Innovation of the Week: Small Plot Intensive Farming

By Laura Reynolds

Earlier this year Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, submitted a report arguing that agroecological farming methods “outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production,” particularly in developing countries where access to resources is limited. Practicing this low-input, diversified farming style on a small scale has been gaining popularity in the U.S. in recent decades due, in part, to rising fuel and land prices.  Farming intensively on tiny acreages, particularly in urban areas, may offer a sustainable solution to many of the U.S. food system’s ills.

Densely planted farms are springing up around the country. (Photo credit: SPIN Farming LLC)

Farmers Wally Satzewich, Gail Vandersteen, and Roxanne Christensen have created SPIN Farming, a business that trains would-be farmers how to farm profitably on as little as 5,000 square feet, or roughly the size of two 4-bedroom homes. SPIN farming, or Small Plot INtensive Farming focuses on the business side of farming, from keeping overhead costs low to finding easy-to-access markets. Using SPIN’s model, farms are cropping up in unlikely spaces. Somerton Tanks Farm, for example, operates in the shadow of two five-million-gallon water tanks on land owned by the Philadelphia Water Department. And in Wilkes-Barre, PA, students at Wilkes University founded the first-ever campus-based SPIN farm by reclaiming an abandoned lot on the edge of the campus.

In addition to giving tips on how to maximize space efficiency on land, SPIN leaves much of the actual growing decisions in the hands of the farmer. According to SPIN, its system “is not predicated on any one set of life principals or philosophy, or any one method of soil prep or maintenance. It can be combined with biointensive, biodynamic, permaculture, vermaculture, aquaculture, double dig, [or] no till.”

Whether a farmer uses the trademarked SPIN model or not, small plot intensive farming offers solutions to some of the most pressing problems in agriculture today: access to land and access to markets. Owning land near a city means a farmer can sell her or his produce in the lucrative urban farmers markets. Land prices in and around cities, however, can be prohibitively high for many would-be farmers. By growing in gardens the size of city residential units, farmers can overcome these problems while avoiding the many carbon-emitting trips that getting food to consumers usually entails.

Small-scale, intensive farming can feed both city dwellers and rural poor, and can offer a sustainable alternative to the large, monoculture farms that dominate agriculture in the United States.

Have you tried small plot intensive farming, or do you know anyone who has? Tell us in the comments!

Laura Reynolds is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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