Most homes in South Los Angeles have a typical lawn. But once Jamiah Hargins is done with them, they’re planted with kale, rainbow chard, tomatoes, and enough other produce to feed 50 neighborhood families every week.
“My business partners with owners who have a front yard and want to do something positive,” says Hargins, founder of Crop Swap LA, a startup that installs and manages community gardens, which it calls microfarms. Neighbors pay monthly subscriptions to ultra-local food, and owners receive both a share of the produce and a reduction in revenue. “We maintain it, but they get a portion of the income every month,” Hargins says.
When Hargins opened his own vegetable garden at home a few years ago and ended up growing more than he and his wife could eat, he turned to Nextdoor to set up produce exchanges with neighbors. Then he started to think about how to create the infrastructure to grow local foods on a larger scale.
View Park, the area where the first micro-farm was planted, is considered a food desert because locals do not have easy access to large supermarkets. Through Crop Swap LA, residents can subscribe to a 3-pound mix of fresh, organic greens and vegetables for $ 36 per month or $ 43 with delivery.
The start-up worked with a group called Enviroscape LA to plan landscaping, which uses a growth method where “you pack as much as you can,” says Hargins. Other techniques used on the farm also increase productivity, including mesh “socks” on plant roots that help provide optimum temperature, airflow and drainage for plants to grow faster.
A water recycling system circulates water through the soil, making it rich in nutrients and using a tiny fraction of the water needed to maintain a manicured lawn. “We only use 8% of the water that was previously used to grow grass there, but now to grow food. I think about 700 gallons per day were needed to keep this weed healthy. It’s amazing how much it is when you really count it, ”says Hargins, noting that water bills have come down dramatically for the View Park owner of that first micro-farm.
The company plans to work the front yards at a time because it is often unused space – homeowners can still use their backyard – and its own team can easily travel twice a week to maintain the plants, harvest the food and distribute the bonus to subscribers. But it can work in backyards in some cases; some future micro-farms could have chickens and produce eggs, or domestic beehives for honey production.
Some similar startups have started in other cities, like Lettuce, an Austin company that used backyards to grow produce for people nearby. Lettuce appears to have folded and the business model can be difficult to maintain. But it’s also possible that the timing is better now, as the pandemic has prompted more people to try food subscription programs.
A grant from LA2050, a Goldhirsh Foundation program, helped Crop Swap LA install the first microfarm. Hargins says that because every garden requires extensive maintenance, it wouldn’t make sense to convert every front yard. But he hopes to grow to the hundreds, checking every yard by testing the soil to make sure it’s a healthy place to grow. It’s a smarter use of space than grass, especially in a drought-prone city where it’s hard to keep the grass green, as it’s possible to grow so much food in a small area. “It’s embarrassing that we haven’t done this before,” he says.