Operating a profitable farm doesn’t require a vast amount of land. Urban areas that lack open acreage are becoming an increasingly popular option for savvy micro farmers, but turning a small plot of land into a successful business requires more than a green thumb and a passing interest in gardening. Successful micro farmers approach their land as the business investment that it is, and they embrace the latest farming technology to boost productivity and profits.
Farming technology continues to evolve rapidly, and staying abreast of the newest methods and tools is crucial in order to thrive in a competitive market. This article will explore some of the technological advancements that help micro farmers achieve success and how you can get the most out of your micro farm.
What Is Micro Farming?
Micro farms are small-scale agricultural operations that use far less land than the average commercial or family farm — typically under five acres — and are often located in urban or suburban areas. Size limits and zoning restrictions force micro farmers to be creative about the crops they grow and the ways in which they seek to make a profit, and they tend to focus on sustainability, seasonal crops and niche markets for their products.
Despite their size, micro farms have the potential to produce an enormous amount of food per acre that, when properly managed, can lead to big profits. For example, the average corn or soybean farm brings in $400-$600 per acre, but a new wave of micro farmers led by Quebec’s J. M. Fortier aim to make $100,000 per acre. Modern micro farmers utilize a combination of high-tech advancements and traditional methods that aim to protect the land’s natural fertility.
For some crops, though, size is still a factor when it comes to profit yield. To combat the space issue, many micro farmers focus on maximizing their time, meaning profitable growers choose short season crops that can be re-sown several times throughout the season in the same plot of land. Products like “baby” spinach and arugula are an excellent example of this type of farming.
A regular crop of spinach can take six weeks to reach maturity, while baby spinach leaves could be harvested in just three to four weeks. By planning succession plantings of baby spinach, micro farmers can maximize their small plots for several rounds of spinach throughout the growing season. Such intensive use of the land requires careful crop rotation, interplanting and composting to maintain fertility, but one rule holds true: Short-season crops allow micro farmers to bring more produce to market throughout the season.
Micro farmers should also keep track of their local market’s appetite for specialty crops to take advantage of seasonal favorites that can command premium prices. Garlic, herbs and mushrooms are good examples of specialty crops that take up very little land to grow. Heirloom tomatoes, though they require a longer growing season, are beloved for their unbeatable flavor and can bring in good margins, especially when farmers focus on growing hard-to-find varieties.
Farming and Technology
Micro farming has a relatively low cost of entry due mostly to small plots of land. Investing in an abandoned urban plot is often more affordable than buying a thousand acres of previously farmed rural acreage. Smaller plots can be managed largely by hand or with smaller tools instead of requiring major machinery investments. While labor intensive, the limited overhead helps increase the profit margin for micro farmers.
Though farmers like Fortier prefer techniques like hand-turning the earth, modern technology also provides opportunities for micro farmers to increase profitability. Some cutting-edge advances include:
- Aquaponics: One way to maximize output in a small space is to raise fish and leafy greens together in an aquaponics system. Nitrogen-rich wastewater from a fishpond is used to irrigate and fertilize lettuces, micro greens and herbs like cilantro and basil, which filter the water for a vibrant fish eco-system.
- Automated Irrigation: Knowing when and how much to water is crucial for healthy crops. There are several easy apps that help micro farmers track soil moisture and water usage, and it’s also possible to set up a timer for running a sprinkler or drip irrigation system.
- LED Lighting: LEDs save energy with low wattage bulbs that create bright light. New advancements in LEDs provide light across the color spectrum so farmers can “feed” their seedlings and indoor plants blue light to help them grow. Blue light best mimics natural daylight and helps plants with photosynthesis for healthy growth.
- Solar Panels: Depending on the crops, farmers may require significant temperature control to keep greenhouses and indoor growing areas warm. Likewise, delicate crops may require refrigeration between harvesting and market. Investing in solar power can reduce energy costs in the long run, and many cities and towns provide incentives to install solar panels on a house or shed. Micro farmers may also consider smart greenhouses, which utilize Wavelength-Selective Photovoltaic Systems to harvest sunlight for electricity while still allowing greenhouse plants to thrive.
- Vertical Growing: Hydroponics and aeroponics, or growing crops with little to no soil, are rapidly changing the face of farming. Because these methods drastically reduce the amount of land required to grow crops, they’re well suited to vertical growing. Arranging crops one above the other on stackable shelves can triple or quadruple the number of plants grown in a given area.
Urban Farming Challenges
In addition to the challenges of choosing profitable crops for a small area, tending an urban plot requires micro farmers to be good neighbors. It’s crucial to understand and obey zoning limitations in a city plot to avoid running afoul of local regulations. Many urban farmers are unable to raise animals, which means relying on vegetable compost instead of manure for fertilizer. Small livestock like chickens, rabbits or bees may or may not be allowed; if they are, you may be limited in number or need permission from abutters to raise them.
Organic urban farmers will also need to test their soil for contaminants, as city lots are more prone to pollution. Raised beds with imported, clean loam may be required to avoid soils contaminated with heavy metals, for example. It’s also a good idea to research any municipal pesticide programs and/or winter road salts to make sure these applications don’t contaminate your growing areas. Micro farming may look like a hobby to the casual observer, but the farmers who make a success of working with a small plot of land understand that farming is, above all, a business. To make your micro farm profitable, it’s crucial to know all the ins and outs of modern agribusiness as well as the specifics about farming in urban areas. Illinois College offers a convenient online degree in Agribusiness Management that will prepare you to manage a successful farm, no matter how large or small your initial plot of land may be. From understanding business basics to exploring the latest developments in agricultural technology, Illinois College prepares you to achieve your farming goals.