A focus on goals, attention to planning, and a helping of luck got Mayda Pozantides off to a good start as a for-profit urban farmer in Buffalo. This despite no steady water source, ground so tough their BCS couldn’t break it up, and no clue what contaminants they might find in it when they did.
“I don’t know that I got into farming because I wanted to become a really savvy businesswoman, but doing a lot of this”—planning, prioritizing, balancing investment and income—”has helped me to be able to connect to the soil, connect people to the source of their food, and to make a living,” Mayda said.
Testing, sweat, and lots of organic matter
Along with her partner, Anders Gunnersen, Mayda owns and manages Groundwork Market Garden, one of 30 urban farms in Buffalo. They offer a wide variety of produce through their CSA, farmstand, and restaurant sales. “We focus on fast turnover and profitability, but also crowd-pleasers like our tomatoes.” Mayda spoke at the New York Winter Conference on “Making a living as an urban market gardener.”
A foreclosure auction made the land
affordable, but they couldn’t test
the soil before the sale
In 2014, they bought the land, two acres a few miles from the city center, for $1800 at a foreclosure auction. “Foreclosure is a very affordable option, although that affordability comes with the land not being ready for agriculture.”
They were not allowed to test the soil before the sale; luckily, once they could test, they didn’t find any significant contamination with lead, PCBs, or other toxic chemicals common in urban soils. Had they found any, Mayda said, their plan would have been to follow model guidelines from Boston (see Resources and Links), using geotextile fabric to cover the existing soil and bringing in clean soil to grow in. “We would have started smaller,” she said, but would still have proceeded.
They spent the next year organizing their business, planning, and building soil. They rented a tractor to break the ground, brought in many yards of compost and other organic matter—“whatever we could get”—and planted sorghum-sudan, whose roots will penetrate tight soils.
Urban gardens are all different, she stressed, and the success of every enterprise will depend on matching your efforts to your situation. Mayda recommends beginning planning by focusing on your major goals—why do you want to do what you are doing? The “how” and the “what” flow from those, she says. For Mayda and Anders, the goal was to provide healthy food (they are now certified organic) at a fair price while making a sustainable living. “And not just financially sustainable, but sustainable for our mental health and for avoiding burnout.”
“As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood,
and might not look like
our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”
And importantly, she added, they wanted to be rooted in their community, and to bring the neighborhood in to make the farm a resource for the community. “As urban farmers, we are in someone’s neighborhood, and might not look like our neighbors. We need to get buy in.”
Their first growing season was in 2016. That summer was marked by drought and high temperatures, and their only water source was a hose snaked through a broken window in an adjacent building.
“That was definitely a learning experience,” she deadpanned. They have since invested in a steadier water source. She also found that her crops were a salad bar for the local wildlife. “Naively, I thought when I moved to urban farming the pests might disappear, but we’ve got them all—groundhogs, deer, insects.”
Nonetheless, they persevered, and Mayda still treasures a picture from that year—of a modest but attractive array of vegetables, left from an early market—as an emblem of their farm.
A focus on goals, and numbers
The following years brought more success—“We’ve done some things right,” she said. Each year, she sets three to five “SMART” goals, an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, which helps focus all the activity on the farm.
“Surviving this past year was a major accomplishment.” At the beginning of the season, before the pandemic, they set out to increase their financial goals, and as many farmers found, the demand was there in spades. While they lost many of their restaurant customers, they increased their CSA shares, including by adding half-shares that kick in mid-summer, when production is in full swing. (Editor’s note: very cool idea—might try that myself!)
Mayda calculated their start-up costs at about $28,000, including the land, compost, tools, equipment, permits, tests, and seed. Their yearly expenses are $63,000, the lion’s share of which is payroll for Mayda and their one seasonal full-time employee. Thy are expanding again this year, adding a second high tunnel.
In addition to income from direct sales, Groundwork brings in money from corporate partners who sponsor some of their CSA shares for low-income customers. “They have the money, and they need to improve their image,” she noted.
Mayda said it can be a challenge to match the promises of six-figure sales on tiny urban lots that one might hear about on YouTube. “That may work if your customers are high-end restaurants in big cities, but you need to know who you are selling to.” Buffalo is not Manhattan, she pointed out. “As urban farmers we are expected to provide good jobs and good pay, and give food away for free, but those things don’t quite add up.
“But because we are urban, we have an opportunity to really bring people right to the farm. Doing that can build trust, and create a sense of being a resource for the neighborhood. Bringing people in can only make you stronger.”
One of the sad paradoxes of urban farming is that something as vital for communities as locally grown food can be fraught with uncertainty over whether the soil it grows in is toxic. Recently, urban growers in Buffalo, in cooperation with region’s Food Policy Council, came together to develop the Greater Buffalo Urban Growers Pledge to increase consumer trust in the health and safety of urban-grown produce. The pledge commits the grower to, among other things, regular testing of soil and compost, mulching to reduce dust and soil splash, and “avoidance of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers, GMOs, chemically treated seeds, toxic materials, and sewage sludge.” The full pledge is available in the Resources and Links.