We are very excited to have been selected as semi-finalists for the One Prize: Mowing to Growing competition. There were many exciting proposals looking at a range of solutions and some great finalists. I worked closely with my colleagues Aron Chang, Natalie Yates and Patrick Michaels and our proposal focused on developing a service that would, ideally, change perceptions of the role of the yard. I’ve included a quick excerpt from our proposal as well as the PDF hosted on One Prize website.
Crews of men, clad in drab uniforms and wielding high-powered instruments, move rapidly through our suburbs and cities each day. They are tasked with maintaining the yards of over 34 million American households, and they do so with the utmost efficiency and at the lowest cost possible for each client homeowner. A visit to the average yard to “mow and blow” takes a crew of three no more than thirty minutes and costs homeowners but a small fraction of their disposable incomes. A single crew can maintain yards for upwards of sixty homeowners, a combined acreage that becomes rather significant when considered in aggregate.
In a country where municipalities, homeowner associations, and neighbors share expectations for how green and how neat lawns ought to be, lawn-service providers and landscaping crews are ubiquitous in America’s residential neighborhoods – even many middle-class families pay for their services, freeing them from the burden of constant mowing, weeding, and fertilizing. Indeed, the use of lawn-service providers has, over the last three decades, become less of a luxury and more an indispensable part of everyday life for many families. There are well over 5,000 professional lawn care companies in the United States alone, with 921,900 documented workers employed in the landscaping and groundskeeping industries. That far outnumbers the 438,490 workers in all of the farming, fishing and forestry occupations combined, or even the 633,710 police officers and sheriff officers that serve the country.
Why does the professional provision of lawn care matter in the discussion of the productive capacity of residential lawns?
In contrast to the monolithic forms of agricultural production which dominate the public consciousness, lawn-service providers constitute an under-appreciated mode of “farming” in America, one in which the farmer goes directly to the customer, in which the act of farming is fully integrated into the rhythms of everyday life, in which the highly specific predilections and site conditions of each customer and their yard trump the dictates of industrial efficiency, and in which the convenience of the customer and the cultural value of a well-maintained landscape outweighs the productive value and ecological benefits of the farming practice. The demand for lawn care continues to rise with the continued construction of single-family homes in innumerable suburban developments. With readily available cheap labor and a relatively modest investment in equipment as the only requirements for entry into the field, the lawn-service industry now comprises a diverse multitude of overlapping networks of providers and customers spanning the entire country with its myriad climatic zones and geographic regions.
Thus, there already exists a system of decentralized farming with local providers attuned to the microclimates and conditions of their respective service areas, one that relies upon a highly mobile infrastructure of trucks and portable equipment to farm grass and maintain yards for millions of Americans. The key to the productivity of America’s residential landscapes lies then, not with the homeowner who more often than not has neither the time nor interest for gardening, but in tapping the remarkable potential of the existing lawn-service industry.
Our proposal begins with two assumptions. The first is that there is an increasing demand amongst consumers for fresh and locally-grown produce, for healthier foods, and for more sustainable lifestyles. The second is that people who want to garden, have the know-how, and who have the time to garden already do garden. The lawn-service industry serves as a model for how the farming of produce can become integral to the lifestyle of American families, without necessitating an investment on the part of the homeowner in farming equipment, time, or agricultural education. Instead, networks of local urban farmers, acting much as lawn-service professionals already do, will provide farming as a service to individual clients.
In this scheme, the vast acreage of American lawns becomes an inexhaustible reservoir of arable land. Through an ongoing conversation with each individual homeowner, the farmers adapt farming techniques and planting strategies to the fragmented and platted landscapes of our cities and suburbs. Utilizing their professional expertise, specialized tools, and organic farming techniques, these farmers provide agricultural services at low cost and with maximum convenience for homeowners, bringing the industrial efficiency and higher yields of farming to the realm of home gardening.
The homeowners receive the bulk of the harvest delivered from their personal gardens onto their front doorsteps, with the farmers marketing a smaller portion of the produce to local restaurants and markets. A single garden of 800 sq. ft. can provide 400 pounds of fresh produce for each household, with an additional 240 pounds to be distributed locally amongst other consumers. Such an operation would, in farming numerous residential yards, rival the productivity and income generation of a typical CSA (community supported agriculture) farm out in the countryside.
The reframing of the lawn-service industry forms the basis of our proposal. We ask not that every American tear up their lawns – an untenable proposition in the present day and foreseeable future – but that every homeowner is offered the means to become local food producers without requiring them to abandon their jobs and take up farming on their own. Our strategies can be implemented anywhere homeowners and yards exist, while relying on local knowledge and farmer-to-household relationships. Though modest in terms of technical requirements or shifts in policy, “Backyard Farm Service” builds on existing business models, infrastructural capabilities, and current trends in cultural values and consumer desires to suggest how we can diversify and localize food production in order to enhance each neighborhood’s ecological diversity and food security, to physically reintegrate agricultural production into the fabric of our cities and suburbs, and to bridge the psychic gap between farming and everyday consumption that has formed over the last century with the advent of modern agriculture.
Sources: 1)US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2)”How much do you spend on your lawn?: Statistics and Facts Concerning Lawn Care and Landscaping,” www.backyardnature.com 3)”How to Start a Lawn Care Business,” www.mowingformoney.com 4)“Economic Impacts of the Turfgrass and Lawncare Industry in the United States,” University of Florida IFAS Extension