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Dirt by Day, Dancing by Night

Urban agriculturalists enjoy a rewarding profession that bridges city and country.


Perhaps you like working with your hands, digging in the earth, picking your dinner fresh from a garden. Perhaps you also enjoy nights out on the town, the latest hip club, the newest cutting-edge eatery.

Perhaps a career in urban agriculture is for you.

Heart and some background knowledge required
An urban agriculturalist “is one who cultivates food in the city,” says Jesse DuBois, chief executive officer of Farmscape Gardens, a Los Angeles-based urban farming venture. Farmscape establishes home, school and restaurant gardens and orchards, enabling urbanites to eat off their own small patches of land.

After graduating from college with a degree in English, DuBois discovered his passion for finding solutions to food sustainability problems. He educated himself on the issues, partnered with some friends, and turned to gardening to contribute “part of the solution to the hazards [industrialized food poses] to human health, ecology and food culture,” he says.

To succeed in the field, such devotion to the cause is crucial. Farmscape hires people who share a love for developing local, city-based food supplies. Farmers need experience in organic farming and benefit from degrees in horticulture, food agriculture and related fields, according to Rachel Bailin, Farmscape’s marketing director. They need patience to tend to the plants and strong interpersonal skills to build client relationships as well, DuBois says.

Diverse opportunities, salaries “from the bottom all the way up”
While Farmscape’s mission to build gardens touches a key aspect of urban agriculture, other career opportunities exist within the profession.

Urban Farming, a nonprofit dedicated to ending world hunger, encourages the establishment of gardens worldwide, but it also urges interested urban agriculturalists to seek positions in clean energy, water conservation, indoor hydroponic growing and other linked fields. The organization provides a job board on its Web site that lists positions in these burgeoning industries, along with opportunities in gardening and farming.

“You can really find your own niche in urban agriculture, whether you’re interested in science, horticulture, botany, green engineering and developing greenhouses or you simply want to grow a little food and bring it to the farmers’ market,” says Taja Sevelle, Urban Farming’s founder and executive director.

Earning potential goes “from the bottom all the way up” across the urban agriculture landscape, according to Sevelle. Indeed, urban farmers typically earn $10 to $20 per hour, says Farmscape’s chief financial officer Dan Allen. The experience gained in the garden helps prepare for higher paying positions, which tend to exist in larger research and development sectors, Sevelle says.

“Studying new ways of organic growing using indoor hydroponics or helping farmers design better large scale organic systems…those are the waves of the future,” she says.

Satisfaction guaranteed
Though their salaries may differ widely, urban agriculturalists seem to share a sense of social value and personal contentment about their chosen careers.

“If you can make money in an area that helps us all, helps us be stewards of our planet…[and] uplifts others, that’s fabulous. What a great life,” says Sevelle.

Ben Gould, a self-proclaimed garden steward who helps tend school gardens in Los Angeles, agrees: “People…find it refreshing and invigorating to be part of something so gratifying,” he says.

Getting started
Gould knows the ropes when it comes to breaking into urban agriculture. He started by volunteering on a farm in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, an experience he followed with stints planting on golf courses in San Francisco and in indoor spaces in New York City.

Today, Gould supports himself by acting in commercials while conjuring his entrepreneurial debut: an urban gardening business focused on biodiversity and replanting native species, concepts for which he discovered his passion during his stay in India.

His advice to anyone wanting to enter the field?

“Ask questions constantly, read, dive in any way you can. Volunteer.”

 


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.