Make sure there is a water source. It’s hard to believe that it’s necessary to type that. Ag plants need water, and ag plants need it on a regular basis. I’ve seen multiple farm sites where the hydrant was way down and across the street, or there was no hydrant at all. I’ve heard of a farmer importing water from Parma daily in their car. If a farm site does not have easy access to water, IT’S NOT A FARM SITE!
Get soil tested. To re-iterate, cities are dirty. Often within soils, cities hide their industrial pasts. In order to determine whether your soil is safe to grow edible plants, soil testing is a must. Beyond contamination issues, soil tests will inform a farmer of both nutrients and pH, which will guide any fertilizer decisions going forward.
Start small. City slickers have zero concept of how large a single acre is. Even when you tell a city slicker that an acre is 44,000 square feet, it’s still difficult for them to understand. Many of the plots in Cleveland are 5,000 square feet, which is 11% of an acre. When utilized efficiently, 5,000 square feet can support enormous yields. Even when commencing initial work on a 5,000 square foot plot, I recommend tilling and amending in sections rather than the whole site all at once.
Get it in writing. Despite everybody’s best intentions, it is best to get all agreements in writing. This is particularly important for leases, price of rent, farm tenant responsibilities, and future ability to purchase a property.
No pallet composter. In Cleveland, a composter made from pallets practically ensures farm failure. There are so many of these unused and littered around our landscape you’d think they were a mandatory requirement in a farmer’s lease. From what I can tell, the pallet composter is correlated with farm failure because it represents a poor prioritization of time and needs. For example, a farmer with a newly acquired 5,000 square foot plot from the Landbank has a ton of work to do to restore tilth to the degraded soils. Time spent building a pallet composter is time not spent building soil tilth (an opportunity cost in business-speak). A better choice is to simply pile the plant debris in the back of the site.
Successful Character Traits
Strong leadership. Strong leadership seems a pre-requisite for all project-oriented endeavors. However, it seems particularly important for urban ag because of all the hard work and low margins. A strong leader can and will inspire others to be part of a grander farm vision, or even grander community vision. Sometimes strong leadership borders on obsessive-compulsive behavior, which is completely welcomed in an urban ag setting.
Materials acquisition. This may seem like an odd one. However, the farmers who know how to get stuff, whatever that stuff may be tend to be successful. Materials acquisition can refer to almost anything from getting volunteers, to writing grants, to driving to Wooster to the Amish farm supply shops, to researching the latest greatest technology, to scouring Craigslist for inexpensive tools, to outreaching to equestrians for manure, to finding another farmer in Middlefield with a no-till drill to rent. I believe this drive to get stuff is directly correlated to drive in general, and subsequent success.