Getting the Most Food Value from Community Gardens

Courtesy of  Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Many are looking to community gardens now for increased food security. They won’t find it if they use them the same old way. While community gardens produce many social benefits, they have never produced significant  amounts of food.  Here’s how most community gardeners  operate:

• don’t pool individual plots
• don’t plant strategically
• buy seed in volumes much too low to achieve significant supplies of food
• grow inconsistently with big gaps in supply during the season
• grow a little bit of everything and end up with little to show for the effort
• grow crops that are inexpensive to buy at local farmers markets
• grow crops that tie up a limited space for a long period of time
• don’t use time-saving tools that make growing easier and more enjoyable
• spend too much time planting and weeding
•don’t maximize harvests
• don’t put a dollar value on what is grown, or the time and effort spent

Though designed to create and operate backyard-scale farm businesses, the SPIN-Farming system can be used to simplify and implement a new, more effective approach to community-based food production. One that is:

• production-driven
• team-based
• post-harvest oriented
• multi-locational in scope

Consider SPIN a DIY food production system that encompasses planning, planting, growing, harvesting, post-harvesting and distribution. It enables community gardeners to produce a steady supply of a wide variety of vegetables that have all the quality of farm-grown and all the convenience of store-bought over the longest possible time during the growing season. It helps “professionalize” community gardening, so that the time and effort invested there  can be valued in economic terms.  A problem that has plagued community gardeners is that their efforts are not taken seriously, and their plots are eventually sacrificed to a  “higher and best use”, i.e.,  development.  Just as SPIN helps backyard-scale farmers create and maintain a professional identity, SPIN-based gardening can confer purpose, legitimacy and a dollar value to community-based food production. In fact, community gardens can serve as a testing ground for future farmers. For those gardeners who, often quite by accident, discover they have the talent and drive to “go pro”, the SPIN system makes it easy for them to convert their plots and entrepreneurial spirit into income.

Just think of where  well-managed community plots grown at full capacity could lead: following a typical SPIN plan, a group of 5  community gardeners using 2,500 sq. ft. can produce $8k worth of vegetables in one season.  Carrying this out a bit further, there are now 29,000 garden plots in city parks in just 100 of the largest US cities, according to the Trust for Public Land. Let’s say they were organized into groups of 5 SPIN gardeners. That would create 5,800 SPIN gardens,  each pumping out $8k worth of vegetables  in a season. That gives those gardens a total food value of $46.4 MM.

No matter what else community gardens produce, their worth, when measured in food value, can be significant. When viewed as an incubator for new local farmers, their value increases even more. All that’s required is for community gardeners and those who support them to grow more than just  community.

Don’t let a good community garden plot go to waste.

To qualify as a farm, the dollar value of the food needs to generate an income of $1,000 or more annually. The SPIN benchmark for food value is $1 – $3 per sq.ft. or $1k to $3k per 1,000 sq. ft.

One small step for a community gardener, one giant leap for a micro enterprise farm business.