Natural Foods Merchandiser

Plots of opportunity on urban eco-farms

by Vicky Uhland

The Dervaes family's 1,500-square-foot vintage Craftsman bungalow, set on a standard city lot a mile from downtown Pasadena, Calif., is an unlikely homestead for a working farm. And yet Jules Dervaes and three of his children manage to grow 350 varieties of plants and more than 6,000 pounds of organic produce each year on their fifth of an acre—with enough space left over for the family's chickens, ducks, two cats and a pair of goats.

The Dervaeses' urban farm not only provides 55 percent to 90 percent of this vegetarian family's food, depending on the season, but it also supplies three local restaurants, a catering company and a nearby country club with fresh produce and eggs. Years ago, the family also sold edible flowers to a Wild Oats store in Pasadena. They use the profits from their Dervaes Gardens business to make their lives even more sustainable—buying solar panels and energy-efficient appliances for their house and a biodiesel processor for the garden.

"We like to think that everyone is in this together—the business of growing and getting good food," says Jules Dervaes, a 60-year-old former teacher, beekeeper and leather crafter. The Dervaes family is only one of the many gardeners who are turning city lots into city plots, growing organic or natural produce. These urban farms and community gardens—where dozens of city dwellers farm small plots in gardens the size of a city block or larger—give natural foods retailers, particularly smaller, inner-city stores, another way to join the local movement. And through organizations like Urban Farming, a Michigan-based nonprofit that aims to stamp out hunger by encouraging low-income city residents to grow their own food, retailers can also give back to their communities.

The farmer in the 'hood

While stocking produce from gardens that are literally blocks from your store sounds appealing, the reality can be daunting. Short of peering over your neighbors' fences, it can be difficult to find urban farms, particularly ones that are willing to sell their excess produce. Dervaes turns away would-be customers because he can't guarantee he can provide all the food they want. "We can't just go over to our ducks and say, ‘Lay!'" he jokes. But at the same time, he realizes that urban gardening is a balancing act. "It's a hard thing to grow a lot but not sell a lot."

When he does have excess produce to sell, he posts a notice at, a clearinghouse for small, local farms, including urban gardens. You can also find nearby community gardens through the American Community Gardening Association, at

Waste not, want not

The key to working with urban farmers is flexibility. Unlike other farmers, their primary motivation is to grow their own food, not supply your store, so they may not always have the type or quantity of produce you want. "My favorite chef who buys from us tells us to just bring what we have," Dervaes says. But other restaurants place specific orders twice a week or more frequently, most often for salad greens and eggs. Dervaes likes this system as well. "The restaurants order only what they want, and then we go out and pick it. It's a no-waste system—they get the finest of our produce with none of it going to waste, and we get paid for what we pick so we don't waste our labor."

The same system could work for a natural foods store, Dervaes says. To get the most marketing bang for its buck, a store could set aside special sections of the produce department for each urban farm or community garden it deals with, while making sure customers know just how local that tomato they're holding really is.

"The key is to communicate that local connection well. If your only form of communication with your customers is a weekly circular on Thursday and the urban farm information is buried somewhere in the middle of that, that's not going to work," says marketing consultant Jon Schallert, president of Longmont, Colo.-based The Schallert Group.

Schallert recommends customer e-mails, fliers or signs in stores highlighting local produce. "Something along the lines of ‘in our store today' or ‘in our store this week' would work," he says. "It really takes very little marketing to have an impact and to make your customers' whole shopping experience more personal."

Safety issues

If salmonella or E. coli scares have made your store loath to buy produce that hasn't been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dervaes can put your fears to rest. One of the benefits of urban gardens is that the farmers almost always do their own processing and delivery. "At our farm, the person who picks the produce hands it over to the person who buys it, so it can't be contaminated in transit," he says. "Every person who lays a hand [on fresh food] is a possible contaminant, but here, you know exactly who to talk to if you have a problem: Me. So it kind of keeps me on my toes." Dervaes says he carefully inspects his produce and washes it before he sells it. In addition, "Some of our chefs come out and visit us so they can explain to their customers that they've actually seen what they're eating right there in the fields."

Giving back

If it's not feasible to carry city-farm produce in your store, you can still get involved through organizations like Urban Farming, which has helped set up about 160 farms modeled after World War II victory gardens in areas as diverse as Detroit; New York; Newark, N.J.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Atlanta; New Orleans; Raleigh, N.C.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Hawaii; Jamaica; England; Canada; and Haiti.

Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's work with Urban Farming, says the nonprofit's Founder and Executive Director Taja Sevelle, by donating a percentage of their sales, helping sponsor workshops and providing healthy recipes as part of Urban Farming's education program. Urban Farming is also launching an entrepreneurship program that encourages kids and adults to start businesses growing products they would like to sell to natural foods stores.

"We're always looking for ways to get people to eat healthy food and to find places where they can get more information about healthy food, and health food stores are great resources for that," Sevelle says.

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 16,20

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