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A New Role Model for Urban Farms

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Bruce Manns says, “It’s not a bad thing to be a business person in the inner city.” He doesn’t sound like your typical urban farmer do-gooder, and he isn’t. Sure, his York Fresh Food Farms shares the same mission as other non-profit farms, but he’s following a different playbook. He knows grant funding is fickle, and believes inner cities need commerce as much as charity. So he’s developing a business around a mobile market in York PA.

Zero competition in a market usually means no one has been able to figure out how to make money in it. When it comes to building a food business in underserved areas, few have really tried. But Bruce is using SPIN-Farming to figure it out, and is applying commercial farming practices and standards at his non-profit urban farm. He’s made impressive progress since he started up two years ago. This year he’s on track to gross $25k on 80,000 sq.ft. Next year is goal is to double that.

Urban farming is hot, so finding land and funding his farm’s startup weren’t hard. With Bruce’s gardening background, growing high quality food wasn’t either. So far this tracks the stories of lots of for-profit SPIN farmers.

But instead of setting up a stand at either one of the city’s three well-established indoor farmers markets, and catering to middle and upper income demographics, Bruce is bringing his crops to those who want healthy food, have no way to get to it, and are really strapped for cash. His 3 point business model: professional grade, predictable, affordable. His 3 success factors: respect, pragmatism, team work.

His new best practice? It’s not composting. It’s not rain water harvesting. It’s not cover cropping. It’s making money. The lesson here is that while your customers may be the underserved and hungry, that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. Bruce is planning to cover 100% of his operating expenses in 2019 which, he says, is remarkable for a non-profit farm. It doesn’t have to be. The more money you make, the more you can spend. The better you get at farming, the less time you have to spend grant writing. The less dependent you are on grants, the more sustainable your farm becomes. It’s a valuable lesson for all farmers, especially those trying to do good.


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