educate and advocate for communities that want to take back control of their food from the corporate profiteers.” Fleet Farming, an organization that started in Florida, focuses on the environmental benefits of urban farming. Still others may simply see it as an enjoyable hobby. Figuring out what drives you to plan food in your yard will help you stay motivated.
Regardless of overall motivation, it can be important to remember urban farming is a lifestyle. If you
love the idea of working hard, reconnecting with nature, and making your own
hours, it can work for you.
2) How will you measure success?
Measuring success will be important to keep your home agriculture project sustainable. If your goal is to be self-sufficient and “off the grid,” then the size of your bank account may not be an issue. If you’re hoping to earn money from this venture, then you need to be realistic. Even top urban farmers like Curtis Stone tell stories of struggling to make a profit in the first year or two.
The good news is that there is plenty of evidence that you can succeed in both being off-grid and making money. According to the people behind “Yardfarmers,” urban farming in someone’s lawn can produce impressive returns. They estimate that a well-farmed quarter-acre of yard can produce more than 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables and provide a six-fold financial return after selling the produce.
If financial return is your main motivation, then Stone’s “How to make $75,000 on just half an acre” seminar is a place to start.
3) Research the law
Each township, county, or city has different rules on how yards can be used. Learn the local rules to make sure you are legally allowed to farm your yard. Some areas have limits to the types of farming activities while others designate a maximum percentage of land that can be used. It’s best to know the rules before you start.
4) Get educated on farming
Experiential learning can have its benefits but it can also lead to confusion, wasted effort, and frustration. Getting a few books, watching a few YouTube videos, or enrolling for seminars with experienced urban farmers can save you a lot of grief. Stone, and many others, will say the best experience is getting your hands dirty, but making sure you’re doing it in a constructive manner can keep your motivation up.
5) Know your land
Soil testing is crucial in understanding what compost or other additives can turn your simple lawn into a lush source of food. If your ground is nutrient-deprived or mostly clay, you can add soil on top of it or work in rich compost to what is already there.
Beyond testing the soil, knowing your climate is essential to picking the right crops to cultivate. Correctly choosing the right varietals can significantly increase your yield. An easy way to do this is to seek help from other urban farmers in your area and learn from their experiences. (Pro tip: Google is your friend, there are more urban farmers than you think)
6) Correctly clear your land
Most yards are full of invasive plant species. These hard-to-get-rid-of plants can foul up farming activity by draining the land of nutrients and crowding out young or fragile vegetables. Invasive species include weeds, ground covers like ivy or clematis, or sometimes even the grass that’s been there for years.
Stone provides a free resource on how to clear your land. The biggest thing to note is that it takes time and patience.
7) Dive in – within reason
After all the learning, research, and prep work it’s important to get planting. Getting your hands literally dirty can remind you why you are doing all the prep work, and eating your first produce can be a powerful moment.
When you are getting started, remember that moderation is your friend. Food Not Lawns, Stone, and almost every other urban farming site reminds people they can start small and build up to a full yard farm. Starting with a small vegetable garden or a section of yard can help you to learn the basics of farming without working endless hours. Further, a smaller “test farm” can also give you a realistic sense of the financial cost and return of urban farming. The viability of your soil and the vagaries of your climate are important to understand before investing a lot of time and money.
8) Connect to the community
A wide range of people and organizations are involved in urban farming. Take advantage of that network and ask for help, inspiration, or even just emotional support. Almost every organization in this sector tries to teach people. Whether they are suggesting books, posting tutorials, or organizing seed-swaps, there is a network of people open and willing to help for any aspiring urban farmer.
9) Remember, this can work
Urban farming may seem like a radical idea but there is historical precedent for its success. The United Kingdom’s “Victory Garden” movement during World War II urged people to grow food in their yards. By the end of the war, there were 18-20 million Victory Gardens producing 40% of the nation’s household vegetable needs. If people in war-strapped Britain can turn their yards into agricultural powerhouses, you can, too.
And if you need a bit more inspiration, consider this vision of your future from Curtis Stone: