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A few years back I read where the average home garden in the US was 300 square feet. That's a rectangle 10'x30' or a square about 18 feet on a side. I make raised beds 4 feet wide by 50 long, so 300 sqft is pretty small from my perspective, and I've handled as much as a couple of acres of these beds. My current project involves setting up about 100 of these beds. For a first time gardener, little old lady, or experimenting student, 300 sqft may seem like a huge space. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of size, there are plenty of people out there with no garden space who would love to garden.
Without access to land, gardening can be a challenge. Container growing is possible, but for some, there is no substitute for digging into the ground. In the cities,
land is at a premium and often shaded by skyscrapers, although rooftop gardening is making great strides. Apartment and condo dwellers may be prevented from gardening due to leasehold restrictions. Backyard gardening around private homes is widely practiced, but there are still people who do not want to mess up the place and homeowners associations which forbid anything that makes the yard look different than a golf course. Access to land for gardening is in demand all over the place, for many reasons. A new startup farm operation faces the problem of generating immediate income to cover the bills. Land is undeveloped, systems are yet to be installed, or perhaps the focus is on development and construction rather than raising crops. The result is dormant land. Left dormant long enough, natural growth will further slow development. Unused spaces can be put to use through renting out garden plots. It's done all the time all over the world, both by private land owners and by governments.
An example is Fairfax County, Virgina. There are 650 garden plots in nine parks, rented on an annual basis. Most plots are 30'x20' rented for $85/year, 18 are 10'x20' for $60. There is a waiting list.
Let's look at the numbers...
A 30x20 plot, plus a 6' pathway in front measures 30x23. The other half of the walkway is added to the plot on the other side of the walkway. 690 square feet.
43560 sqft/acre says 60+ of these plots will fit per acre. At $85/yr for each of 60 plots, $5000/acre/yr would be possible. Considering that land around here can be had for about $5k/acre, that's a fairly good return on investment.
As an initial project for a bootstrapping farm, this one has some distinct advantages. Gardening skills are not needed. There is no tending of crops or livestock. No mowing of a field that will be idle. The rented plots are (ideally) taken care of by the lessee, and all the money comes in at the start. Setting up such a project can be done in short order and for little cost or effort, depending on what you choose to offer.
Good fences make good neighbors. A 4 foot high wire fence with a gate separates each plot. The investment here is posts, fence, and fence nails. For the first few plots, it may not be necessary if the plots are placed about the property. There may be small sections of the property in out of the way places that would serve as rental plots all by themselves. Fence posts, if cut from trees and limbs, may have no cost at all. Wire fence is currently priced at less than 50¢ per linear foot. A field plan with plots in a grid allows sharing of fence and posts, keeping the cost down. A fence keeps out some critters, making it a value added offering, but most importantly it offers some sense of security to the growers in knowing noone is going to grab those tomatoes while they are away. With the gate, there is some investment in this project. If the project is terminated, you get to keep the fence. If the project continues, the fence will last for years. There are some community gardens that do not have a fence. The plots are segregated by a pathway only and marked with posts or stakes.
Water access is an absolute must have. Anyone who has been growing regularly for a few years will tell you the weather patterns have changed. There will be wet periods as well as dry. Folks should be by at least once a week to work on their garden and they will be using water. I assume you will have a well with water under pressure and a place to hook up a hose. This will be enough to get you by at the start. If the project is doing well, the establishment of plumbing and hose connection points throughout the plot field would be another investment to consider. Hoses don't last forever, foot and vehicle traffic can leave you with a leak, running up the cost of operating a well, and a constant flow can cause further problems. However, hoses are fast to hook up and offer a quick solution to meet irrigation demand.
At the very least, you'll need to mow the walkways. If you have no fences, you'll need to mow the pathways in between plots. It would be up to you to determine if you mow inside the plot areas. Keeping down the weeds would be appreciated by the growers, as would the tidy appearance. Raised beds makes for an easy job. Do you establish raised beds for the customers to use? Up to you. Each additional feature gives your plots an added value and competitive edge, but takes more investment of time and resources.
There are plot managers who till all garden plots at the start of the growing season. With fences erected, a tractor will be impractical unless the fence and posts are removed. Some growers will return each year, and will want to keep their garden development going which can include raised beds, patio blocks, trellises, and all manner of decor. It will be up to you to determine tractor vs tiller, if its a service you provide, and how far the growers must deconstruct their season's effort. Some plot managers offer tilling as a paid service. Others will rent a tiller to the grower. With no-till gardening and raised beds growing steadily in poularity, it may be in your interest not to till as a free service.
Will you be fertilizing the garden plots for the growers, either as a fee service or a treatment of the entire field? Will your plots be All-Natural and Chem-Free? Will you allow your growers to bring in their own fertilizers? Will they need to bring in their own compost or will you have a community compost heap from which anyone can draw what they need? I've seen plot rental projects where compost is available for a buck a bucket. Pack it as full as you like.
Most tools needed to work a small garden are pretty cheap. 10 bucks for a shovel, 12 for a rake, 8 for a hoe. You can have some tools available for borrowing. If you have a large number of plots rented out, you may have several people all hoping to use the one shovel. Consider that one guy might set down that borrowed shovel in tall flowers and head home for the week or 'accidentally' take the shovel home. People will always have the option of bringing their own tools. Some will prefer this, even building a tool storage locker. There is opportunity here-if you had tool storage lockers available for an extra few bucks a year, there would be some demand for their use. Having tools available for purchase may offer potential.
If the project is popular, lots of people doing their garden thing in their own way, you may have a parade of people out there. At some point you may find it necessary to include features which the customers require for their personal needs. A bathroom tops the list. A place to wash their hands, sit down, get out of the sun to cool off or eat lunch. Are vending machines practical? Surely you will need parking. There will be some folks who wish to bring in a load of compost, mulch or manure. Making the pathways between the plots wide enough for a truck will give your plots greater versatility. Putting large plots on the sides for better truck access makes good sense and allows you to have narrower paths and more plots per acre.
Plot sizes can be whatever size you determine. Larger plots will get a lower price per square foot, smaller plots will be cheaper for the grower. 50x50 would be big enough that if you had several of them, holding a farmers market would be practical. This lets you sell your own produce as well as your growers to set up a table. Allowing crafts at the market tables brings a new dimension. If you have large plots for larger growers, and they are able to bring in cash, it would tend to keep those growers around and keep your farm in the public eye.
What you want to do with such a project will determine what sort of rules you will need. Offering some space to a couple of friends would be more of a casual affair with no documentation necessary. If you are taking money, you'll want a lease agreement stating your responsibilities as well as those of the grower. If you go with a chem-free operation, you'll need this clearly stated. Some places only allow one cultivar of corn and have seed available because of the quality changes from cross-pollination. There are plot managers which prohibit GMOs, chemical inputs, and poison spraying. For an example of Rules and Regulation, have a look at Fairfax County Garden Plot Rules (.pdf). The grower signs a copy which you keep, and they get a copy for themselves.
If you have the room, this is a project that can be put together easily and inexpensively. It can be started small, bring in a few extra bucks, and provide exposure for your farm. Keeping those growers coming back each year can provide a steady, dependable income. Putting the work and investment into such a project can make it a successful enterprise all by itself.
How far you take it is up to you.