backyard farm service – mammoth // building nothing out of something

backyard farm service

[Plant compatibility diagram, from Visual Logic’s “Backyard Farm Service.]

One of the unfortunate things that happens with competitions is that the best entries are often overlooked by the judges, and the ideas encapsulated in those entries then missed.  There are notable exceptions to this rule, like the OMA entry to the Parc de la Villette competition, or the Tschumi design for Downsview Park, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a rule.  (While this is at times a failure of judging, I suspect it is also equally likely to be a function of the extreme difficulty of figuring out what schemes will prove prescient without the advantage of hindsight.)

So while there were a variety of interesting entrants to (and winners of) the recent One Prize “Mowing to Growing” competition, it isn’t particularly surprising that an entry mammoth finds at least as interesting as any of the winners, Visual Logic‘s “Backyard Farm Service”, failed to make the final cut of winners and finalists.

The “Mowing to Growing” competition (which is, at least theoretically, only the first in a series of annual competitions on the theme of urban agriculture) prompted entrants to “devise workable means for growing more of America’s food closer to more of America’s communities, and to do so at less expense to our economy and our environment”.  This theme, of course, is rather broad, and so the entries ranged from levee-farms and agriculturized-highway embankments to the predictable vertical farms or (unpredictably) the Waterpod.

The Visual Logic team (Aron Chang, Bradley Cantrell, Natalie Yates, and Patrick Michaels) start in a relatively ordinary place: noting that, while the American food delivery system is constructed by the logistical logic of “points and lines of [delivery] infrastructure” instead of a holistic consideration that would include ecological demands and opportunities — “regional climates”, “soils”, “aquatic resources”, the presence and availability of “biological nutrients and organic matter” — the United States does already produce the vast majority of the foods it consumes.  This suggests to Visual Logic that “though the US may be incapable of supplying its fossil fuel needs, the country should soon be able to rely almost entirely upon American soils for the farming of the fruits and vegetables consumed by its residents.”

Analyzing the logic of the food delivery infrastructure and narrowing into Louisiana, the test case for Visual Logic’s study.

Where “Backyard Farm Service” begins to diverge from the ordinary, though, is when it starts to sketch one branch of a solution by mapping the vast reach of the professional landscaping industry: in the United States, Visual Logic says, there are nearly a million landscapers, maintaining the lawns of over thirty-four million Americans.

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 eefficiency, 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 micro-climates 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.

…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.

This re-purposed lawn service industry would not be deployed just as a replacement for currently existing models of local food delivery to individual homeowners — farmer’s markets, CSA’s — but would also hybridize that function (every homeowner employing the Backyard Farm Service would indeed receive produce from their yard) with a larger scale of economic logic, as the Backyard Farm Service would also sell produce grown on private lawns to local “restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, caterers, and schools”.  It is thus not only a proposal for hyper-localizing food production, but also for distributed farming.  That is truly post-industrial urban agriculture — not occurring after industry in time (after the decline of urban industries) and space (after the abandonment of industrial plots), but post-industrial in method, technique, and logistics.  A system which was once held together by spatial and temporal logic would now be sustained by the capacity to coordinate, track, and know.

To demonstrate the potential of this approach, Visual Logic has produced an impressively deep study (partially pictured here) of how the system might unfold at a multitude of scales — mapping a single crew’s route on one Friday through New Orleans, mapping the overlay of a number of routes in that same area of New Orleans, studying the costs and economic value of the service, charting the relationships between ornamentals, vegetables, and fruits for determining a typical planting palette (which would be refined to the tastes of each homeowner and local conditions), and tracking how the service might expand from a single local network in 2010 to regional networks and nation-wide impact by 2025.

The spatial idea here is not terribly new.  Essentially, it is present in the premise of the competition brief.  Lawns (“mowing”) can be edible gardens (“growing”).  But as a proposal for how you get from thinking that it would be great if lots of unproductive lawns were turned into productive gardens to a providing a reasonable mechanism by which to accomplish that transformation, “Backyard Farm Service” is rather valuable.

The thing that makes it valuable is that it looks at altering practices rather than objects.  Doing so, of course, alters objects too — as objects and practices necessarily interact and alter one another — but the point of entry into that feedback loop matters.  Why?  In this case, it is because the point of entry is essentially a landscape business plan.  A business plan is self-funding; a traditional architectural proposal requires a client or a patron.  (Hence, the belief that “architects… design buildings for wealthy people”.)  While there is nothing necessarily wrong with having clients and patrons, phrasing proposals in terms of business plans with calculated spatial and programmatic effects massively expands the potential agency of the architect or landscape architect.

1. I think it is quite reasonable to say that Free Association Design‘s current experiment with goat-based maintenance regimes in southeast Portland is another (fine) example of practicing landscape architecture through a business plan.  (In that case, through the effort of convincing a property owner and a service provider that they could have a mutually beneficial business relationship.)

2. Of the other entrants to “Mowing to Growing”, I am particularly fond of “Growing the Hydro Fields”, a scheme developed by University of Toronto students and covered here by InfraNet Lab.

19 Responses to “backyard farm service”

  1. faslanyc says:

    bing! this won’t be a surprise, but I’m a big fan. Thanks for wading through the entries and bring this to our attention. love it.

    does it raise any questions for you guys? were there any criticisms that sprang to mind?

    • rob says:

      I guess the interesting thing would be to pick apart the particulars of the proposal — you have enough detail here that you could start to argue not just about whether “business plan as landscape architecture” is a good idea, but also about whether this particular plan makes sense.

      • faslanyc says:

        good point. there would be a million small questions; for instance, to do urban ag in new orleans (which is a big thing with lots of people working on it- it’s not too far fetched to see a lot of growth there) you have to use raised beds because of the lead in the soil (or do something else). What would the implications be of intensively developed raised beds across the city on a domestic scale? Is it a new vernacular landscape? Also, where would all the soil come from?

        But the proposal is good because, as Brett noted below, it at least gets beyond the usual superficial application of buzzwords and lets you start asking some questions.

  2. namhenderson says:

    Two things jump out at me.

    Although the idea of distributed backyard farming isn’t new per se see ( ) for just one example, this proposal in drawing the connection to the lawn care industry, with regards to scale and implementation, elicits interest because it would seem to offer a sort of parasitical perhaps, non physical infrastructure which could be converted/reused. Talk about a green jobs program.

    The flipped side for me is in thinking of these already existing workers as “farmers” but instead of farming ornamental moving into productive plants. Or think of the already existing distribution networks and nurseries which could be repurposed.

    The specific depth as you called it of the mapping and logistics of their proposal is i think also note-worthy. In fact i would agree that the move towards in depth analysis/graphing/mapping on a systemic/logistical scale, could eventually result in project briefs/competition entries taking more explicitly the form more of a business model than programmatic diagram.

    • rob says:

      The BK Farmyards link is interesting; I didn’t know about that. Thanks.

      thinking of these already existing workers as “farmers” but instead of farming ornamental moving into productive plants. Or think of the already existing distribution networks and nurseries which could be repurposed.

      I think this is explicitly what they’re doing. It’s pointing out that there is this vast, not particularly sustainable production infrastructure in place, and perhaps it might be re-purposed to better ends. (Which is why I find david’s complaint below odd; the whole point is that this is already happening, it’s just that it’s specialized to produce hedges and turf, not fruits and vegetables.)

  3. david says:

    So what is the upside here?

    We save some gas on shipping food across the country (once).

    We use a lot more gas having the so-called lawn farmers drive across town to the high-rent areas where people pay for their lawns to be cut, but “lawn-farmers” can’t afford to live. Plus, a lawn service will come to a house once every week or two for an hour…Farming is *a bit* more intensive…Are the commuter farmers going to bring their John Deeres?

    I don’t understand all the romanticism for pre-industrial food production. What was so great about most of the population living outside cities, working in the hot sun, and constant famine? Why isn’t everyone Amish?

    • rob says:


      The “upside”, according to Visual Logic (and you don’t have to listen to my filtered opinion on their work; you can go ask them directly) includes:

      “– because the food is grown and consumed close to point of production, there are minimal processing and storage costs, orders can be filled on the same day, and customers have expanded access to the freshest seasonal produce possible
      — taking place across multiple sites, the proposed farming practice is more diverse and adaptable in managing pests and diseases
      — by collecting and composting organic waste within each network of producers and consumers, the farming crews maintain ecological relationships in which invaluable nutrients and resources are cycled locally
      — ready access in each neighborhood to fresh fruits and vegetables
      — diversified and more resilient foodsheds
      — strengthened connection between households and the land
      upon which they live
      — active engagement and awareness of food production assumes significant cultural value”

      You don’t have to agree with the either the value of those things or the efficacy of the proposal in achieving them, but it’s considerably more than just “we save some gas”.

      I don’t see any “romanticism for pre-industrial food production” here, though; it’s an explicitly post-industrial proposal, which recognizes that returning to a pre-industrial agricultural society is neither desirable nor possible.

  4. I appreciate how this competition proposal and the framing of your post probe the complexity of both the potential users and growers in speculations on urban agriculture. So many of the proposals I see on urban ag. lack specificity and depth as to who these unknown urban farmers are going to be…a sort of inherent ‘build it and everyone will work’ assumption.

    • faslanyc says:

      great point. i think one way to further refine or develop this would be to think in terms of how this might be rolled out. They imply that all at once this would change and landscapers would become backyard farmers.

      While David is being a petulant asshole (which i resent, as that is usually my role), he does bring up a valid point. In all likelihood, this would best be thought about, not as a new policy, but rather a “disruptive innovation” or something like it. Rather than converting an old system wholesale, the effort would likely start with strategic, focused efforts. Not unlike your recent effort up in Portland or the CNC work in Brooklyn, followed by speculation on how to expand the effort based on real results and new expectations…

      • rholmes says:

        To be fair to the Visual Logic team, they allow five years between when it is rolled out on a small scale (like the neighborhood-scaled test case they show) and when it might begin to scale up towards regional networks. (I clipped a good bit of the detail out in my summary — including the text on the diagram showing that progression — but it’s all in the PDF.)

        Whether that assuages your concerns or not, that you can argue about it in this kind of detail is, in my opinion, an indication of the strength of the proposal. (Based on your previous comment, clearly you agree.)

      • david says:

        Lucky for me it is more fun to be a petulant asshole than to pitifully resent other petulant assholes.

        Anyhoodles, I think what I am perhaps responding to is the fact that this proposal, in its (commendably if self-deceptive) idealistic urge to bypass the current industrial-agricultural model, would mimic that model’s reliance on a semi-underground, transient exploitative labor market.

        I am sorry if I responded rudely, but I am indeed saddened by the illusion that what this society needs is for more people with disposable income to pay the proles to maintain Petits Trianons so they can feel better about themselves when they eat their three squares. (I am not sorry for the sarcasm. It is what makes the interweb tolerable.)

        Even if there was some scrap of actual public benefit to this idea, I wouldn’t want to imagine the North Korean-style tactics that would go into trying to implement it.

        It’s not that most people don’t want to garden. Gardening is fun!

        Most people don’t want to live on a working farm. Remember, a farm is often covered in manure.

        Many urbanites DO, however, want to live on non-working farms, because they are beautiful and don’t smell.

        Just for once, I’d like someone to appreciate the fact that factory farming is probably THE most important invention of the modern world. It saved us from starvation. Quite a few attempts to forcibly decentralize food production have ended in tragedy. The issue of the distribution of quality produce is a valid and huge concern, but has no connection to this idea.

        The demographic that is ill-served by the current food-distribution system mows its own grass.

        • rholmes says:

          1. In the context of your specific concerns, though — “North Korean-style tactics that would go into trying to implement it”, avoiding forcible alterations to the agricultural system — isn’t the nice thing about this proposal that it is a business plan, rather than an idea that is implemented by some central control? So the only way it gets implemented on a mass scale is if it is competitively successful? If you’re right that most people would not consent to having vegetable plots in their yard, then, sure, it doesn’t work — but there’s essentially no harm done, because the only people who lose in that scenario are the people who run the Backyard Farm Service.

          2. This:

          “would mimic that model’s reliance on a semi-underground, transient exploitative labor market”

          is, at least to me, a more piercing criticism. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure whether I think it’s accurate or not. (One answer might be that the proposal is agnostic about the labor market that supplies the BFS, and the question of how to resolve the obviously problematic situation of immigrants in the States today can be set aside, because, whether that situation is resolved or not, the same labor market is supplying labor for agriculture, whether its rural and industrial agriculture or urban and localized agriculture. Not sure that is a satisfying answer, but it might be one possible direction.)

          3. I’m not convinced that distributed, hyper-local agriculture would smell anything like concentrated industrial agriculture (I mean, I grow things in my backyard, and it doesn’t smell anything like the farms in the (tiny) South Carolina town that I grew up in). In fact, I’d argue that more people like a certain amount of interaction with productive landscapes than don’t. (But that’s an entirely subjective opinion, and clearly you disagree.)

          4. I assure that I appreciate the benefits of industrial agriculture (and have a keen appreciation for the sublime landscapes it sometimes produces), but appreciating it as an improvement over pre-industrial agriculture does not preclude a desire to see its flaws remediated.

          5. Don’t worry about the rudeness; the internet has seen much worse.

        • faslanyc says:

          i was just picking. no offense meant (and i forget that sarcasm doesn’t come across).

  5. david says:

    Yeah, it’s comforting to know that they will be immigrant landscaping workers who are paid under the table! I’m sure farmers are happy to know that urbanites think so highly of their skills.

    I had an idea which is similarly feasible…We all have CD ROM drives that we never use. Maybe we could twitter the food we want and it will come out of there! The real estate is available.

    Or we could have the Fresh Direct people farm the food instead of deliver it.

    Or we could have personal individual vegetable vending machines that are organic and free.

    Or we could eat beautiful 3D renderings of organic groceries.

    Or we could have a bunch of out-of-work architects be forced into Agriculture Corps.

    Lawn care : Farming :: Playing the electric slide at a Bar Mitzvah : Professional Concert Violinist

    • rholmes says:


      I’m not sure what you’re looking for here (sure, sarcasm can occasionally be a valid response, but it doesn’t exactly invite productive dialogue), but this:

      “Or we could have a bunch of out-of-work architects be forced into Agriculture Corps.”

      is a proposal to think about.

  6. david says:

    Plus, the description of landscaping companies in the US as

    “a system of decentralized farming with local providers attuned to the microclimates and conditions of their respective service areas”

    is suspect.
    Anyone who has worked landscaping knows that most landscapers know little to nothing about local climates.

    They know how to:
    Drive trucks
    Plant trees
    Spread mulch

    • rholmes says:

      Saw that. A good article.

      Of course, this:

      “But the very circumstances that have brought out designers’ charitable impulses — a global economic meltdown, a chain of environmental and social catastrophes — have also drained capital from causes. Funding has become ferociously competitive and designers who hope to find the resources to implement a project must win the confidence of their donors, usually by having already launched self-sustaining programs.”

      is exactly why I find a proposal (Backyard Farm Service) that tries to do landscape architecture in a self-funding (and non-traditonal, non-capital-project) way such a useful thing.

      I don’t think that it’s necessary or helpful to create a Manichean dichotomy between “good” realized projects and “bad” “paper” (landscape) architecture, as the anonymous magazine editor quoted at the beginning of that article does . The former is one kind of thing, and the latter another, and so they should be evaluated in different ways — built work on the substance, performance and qualities of the thing-constructed, and paper work first and foremost on how it contributes to the discipline’s internal dialogue. (Paper work can do much more than that — often, I think it stands on its own as something more analogous to art — but that seems to me the most important thing it does.)

  7. […] mammoth has both often praised projects in this vein — such as Visual Logic’s excellent Backyard Farm Service or, in our “Best Architecture of the Decade”, where we claimed Kiva as an architectural […]