Once a stress-release hobby for white-collar city dwellers, urban farming has blossomed into a big business accounting for one fifth of the world’s food supply.
Editor’s Note: Ever wonder what it takes to start a business? So You Want to Start profiles businesses and asks that very question.
Urban farming and community gardens are not new concepts; the Victory Gardens of WWII supplied 40% of the vegetables grown in the U.S. Those farms sprang up out of necessity. Modern urban farms are thriving thanks to a farm-to-table movement that puts a premium on locally sourced seasonal produce.
Bill and Shelia Reagan, owners of Reagan Family Farm in Fayetteville, grow strawberries, blueberries and pumpkins on three acres located about a mile from the city square. Some of their crop is sold to local restaurants but most is retailed to the public on a pick-your-own basis or from a stand at the farm.
Bill sat down with us to tell us what it takes to start an urban farm.
Q. What was on this property before you started your farm?
Bill: My farther had a cattle farm but in recent years the farm became stagnant. It was an empty field when we put our first crop of strawberries in three years ago. We added a blueberry crop this year. When those crops are done we plant exotic pumpkins that are harvested in the fall, mostly for jack-o-lanterns and porch displays.
Q. Besides the farm, you have a 60-hour-a-week job and Shelia was working full-time until she quit her job this year to devote full time to the farm. What possess you to do this?
Bill: We started this with the idea of having something to do when we retire. I’m a worker, and in my line of work I’ve seen lots of purchasing agents retire and six months later they’re dead. I have to have a purpose. Just to sit around in retirement doing nothing would drive me crazy. And Shelia is crazy enough to go along.
Q. Why these crops?
Bill: I initially wanted to grow just blueberries. I studied up on the crop and went to a blueberry meeting at the University of Arkansas. I came out of that meeting shaking my head and knowing I was nowhere close to making a blueberry crop. I needed a cash crop that year so I started with strawberries.
“I have to have a purpose. Just to sit around in retirement doing nothing would drive me crazy.”
Q. How did you learn how to grow strawberries?
Bill: I invested a lot of time doing research and relied on the help of others, including the Midwest Strawberry Growers Association. There’s also a farmer down in Alma who I’ve stopped in to visit, and he doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge. Then I invited the county extension specialist here and he and the small plant specialist walked the farm. They said to keep it pretty and mowed up and be nice to everybody who comes here and you’ll never have to pick a berry. That didn’t happen as I still have to pick berries but we decided then we could do this.
Q. Watching the people that come here, it’s almost like this is a destination for them rather than a place to just pick or buy berries.
Bill: Yeah, many visitors are after the experience. Moms and grandmas remember picking with their grandmothers so they bring the kids for the same experience. I’m really proud we attract such a diverse crowd, and it’s refreshing that they’re such good people. Everyone’s nice and friendly. I don’t take credit cards but I do take checks, and I’ve had two bad checks and those customers took care of it promptly. Lots of good people come down on this farm.
Q. How do you get the word out?
Bill: The first year we paid to be on Arkansasgrown.com and we were on a national u-pick website as well. Mostly we attract customers through Facebook. We have almost 5,000 likes. We also took some berries to The Famer’s Table and The Rolling Pin and they’re regular customers now. Also sell to Richard’s Meat Market, Mocking Bird Café and Oven and Tap in Bentonville.
Q. How many do you employ?
Bill: This is truly a family farm and we couldn’t do this without their help. Sheila works here fulltime. Her father-in-law, Avril King, is here almost daily, her brothers will help with the drop of the hat, and I have 12 brothers and sisters who are always helping out. Also have two part-time pickers. It’s a massive amount of work. Thank God we have a big family.
Q. What will this place look like in five years?
Bill: We’re going to expand. Might do blackberries and might grow some specialty crops such as rhubarb. Might also do pick-your-own mushrooms and asparagus. You have to grow something different. Anyone can grow yellow squash, then you have a crop you have to fight to give away.
Strawberry Farming by the Numbers
Editors note: This budgeting program was developed by North Carolina State University Ag Economist Dr. Olya Rysin and uses a number of assumptions that will vary widely from farm-to-farm and from year-to-year. It is presented here as only an example and is not meant to be a substitute for growers calculating their own costs and estimating their own breakeven yields. To learn more, visit https://strawberries.ces.ncsu.edu/strawberries-budgets/
Number of Plants Per Acre: 15,000
Projected Yield Per Plant: 1.2 lbs.
Projected Pounds Per Acre: 18,000
Sales Price Per Pound:
40% U-pick ,7,200 lbs. @ $3.30 = $23,760
60% Pre-pick, 10,800 lbs. @ $4.00 = $43,200
Gross Revenue Per Acre: $66,960
Annual Cost Per Acre: $18,621
Net Return: $48,339