How I Picked A Site For My Farm

Want information beyond the blog? Sign up for our free newsletter. In case you missed the announcement, here’s the first article in the series on starting my vertical farm.

I was between a passive greenhouse and a refurbished garage. How did I decide?

When I started researching how I was going to take the next steps with this project, the very first question that popped into my head was “Where am I going to do this?” Initially, I was set on a large, dense city. After all, it’s what I’d been writing about for years and what has been demonstrated to work.

Of course, after talking with everyone that I’ve talked to, I learned that land and initial equipment investment were the largest expenditures for vertical farms. And I didn’t want to be like one of the many failed farms that threw a bunch of space and money at the business and walked away bankrupt like Alterrus.

How to chose a site for a vertical farm


So I started looking at what land was available to me at a cost I could boot strap.* Option number one was rural farm land where I got in contact with Ceres Greenhouse Solutions to build a passive greenhouse. Doing the project this way would have had 2 main advantages:

  • larger facility for increased production
  • extremely low input cost over the long run due to passive heating and cooling designs

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be beyond my price range. Just to build the greenhouse at 800-1000 sq ft with their ground heat air transfer system would cost around $38,000. That didn’t include shipping, the foundation, labor, water, or electricity either. It didn’t make sense to build it smaller to test anything because if my projections were accurate, I would need a bigger space to become profitable.

My thinking was that to save on upfront costs, I would skip on equipment instead of on structure. However, purchasing enough equipment to fill even half of it (with the ideas that once I demonstrated success at that scale, I could build out the rest of the space, not only saving on my initial expenses, but also being able to put any lessons I learned into place. This was great advice I got from Dan Albert from Farmbox Greens) was going to be way more than I wanted to spend as well. Plus, greenhouse equipment was a whole other beast that I would need to familiarize myself with when I was already well-practiced with just growing indoors and out.

Ceres was super helpful throughout the entire process and I think that what they do is good, however, it was just out of my price range.

I pivoted briefly to putting up a hoop house. Relying on passive heating and cooling, you can actually grow year round in Maryland. However, your crop varieties would need to change and you would need to be available onsite each day in case you need to cover or uncover the structure depending on the weather. I think one of the big draws for hydroponic customers is consistent year round quality. So, if I wanted a rotating inventory, I might as well just plant in the ground. The real issue was the time commitment; if I did not have to work another job (though I do, along with 66 % of urban farmers) in Washington, DC to finance this project, I might have considered this more.

Carolyn Leadly outside greenhouse at Rising Pheasant Farms

photo by Marcin Szczepanski

That left me with my second option; an old garage full of crap.

What were my advantages here?

  • a pre-existing structure meant shrinking my carbon footprint compared to building something new
  • the garage is situated in the city that I will market to meaning I can cut transportation costs through bike delivery and reduce food miles
  • electric and water are already accessible
  • the smaller scale means I don’t have to worry about biting off more than I can chew

That doesn’t mean that building out the garage is without it’s challenges.But what it really came down to was cost and ease. I want to focus on growing, not be caught in an endless cycle of analysis paralysis as I keep searching for the perfect place. The plan is to finish construction this weekend. Then, I’ll talk more about those challenges, how I solved them then, and how much it all cost.

 

*Land availability is an especially important issue and has been cited time and time again as one of the largest factors preventing people from getting into farming. Through family, friends, and connections I had options. I am extremely grateful for those options and cannot emphasize enough how lucky that is for me.

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