Contrary to most press, the challenges of urban farming are mostly not about high-tech LEDs and patent-pending hydroponics designs – they are about efficient operations.

When you see images of vertical farms, you shouldn’t think “Woah, cool” – you should be asking “Does it actually work well?”, and “Is it a sustainable operation?”

Vertical farming, and urban farming at small scales, are new practices. There is no rule book. There is no workforce of managers with prior experience to draw on. Everything is being rewritten from scratch.

In this new world, the farmers who will be successful are those who are obsessed with operational efficiency. Urban farmers should be starting to think in similar terms, understanding how they can operate in new forms of physical space most efficiently, safely and easily.

In our Commercial Urban Farming class, this is one of the aspects we touch on, showing how important efficient operations can be in ensuring you have a profitable farm.

Farm Design

Designing the physical space of a farm is as important as specifying the right pumps and ventilation systems. While building vertically is incredibly space-efficient, it creates problems when it comes to worker access, safety and airflow. Overall, designing with humans in mind is vital. When looking at a farm design, some of the following questions are important:

  • Is there wasted space?
  • Are crops easily accessible for plant care and harvesting?
  • Does equipment require especially tall or skinny staff? (Really!)
  • Does everything have a clear place to go?
  • Is everything that could be automated, that can be?
  • Are spaces designed to facilitate quick movement?
  • Are workers able to move items efficiently, without “dangerous carrying”?
  • Is it always clear when something is wrong?
  • Is it easy to check if equipment is working?
  • Is the farm a pleasant place to be?

Managing the team

Managing the workforce is an important practice, both when it comes to tactical efficiency, but also safety, training and other considerations. A poorly-designed, low-tech, but well-managed farm may out-perform a sexy high-tech mess. Think about some of the following questions as you build your idea for farm:

  • Is training standardized? How is training assessed?
  • Are workers expected to be generalists, or specialized?
  • Are there written instructions in relevant places?
  • Are there visual or video guides for complex processes?
  • Are workers empowered to ask questions?
  • Are there clear safety protocols? How are they enforced?
  • Is there a culture of safety that encourages honest, prompt feedback?
  • Are workers taught how to move efficiently?

Task Management

On a working farm there are dozens or hundreds of specific tasks to perform, in terms of maintenance as well as normal daily operations like planting, transplanting, harvesting. Inexperienced teams may not treat these as carefully as they need. Questions such as the following can expose potential issues:

  • Are processes clearly defined and understood?
  • Is the state of the farm clear to all workers and management?
  • Are problems fixed or escalated at the right levels?
  • Are there metrics/SLAs in place for speed-of-answer for problems?
  • Are checklists in place for complex tasks?
  • Is record-keeping digital? If not, why not?
  • Can tasks be tracked back to specific times and individuals?

Ensuring long-term staff retention

Farm work can be physically taxing, under difficult conditions such as elevated temperature, humidity and noise. If farm workers are not motivated sufficiently, this can become a short-term gig rather than a long-term career – which is bad for morale, bad for company training costs, and bad for keeping knowledge within the organization. So careful attention should be paid to questions like these:

  • Do management understand the true nature of farm tasks?
  • Do management regularly go ‘back to the floor’?
  • Is the hiring process effective at identifying the right personnel?
  • Are farm workers listened to? Are there concerns acted on?
  • Are farm workers given a clear career progression roadmap?
  • Are farm workers paid an appropriate (not just minimum) wage?
  • Are staff retention problems addressed tactically and strategically?

Of course, this is a general, non-exhaustive list. But these kinds of considerations should be on the mind of any team that wishes to build a successful urban farming business. Operations is key!

Find out more about our Commercial Urban Farming class. Next class October 28/29
Robert Laing
CEO & Founder at Farm.