I recently tried my hand at cooperative small-scale urban “market gardening” as a hobby and thought I would document it as a comparison to writing software – because who doesn’t like analogies.
First I’ll muddy the waters with a flood of background and loose definitions in hopes that by the end it settles and the tank is clear and stocked full of ideas.
Market Gardening, as defined, is the small-scale production of crops that have a shorter path to market. This term is often reserved for someone making a full time or at least a healthy part-time income from it, which often requires an acre and a half to a few acres depending on the location and what is being grown.
In The 21st Century
With me being a perpetual renter in urban environments and interested in the nature of open source software I became curious if similar distributed concepts could be applied to urban “market gardening”. This would mean that instead of having one small-scale farmer on one plot of land, that theoretical farmer and their plot could be split into several hobbyist gardeners each on their own plots and hopefully achieve the same production. Luckily I wasn’t the only one in this head-space and there were a handful of wonderful gardeners in my area with differing talents and similar thoughts.
In order to live this question I first became involved with an organization called Urban Patchwork that happened to have already organized a front yard garden paired with an excellent green thumbed mentor right down the street from where I was renting. This cut my costs and need for buying land and even came bundled with knowledge!
Side Note: Urban Patchwork worked by bringing together a person with land (often a residential lot) that wanted a garden, an experienced gardener, volunteers and beginners, and paying customers. At one point there was a patchwork of them across the city and they would have a harvest in their area every two weeks to create CSA baskets and the land owners, lead gardeners, long term volunteers, and paying customers would each get one.
Unfortunately, the patch in the patchwork I was working on came undone around the time I started and so other ideas of what to do with it started circulating. The idea of a producer cooperative for gardeners soon took hold.
A producer cooperative is a producer owned and democratically-controlled organization that serves its members through any combination of cooperative marketing, support, and bulk purchasing. In this case, the producers were all hobbyist gardeners.
Side Note: Producer cooperatives have a long and strong history in the United States, gaining popularity with the Granger Movement in the late 1800s, as documented by Solon Justus Buck.
It was a new venture for everyone involved, but we dove right in and created the Yard to Market Coop. It wasn’t long before we had bylaws, a board of directors, and a farmstand at one of the local farmers’ markets. Gardeners could go through a short on-boarding process to become members and shortly after start selling produce through the cooperative, which would take a small cut to help fund the operations that were volunteer run, with goals of paid wages. This, among other things, allowed the gardeners to concentrate on growing food and let the cooperative handle the marketing and selling side, functioning as a distributor.
Sharing the burden of labor with both the experienced and the curious made having an impact possible as a hobby!
And Market Forces
Since the success of the coop, in part, depended on enough produce being available through it, my green thumbed mentor and I decided to try and (organically) produce as much as we could out of our fertile 1,100 sqft plot. Given the limited amount of spare time we had, this shifted our mindset, incentives, and goals in a direction that required better planning and discipline.
It’s Kind of Like Software
Anyone that has developed a large software product, and its surrounding ecosystem, knows it also requires tremendous amounts of discipline, planning, and maintenance. And if you’re like me, seeing concepts from a different point of view helps them sink in. The main difference with “market gardening” is that unlike technology driven software everything is much slower and palpable. For example, if you plant something at the wrong time you can’t pull an all-nighter to make it ready for harvest by morning. You also have to work along side that mistake as it isn’t hidden on some other server for you to worry about later.
I think “market gardening” can be beneficial to a person’s personal and professional life, whether through a greater appreciation or a greater understanding. I also understand that going full time on 1.5+ acres isn’t realistic so I’d add trying to build a local producer cooperative even if only for the experience of participating in a democratic organization.