Feb ’16- H.C. Clark & Pat Greer: The Business of Urban Farming in Houston

At our February 8 meeting, H.C. Clark and Pat Greer weighed in with their ideas about the business of urban farming in Houston. These ideas come from their own experience; Pat is in the business of making things from vegetables and H.C. has been involved with farming and farmers’ markets for a long time, so their combined perspective is flavored with the spice of local. To begin, urban farming and all the good things about local food are hot topics these days and Houston is in an ideal situation to be a part of this conversation. We can grow vegetables year-round and we are soon to be the third largest city, two valuable ingredients. They started off with the bottom line—you won’t get rich, but you can make money. Then, they talked about a succession of scenarios to make the “money making” part happen.
First was the profile of Eugene the Gardener. He has a backyard garden, grows extra of what he knows Pat’s kitchen needs, and he brings about a box a week—Pat described the process, a negotiated amount at a negotiated price. A good, reliable product, a single customer, no selling—and he makes a little “walkin’ around money”. The next profile kicked everything up a notch, Ray Sher, an icon of Houston growing and one of the main reasons that the Urban Harvest Farmers’ Market (then called the Bayou City Farmers’ Market) started off successfully. Ray’s already large garden expanded to take up much of his corner yard. His signature product was his fabulous lettuce, but he grew all the seasonal fruits and vegetables. The “urban farm” became his day job, and a good deal of marketing was necessary—and he was very good at all of it. He was successful because he had good products and a good story, well told. The ultimate profile of an urban farmer is Camille Waters, the Lettuce Lady. Long before the new interest in local food, Camille made a good living by growing incredible lettuce and selling it to local chefs—and is now retired, living in Mexico. She borrowed vacant lots in the Heights from investors who were holding land a while before building townhouses. She brought in mushroom compost (portable dirt), grew, cut, washed and bagged the lettuces, and delivered to a select few. This profile involved employees (a major quantum leap), operations and procedures—maybe not things that a would-be urban farmer thinks about.
Now, how could you, as this would-be urban farmer, take the experiences of those profiled here and make a business of urban farming in Houston? First, these folks didn’t spend a lot of money, their land was there or in Camille’s case, it was borrowed. So, borrow a lot (preferably with a fence and a driveway) and dig some beds (also a key way to get introduced to the really hard work of gardening at this scale). Then, think about a niche and sell that niche at the Gardeners’ Corner at a farmers’ market, or to neighbors or to chefs. Importantly, in Houston, the time to get started is now (at this point in the talk, the speakers dramatically passed out envelopes of lettuce seeds, telling the audience, “You are only 28 days from being in the urban farming business!”). This borrowed lot could become a couple or several lots on a route. Water, a big cost for an urban farmer, might be negotiated in exchange for caring for the trees planned around a future homesite. Everything in this example should be very portable: dirt and compost to be moved from lot to lot, fruit trees in large containers, shop and storage in a shipping container, the list goes on—but all of it designed to be picked up and moved to the next lot when the owner decides to build. Is this a dream—NO!, it’s being done. Examples are the Last Organic Outpost, Finca Tres Robles and Scott Howard’s new garden expansion (he’s borrowing the lot from himself); all have been a part of HUG’s, and a new urban farmer would do well to take advantage of their experience by volunteering at these farms. And, if urban farming is not quite for you, there are lots of related things that may be, like sprout farming, starts, water catch, garden building, gardening for others, even going from lot to lot doing custom plowing.
In summary, you may not make a living as an urban farmer in Houston, but you can make some money if you are thoughtful. It must be something you enjoy. Be careful: don’t spend money, don’t quit your day job, and most of all, get started right now and see if you like it. Learn from others, that is come to HUG’s meetings and bring all your questions, plans and dreams.
It was an enjoyable evening—Rebecca talked of her own CSA farm at Nell and Dean’s, Rich Vega challenged with what’s to be done at the West Gray Service Center’s garden (he has a tractor), and the evening would not be complete without Mary Demeny’s wisdom, generously shared.

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3 Responses to “Feb ’16- H.C. Clark & Pat Greer: The Business of Urban Farming in Houston”
  1. Jenni stottlemyer says:

    Dad you have always been my inspiration for gardening
    Growing your own is satisfying and yummy and fun to share

  2. Will Sanders says:

    Sorry I missed it! I have an organic microfarm, just getting it set up in the fifth ward. Been making dirt the last 3 months.. Getting ready to transplant my seedlings !

  3. Susan says:

    Great article. I would like to supplement my teaching income growing and selling starts. I plan to retire in a few years and would like to give it a try while still employed. Is HUG’s the right venue to learn about the liner business?

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