Most houses in South Los Angeles have a typical front lawn. But once Jamiah Hargins is done with them, they’re planted with kale, rainbow chard, tomatoes, and enough other produce to feed 50 families in the neighborhood each week.
“My company partners with homeowners who have a front yard and want to do something positive,” says Hargins, the founder of Crop Swap LA, a startup that installs and manages the community gardens, which it calls microfarms. Neighbors pay for monthly subscriptions to the ultra-local food, and homeowners get both a share of the produce and a cut of the proceeds. “We maintain it, but they get part of the income every month,” Hargins says.
When Hargins started a vegetable garden of his own 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 swaps with neighbors. Then he started thinking about how to create the infrastructure to grow local food at a larger scale.
View Park, the neighborhood where the first microfarm has been planted, is considered a food desert because residents there don’t 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 a month, or $43 with delivery.
The startup worked with a group called Enviroscape LA to plan the landscaping, which uses a growing method where “you pack in as much as you can,” Hargins says. Other techniques used on the farm also increase productivity, including mesh “socks” on the plant roots that help provide the optimum temperature, air flow, and drainage for the plants to grow faster.
A water recycling system cycles water through the soil, making it nutrient-rich, and using a tiny fraction of the water needed to keep a lawn maintained. “We’re only using 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 that grass healthy. It’s amazing how much it is when you really count it,” Hargins says, noting that the water bills went down dramatically for the View Park homeowner of that first microfarm.
The company plans to work in front yards both because it’s often unused space—homeowners can still use their backyards—and so its own team can easily visit twice a week to tend the plants, harvest the food, and distribute the bounty to subscribers. But it may work in backyards in some cases; some future microfarms might have chickens and produce eggs, or house beehives for honey production.
Some similar startups have launched in other cities, like Lettuce, a company in Austin that used backyards to grow produce for people nearby. Lettuce appears to have folded, and the business model may be difficult to sustain. But it’s also possible that the timing is better now as the pandemic made more people willing 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 each garden requires extensive maintenance, it wouldn’t make sense to convert every front yard. But he hopes to scale up to hundreds, vetting each 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 grass green, because it’s possible to grow so much food in a small area. “It’s embarrassing that we haven’t done this before,” he says.