The traditional family farm is shrinking, as more people move to cities and nearby growers use intensive farming techniques to produce more food on small plots of land. According to the latest U.S. census, over 80% of Americans now live in cities.
As the number of city dwellers increases, imaginative solutions to feeding all those people are being used and refined on small acreage parcels near towns, vacant city lots and in the backyards of city residents across the country.
Small market growers are experimenting with hydroponics, aquaponics and intensive soil-based food production systems, with the goal of providing food for local markets that is fresh and nutritious.
Many urban farmers have discovered that old-fashioned “low-tech” growing methods still make sense with high-value vegetable crops such as peppers, salad greens and tomatoes. Because these crops can be grown indoors or outdoors without expensive growing equipment, they are perfect for growers on a budget. For example, a simple season-extending hoop house, often referred to as the poor man’s greenhouse, can be built for under $2 a square foot and often pay for itself in the first growing season.
One high-value crop that is ideal for urban farmers using intensive growing techniques is heirloom tomatoes. Because they bring higher prices that ordinary supermarket tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes can produce up to $14 per square foot of growing area. Even a small urban backyard can produce thousands of dollars in income growing these tasty fruits.
Most heirloom varieties are ready to harvest in 60-80 days, and are sold direct to customers at farmers markets, direct from the garden, to restaurant chefs and at local grocery stores.
Heirloom tomatoes, with their tender skins, do not ship well, so they are an ideal crop for local growers, who can harvest and deliver them at the peak of ripe perfection, when the taste and flavors make them irresistible. To ensure freshness, most growers pick and sell their tomatoes the same day.
Many heirloom tomato growers claim the hardest part of getting started is choosing just a few varieties to grow from the hundreds available from seed suppliers such as the Seed Saver’s Exchange or Tomatofest. By trying new varieties each year, growers can learn which do best in their local climate and which are most popular with consumers.
When it’s time to harvest and sell this delicious specialty crop, growers all agree offering free sample slices for tasting is the easiest and best way to acquaint new customers with the unique taste of each variety. Unlike supermarket tomatoes, which are bred to be tough enough for long-distance shipping instead of flavor, each heirloom variety has subtle flavor differences. Some are sweet as candy, while others have a rich, traditional tomato taste.
To learn more about growing heirloom tomatoes for market, read Profitable Heirloom Tomatoes, which covers all the basics new growers need to get started with these profitable plants, from how to make “soil blocks” for super-health transplants, to the very best heirloom varieties, based on actual consumer popularity in the marketplace.