By Katherine Roth
Jeanne Nolan grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago. When it came time to apply for colleges, she shocked her family by opting to skip college and become an organic farmer. Then she brought her farming skills back to the suburbs and city, installing and tending vegetable gardens at clients’ homes.
The Organic Gardener Ltd., the farmer-for-hire service she and her husband, Verd, started in the Chicago area in 2005, is one of many such services that have cropped up across the country. Some of these farmers have farming backgrounds, while others are landscapers who expanded their expertise, or entrepreneurs from a range of professional backgrounds who just love gardening and the outdoors.
“If you want serious exercise, you turn to a professional trainer to help you do it right. This is like hiring a gardening coach. Some people say, ‘Come over every other week for a year’ so they can learn and do it themselves. And I also have a hundred clients whose gardens I’ve been tending for years who are not even trying to do it on their own, but simply love having it done,” says Jeanne Nolan, author of “From the Ground Up: A Food Grower’s Education in Life, Love, and the Movement That’s Changing a Nation” (Spiegel and Grau, 2013).
Urban farming services cater to both homes and businesses that want home-grown produce but not the work involved in growing it. Clients include apartment complexes, grocery stories, schools, shopping malls, even ballparks.
“It turns out that having home-grown produce is something a lot of people really want,” says Jessie Banhazl, founder and CEO of Green City Growers, in the Boston area. The company’s Fenway Farms project involves planting and tending vegetable gardens atop Fenway Park, where produce is served to fans at baseball games, and a portion is donated to charity.
Many of her clients are trying to get more engaged in the growing process, she says: “There’s something about seeing how food grows, at home, school or even at Fenway, and hopefully this influences dietary choices and has a positive environmental impact.”
Dan Allen, CEO of Farmscape, with locations in Los Angeles and the San Francisco area, says farmers for hire have a more intimate relationship with clients than landscapers do. “There’s something more personal about growing food,” he says.
Hiring a farmer for your backyard isn’t necessarily cheap, though (prices vary by region). The farmers admit that if saving money is your goal, it’s probably cheaper to just shop organic at the grocery store. But they say the experience of growing your own produce, the learning opportunity for kids — and the bragging rights — make it worthwhile.
Another option: having a farm service visit every couple of weeks to teach growing techniques and offer tips.
“It’s surprising how much food you can grow in a very small space. As urban farmers, we grow things vertically and on roofs. We know how to plant crops densely. Even in just a 4-by-4 (-foot) square planter, you can grow a lot of food,” Nolan says.
Her company grows ” pretty much anything you can imagine,” she says. “Our most charismatic are tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. And our season runs from March through mid-December.”
To provide enough produce for a family of four, Green City Growers recommends three 3-by-8-foot raised beds.
“Whether it’s a median strip or a full backyard, or even containers on a balcony, a vegetable garden can happen almost anywhere,” Banhazl says.