Urban Farm Incubator Aims to Grow Agricultural Movement in Indy

Xconomy Indiana — 

[Corrected, 10:10am. See below] Tysha Ahmed grew up on a small farm in rural Georgia, where her family raised chickens and ducks and planted enough produce for their own needs. Now the 40-year-old is planning her first commercial crops—likely some combination of lettuce, tomatoes, and other salad fixings that she’ll sell in the urban Indianapolis neighborhood where she’s growing it.

Ahmed, who left a career in the insurance industry to spend more time with her family, hopes to give her neighbors an alternative to the processed food available at the nearest retail outlet, a gas station convenience store. Many of them don’t have a way to get to the grocery, so they settle for what’s close.

She’s getting her start as part of a new urban farm incubator project coordinated by Purdue University’s Cooperative Extension office in Marion County. The first of its kind in Indianapolis, the program provides land, training, and mentorship to would-be farmers, helping them grow sustainable enterprises.

Urban agriculture is gaining momentum nationwide as proponents tout the economic, environmental, and health benefits small farms can provide to cities. And although Indianapolis is home to a number of established farms already, newcomers have not had access to local education and support. Until now.

The urban farm incubator is being planted on seven vacant lots in an economically challenged neighborhood northwest of downtown. Nine aspiring farmers applied for four plots, each about one-tenth of an acre. A fifth plot will be maintained by area teens working with nonprofit Groundwork Indy.

In addition to land, Purdue Extension provides agricultural and technical expertise, along with monthly educational sessions and access to an experienced urban farmer willing to share his boots-on-the-ground experience. Program mentor Tyler Gough manages Indy Urban Acres, an 8-acre farm developed five years ago in partnership with the Indianapolis Parks Foundation. Everything it grows is donated to local food pantries.

“The more urban farmers, the better—the more we’re growing, the more people are eating,” said Gough, citing his passion for resolving food-insecurity issues. “But there are barriers.” [Corrected spelling of Gough. We regret the error—Eds.]

He said the farm incubator project will help beginners navigate obstacles like finding suitable property and building relationships with both their peers and potential customers. Even so, there are still plenty of other challenges they’ll have to figure out themselves.

Incubator farmers have to identify a market for their crops, for example, whether it’s a neighborhood produce stand or a local restaurant. The program’s goal is to “graduate” farmers to their own property once they have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.

Participants can stay in the program for up to five years; rent on the land is free the first year and tops out at $200 annually. They also must attend at least two-thirds of all educational workshops, expected to be held monthly.

“It’s like a small-business incubator, a supportive environment where someone can take a little bit of a risk and try an entrepreneurial idea,” said Emily Toner, urban agriculture educator for Purdue Extension-Marion County.

Toner, who is coordinating the incubator program, won a $50,000 grant from the Purdue College of Agriculture’s economic-development-focused AgSEED fund to cover first-year expenses, and she’s seeking additional grant funding to continue programming.

Nationwide, more than 110 incubator programs served 958 North American farmers during the 2013 growing season, according to data from the National Incubator Farm Initiative. All told, the projects have provided assistance to over 5,700 beginning and aspiring farmers.

The Indianapolis urban farm incubator also promises to give the neighborhood a boost, both by making use of long-vacant land and by providing its low-income residents with access to affordable produce. That was an important consideration for Mimi Zakem, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker assisting with the project this year on behalf of Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology.

“This is a way to bring a positive benefit to people in poverty,” she said, adding that cultivating an urban agriculture program in the area “addresses the need for fresh food and economic opportunity.”

In fact, two of the four incubator plots will be farmed by people who live nearby. For Ahmed, the transition from stay-at-home mom to urban farmer was a gradual one. She became interested in the origins of her food after an illness, and while researching the topic began thinking about how to address food-access issues in her neighborhood.

Then she attended an urban farming business-plan class the Purdue Extension held at her local community center last fall, and all the pieces fell into place for the onetime farm girl. Now she’s germinating seedlings in her living room and waiting for the right time to get them into the ground.

“The [incubator] program allows me to figure things out with a safety net,” she said. “I get experience and time to decide what comes next.”

Andrea Muirragui Davis is a freelance writer and editor based in Fishers, Indiana.