Pittsburgh Urban Growers Guide:

Starting a Farm in Pittsburgh & Allegheny County


Thanks for visiting! This resource guide was created and is maintained by Grow Pittsburgh, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council.

Who? The guide is for production-oriented food growers in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

What? The resources provided in the guide cover a range of topics that one might run into when growing and selling food in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, from rules about zoning or food safety permits to understanding liability or water access.

When? This guide was first created in April 2016. It was most recently updated in 2024 and is reviewed on an annual basis.

Where? The information in the guide is directed toward those growing food in the City of Pittsburgh, and surrounding municipalities, with some emphasis on selling or otherwise distributing that food. Some resources may be helpful for growers throughout Southwestern PA, but information about rules and regulations is often specific to Pittsburgh proper. Growers should always check local ordinances before engaging in agricultural or other land altering activities.

Before You Begin

Before you even put a seed in the ground, take a look in this section. These resources will help you think through your goals for urban growing, whether you are an individual, group, or business, and evaluate the best direction for the future.  

Grow Pittsburgh recommends 5 years of growing experience before starting your own medium-large scale urban farm business. There is so much to learn and there are many opportunities out there to learn alongside experienced farmers who can show you how to turn an idea into a successful venture.

Gaining Experience 

Before you start your own community garden or farm, it is useful to get some hands-on experience, learning from others who have been in your shoes. Volunteer at a nearby community garden (find one here) or with Grow Pittsburgh. Grow Pittsburgh also offers workshare opportunities and experiential employment.

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture offers a Pre-Apprenticeship and Apprenticeship program in Diversified Vegetable Farming, pairing local farmers with those looking to explore a career in agriculture. The following organizations have apprenticeship listings that you can browse: ATTRA, WWOOF, and Beginning Farmers. Good Food Jobs and comfoodjobs list food systems jobs more generally, but often feature farming jobs and apprenticeships.

Talk to established growers about their journey to becoming a farmer. What did they do? What would they do differently? What advice do they have?

Grower Career Path 

  1. -Self-assess: 
    1. Farming is a very complicated job, some of the skills needed are to be: a personnel manager, business owner, salesperson, delivery driver, supplies manager, irrigation specialist, soil scientist, pest control specialist, harvest manager, builder, lobbyist, social media/ promotions manager, customer service specialist, crisis manager, problem solver, accountant, office clerk, supply chain manager. 
    2. What is your current skill level as a grower? What skills do you want and need to build? Be honest!
    3. What are your goals as a grower? 
      1. Backyard grower, one acre farm, twenty acre farm, nonprofit farm manager, food systems worker?
  2. Develop a plan to build your skills and reach your goals
  3. Becoming a skilled farm worker
    1. If you aren’t experienced enough to get hired, make a plan to become experienced.
    2. Some options: volunteer on farms, take classes, enroll in a training program, garden in your backyard, garden for a friend, join a community garden, PASA Pre-Apprenticeship and Apprenticeship programs.
    3. Work for people who are doing what you want to be doing. If you want a one acre farm, work for a one acre farmer!
    4. Work your way up from a farm hand to a more responsibility such as an assistant or management position on a farm
  4. Transitioning from farm worker to farm owner
    1. Five year of experience is recommended before making the transition from worker to farm owner
      1. Why? Farmers wear many hats, it does take years to learn all the skills to a proficient level.
      2. Learn each of the skills you will need in order to be successful at your goals.
      3. Use the time you are building your skills to develop a solid business plan and a plan to fund your startup costs and search for land to start your business.

Learning through Classes

Whether you are just beginning to garden or are starting an urban farm, it may be helpful to take a related class. The Exploring the Small Farm Dream course is taught by Penn State Extension and is great for people thinking about starting a farm business. Over four classes, it will guide you through the decision making process with creative exercises and discussions. Check the course listings to see all the other classes offered, such as Food for Profit. 

Both Pasa Sustainable Agriculture and Grow Pittsburgh offer the Growing to the Next Level workshop series to build your growing skills. Grow Pittsburgh also offers workshops aimed at introducing people to backyard growing if you are just starting out. 

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s Urban Grower Scholarship Fund fund exists to support urban gardeners and farmers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and to help them access professional development opportunities. Funds may be used for conferences, workshop registrations, training, and/or transportation costs (such as bus tickets or toll reimbursement) to agriculture related professional development opportunities.

Bidwell Training Center’s Horticulture Technology program is a 7-Month training program designed to teach you the skills to pursue a rewarding career in horticulture.

Grow Pittsburgh’s Pre-Apprenticeship Program is in partnership with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture for those who have little or no growing experience but are interested in exploring a farming career.  This is a two-year program, where participants will volunteer four hours per week on our farm sites doing a variety of farm tasks and receive a share of vegetables as well as free admission to relevant workshops and conferences.

Defining values and goals

When starting a garden or farm, or even just starting to sell the vegetables you grow in your backyard, it is a good idea to think about your goals for this venture. For example, the reasons for growing food could be any or all of the ones listed below:

  • Increasing food security and making more fresh food available
  • Creating an additional source of income or new business
  • Increasing personal fruit and vegetable consumption, improving health
  • Providing education
  • Improving the environment, creating habitat
  • Promoting local food
  • Getting your community involved in a collective project
  • Increasing economic/employment opportunities 
  • Sharing your culture and traditions

There are two sources that can help you think through defining your goals and values. Grow Pittsburgh gives you some questions to ask yourself or your group to create a vision statement. Penn State Extension also has some advice for creating a vision and mission statement and business plan.

Picking an Organizational Structure


It is important to establish your legal structure for your organization before you get too far. Your organizational structure impacts your legal and tax liability. The first step would be deciding if your operation will be for profit or nonprofit. The resources below provide more information about organizational structures. Keep in mind you can always start in partnership with another organization while you build capacity before you create your own. You can also identify a fiscal agent, who will be responsible for managing your finances and will allow you to apply for grants.

Other potential fiscal agents, include: 

  • Your local community group
  • New Sun Rising
  • Grantmakers of Western PA 
  • Poise Foundation
  • Pittsburgh Foundation

All About Land

Land is an essential part of growing food, and because of its importance, there are many rules and regulations surrounding it. In this section, we will help explain the various aspects of land from where to find it to how to evaluate the soil.

It is imperative to note that redlining has contributed to racial segregation within the city, with a disproportionate number of vacant lots located in majority-Black and low-income neighborhoods. You can learn more about the figures here from Grounded Strategies. It is critical that people that are from these communities be respectful, inclusive, and beneficial to the surrounding community where they are looking to grow.

A comparative study completed in 2015 found that community support was integral to the success of urban farm operations. If you are not already well-networked in the neighborhood where you are considering farming, it is essential to reach out to several local organizations and immediate neighbors to build support before you break ground. If you find that residents and local community groups do not want this project in their neighborhood, it will be an uphill battle, and it would be best to find another location. This report, titled Integrating Urban Farms into the Social Landscape of Cities, includes recommendations that can guide you through the process of becoming a part of your neighborhood. 

Finding Land

Publicly Owned or NonProfit Land,Urban Land

Urban soils can often be compacted and contain a significant amount of debris and toxics such as lead. This can take years to remediate, however, in time and with careful techniques it can be transformed into an excellent growing space.

Looking for land where you can start growing food? You have a few options. Pittsburgh has many vacant lots which might be the perfect site for your next garden. Start your search at Lots 2 Love, which maps out all of the vacant lots in Allegheny County (over 45,000!) and shows whether they are municipally or privately owned. You can get additional County-level information about specific parcels by visiting the Allegheny County Real Estate Assessment Portal or the Allegheny County GIS Viewer

Not all sites are suitable for growing food. The Finding a Suitable Site page on Grow Pittsburgh’s website and the Assessment page from Grounded’s Lots to Love website gives you a short overview of things to think about when selecting a site. 

Use City Programs Lease or Purchase Land

If you find a suitable lot owned by the City of Pittsburgh, you can use the Adopt-A-Lot program that grants licenses and one-year renewable leases for creating temporary gardens on city-owned lots. The program allows the on-site sale of what is grown, specifically through a “market-stand lease”. Check out the Department of City Planning’s Vacant Lot Toolkit for step-by-step instructions on how to adopt-a-lot, as well as general info about vacant lots. Re-launched in early 2024, the Urban Redevelopment Authority re-launched the Farm-A-Lot program, “streamlines the potential for farmers to access and activate this land for sustainable urban agriculture.” With Farm-A-Lot growers can get a three year lease and also find a path to ownership. The City is working to build a path from Adopt-A-Lot to longer-term site control and ownership as well.

In order to purchase vacant land from the City you can approach the City’s Land Bank. The purchasing process takes about 2 years. See landbank application here. See below for acquisition costs..

Source: Landbank Presentation at PFPC Land Access Sub-committee Presentation November 2024. See full presentation.

City of Pittsburgh Side Yard Program
A low-cost way to buy a publicly owned vacant lot that directly borders your own property. Process takes 2-3 years for the City to clear the title and sell it to you. Learn more!


City of Pittsburgh Treasurer’s Sale
Purchase property from the Real Estate Division of the Department of Finance. Property must be 2 or more years tax delinquent. You must be prepared to bid on and pay for the property. You may need to pay for unpaid liens and do additional title clearing work. Learn more!


Use County Program to Purchase Land

The Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) acquires vacant, blighted properties and conveys them to applicants who have developed; 1) a concrete reuse plan and 2) Demonstrated the capacity to implement it. Applicants may include individuals, municipalities, community groups, local businesses, and private and nonprofit developers. Learn more!

Allegheny County Sheriff’s Sale

Property that is sold by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office (usually mortgage foreclosures and foreclosure actions). Property must be tax delinquent. You must be prepared to bid on and pay 10% percentage for the property the day of the sale. You may need to pay for unpaid liens and do additional title clearing work. Learn more!

Work with Neighborhood Groups to Identify Land

Community Development Corporations (CDCs) can also help with finding and securing land, and potentially with funding. A quick Google search for “CDC + your neighborhood” may help you find them, or browse the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

Lease Land from Private Farm

Hilltop Urban Farm, located in the St. Clair neighborhood of Pittsburgh, has an incubator program that offers a quarter-acre plot for a $600 fee per year. However, participants can only stay 3 seasons. Hilltop Urban Farm offers support in the form of access to beginning farmer training workshops, use of their farm tools and tillers, as well as access to any free or discounted mulch or compost that the farm receives or makes themselves. Check out the opportunity and application online and email John at Hilltop Urban Farm if you are interested in learning more and touring the site. Please contact John before filling out the application.

Search for Non Urban, Public or Nonprofit Land

Western PA Conservancy land available for leasing. Hospitals, universities, etc may be open to this as well. Ask!

Private Land

Most land is in the hands of private individuals or organizations. Private land can be a way to secure land without the red tape of public options, although it comes with its own challenges. Chief among them is connecting farmers with folks who own land. If a publicly-owned vacant lot doesn’t work for what you are planning, leasing or buying land might be an option. The Finding, Assessing, and Securing Farmland guide created by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is for farmers specifically, and helps you understand all of the leasing and purchasing options. The Grounded Lots to Love website also has a section on getting site permission for private lots.

Tips to accessing private land:

  • Identify exactly what you are looking for in land: 
    • How many square feet or acres? 
    • Do you need water, electricity? Access to a barn? 
    • How many years of a lease do you need (you may need 5 years+ to access federal funding)? 
    • Who owns land that suits your goals? (A community garden may appeal to a very different landowner than a 2 acre vegetable farm)
  • Land linking can help growers and land owners find each other. PA only has one statewide land linking program: PAFarmlink (https://pafarmlink.org/). This site is mostly aimed at larger scale farms: dairy and grain farms over 40 acres. Unfortunately, there is a fee to post a listing so it is not well utilized. 
  • Networking can be helpful, joining PA Farmer organizations such as: PA Farm Bureau, Pasa Sustainable Farming, PA Vegetable Growers Association, etc. 
  • Check Allegheny County Real Estate Map to locate the property owner
  • Ask! Knock on the front door of people that own land that meets your goals.

Improve and Potentially Acquire Privately Owned Abandoned Property via Conservatorship

Provides a legal pathway for neighbors to get permission to improve land and potentially own  land that has been abandoned and has not been maintained. You will need a lawyer and the cost ranges from $5-8K. Learn more in the Housing Alliance of PA’s Guide to Conservatorship.
Secure Long-term Lease & Ensure Site Stays Agricultural 

Grow Pittsburgh has partnered with Allegheny Land Trust to protect and preserve selected urban agricultural lands in perpetuity. The Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative (TRALI) is based on a Community Land Trust model. Find out how TRALI can help you!

Important Site Considerations


Municipalities throughout Allegheny County manage how residents use land parcels through zoning regulations. These regulations both encourage and deter certain activities. There are two types of zoning that are related to growing food: Agriculture and Urban Agriculture. Growing food for personal consumption does not often require special permitting but if you want to include chickens, ducks, goats, or other livestock in your operations, you will need to consult your community’s regulations. 

Regulations regarding keeping chickens, and other livestock, can change, and it’s essential to check with the specific municipality for the most up-to-date information. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, regulations related to keeping chickens are typically determined at the municipal level.


You can start by checking the municipal code or zoning ordinances of the specific municipality in Allegheny County where you reside. Look for sections related to animal keeping, agriculture, or zoning regulations. For example, some municipalities may allow chickens with certain restrictions, such as the number of chickens, coop requirements, and setback distances from property lines. You can contact your local township or borough office, or check their official website for information on animal regulations. Additionally, reaching out to local animal control or zoning authorities can provide guidance on the rules and requirements for keeping livestock in your area.Keep in mind that regulations may vary, so it’s crucial to verify the current rules with the relevant authorities in your specific municipality.

Zoning: City of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Urban Agriculture zoning code was updated in July 2015 to simplify the process and lower the permit fee, which is now $70 for most applications. Both Agriculture and Urban Agriculture uses are described in this fact sheet from the Department of City Planning. This Simplified Code and FAQ document (also available in Spanish and Nepali) is helpful in understanding how you are affected. 

In summary, if you are growing plants for personal consumption, then you do not need to apply for any permits. But if you want to raise chickens, ducks, goats, and/or bees, or sell the food you grow, you need to apply for an Urban Agriculture permit. You may need to complete a site plan and this Site Plan Survey Requirements fact sheet explains what that is. You can also browse the full text of Urban Agriculture zoning code or read a first-hand account of the process. 

A note about animals: Depending on how many animals you have, you may need to follow state nutrient and manure management laws. If you are within the city, it is unlikely that you are affected but contact the Allegheny County Conservation District for more information.

The CitiParks new City Farms program will work to connect the city’s food producing gardens and farms more actively to city resources. Currently the City Farms initiative is working to meet with key stakeholders involved in local garden/farm efforts to inform the development of our strategy to support this important work.

Business Planning

A business plan is basically a road map for your business, and writing one is important for helping you reach your goals. Business planning resources are included in this section as well as additional information about funding your operation.

PA’s Agricultural Business Development Center 

Established as part of the 2019 PA Farm Bill, the Agricultural Business Development Center (ABDC) is a new initiative spanning the Bureau of Market Development’s Economic Development Division and the Bureau of Farmland Preservation. The new Center replaces both the Center for Farm Transitions and the Preserved Farm Resource Center.

Designed to enhance the long-term vitality of Pennsylvania farms, the ABDC is focused on providing support for sound business planning, efficient transitions of farm ownership, strategic farm expansion, diversification of agricultural production, and in building a team of financial and technical expertise as a resource for Pennsylvania farmers. 

Specifically, the ABDC supports Farm Transitions, linking farmers to the next phase of their life and their farm’s future; Beginning Farmers, providing advice and counsel to the next generation of Pennsylvania producers; Risk Management, providing information on crop insurance and other risk management options; and Financial Assistance, connecting farmers with low-interest loan options and reimbursable grant programs.

Writing a Business Plan

Writing a business plan can be a long process, but these resources will help you out:

  • Penn State Extension provides many resources from an agriculture perspective. Visit the Creating a Business Plan, Before you Start, or Start Farming pages, which includes a comprehensive resource hub that covers the entire scope of production, business and state/federal regulations for those new to growing for profit.
  • Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses – Although rural is used in the title, this almost 300 page resource is helpful for anyone planning a farm. It breaks business planning into 5 main tasks and goes into detail from there.
  • Ag Plan is a free business planning tool that provides templates and a step by step guide for individuals to create and think through any ag, food or small business endeavor. Users can invite friends or business partners to collaborate, comment, and edit. There is a toll free number to ask questions during the process.

In addition to these agriculture focused resources, there are many general small business planning resources out there. For assistance, contact one of the Small Business Development Centers in the area: University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, SCORE Pittsburgh.  Other small business resources include The Diversity Business Resource Center, Chatham Women Business Center, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Allegheny County Economic Development, Three Rivers Center for Innovation, Bridgeway Capital’s HUB Consultants. The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham’s Eden Hall campus also provides a variety of agriculture and food based business resources.

Finding funding

If you seek additional support for your food growing activities, there are local, state and federal resources available depending on the scale, scope and focus of your operation. Resources can range from community-based crowdsourcing websites, like IOBY and KIVA that encourage neighbors and friends to support your community food garden to federal grants to support increasing access to healthy food and healthy communities or growing our local food system. There are a variety of private foundation grants, private loans and other resources you can explore listed below:

NASDA Foundation: https://www.nasda.org/nasda-foundation/

Understanding Liability

As soon as you have people on the property and sales, risk increases. Insurance can be a great tool to help protect your garden/farm and a good first line of defense. The Risk Management page at Penn State Extension will answer most of your questions about liability; the Insurance Documents section explains the types of insurance you can purchase, like product liability and farm owner’s insurance. Go to the Insurance for Food Entrepreneurs page for further explanation. Urbanaglaw.org also has an in-depth section on the topic. If you are leasing a vacant lot through the Adopt-a-Lot program, you will be required to have liability insurance. If you have specific legal questions or want a more thorough analysis of what risks come with your specific garden/farm and how to best tackle them, Trellis Legal, LLC is a local law firm with a specialty in agriculture that offers free initial consultations and accessible flat rates. 

Insurance Pooling

With support from Grow Pittsburgh, IMA, Inc. has started a group liability insurance policy for community gardeners growing within the City of Pittsburgh.  By pooling risk among several gardens, IMA is able to keep the costs extremely low for each individual garden to sign on.   Presently, the group policy is only available for community food gardens participating in the City of Pittsburgh’s Adopt-A-Lot Program.  To sign up, contact: Ellen M Stroh, Vice President Commercial Lines Leader, 724-803-5861, Ellen.Stroh@imacorp.com.

Grow Pittsburgh is hoping to assist in starting another group policy for those gardening on non-city-owned land and outside the City of Pittsburgh.  If you are interested in this option, please contact info@growpittsburgh.org.

Materials and Supplies 

So, you are all set up with land and a plan. What’s next? It is time to start growing! We can help you find materials and supplies in Pittsburgh, and point you in the direction of growing best practices. We can also share who to ask for help when you need some personal assistance.

To ensure up to date resources, please visit here, along with the Grower’s Resource page linked below for a variety of local suppliers. 

Finding Materials

The Grower’s Resources page on Grow Pittsburgh’s website can help you find all kinds of supplies in Pittsburgh. Also check out Grow Pittsburgh’s Garden Resource Center, where for an annual fee you can borrow tools and access materials like mulch and compost. For any kind of building materials, visit Construction Junction where you can buy a wide array of recycled materials including lumber and cement blocks. Penn State Extension lists equipment and other farm needs suppliers here

Building Structures 

You may be interested in building different types of structures to assist in your growing, and some of these, such as sheds or fencing, fall under the enforcement of the zoning code. If you apply for an Urban Agriculture permit or for an Adopt-A-Lot Lease (to start a garden on City land), any proposed structures needs to be included in the plan you provide when you submit your permit application. 

There are also specifications for animal/bee-related structures in the Urban Agriculture zoning code that need to be followed. If your land is zoned as Agriculture, there are different rules that may apply to your project  in section 911.04.A.2 of the zoning code. For information about the zoning approval process in general, visit the Division of Zoning and Development Review’s website.

For other structures like greenhouses or high tunnels, it is best to contact the Zoning department before building. If the structure is temporary, it may not need a permit.

Finding Information

While this guide is not focused on helping you to grow food, it is helpful to know where to look when you have a problem or need more information. Check out these sources for best practices on various topics:

Soil Fertility

Crop Selection/Planning


Pest and Disease Management

Raising Animals

Season Extension/Building Structures 

Non-Soil Growing Methods

Getting Help

Successful Operation

A lot goes into selling your produce and we will explain the different options you have and regulations to follow. This section also focuses on various operations aspects that go along with selling food from insurance to employees.

Keeping Food Safe

Food safety should be on the minds of every urban grower. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are a way to think through keeping the food you produce safe. Penn State Extension is a great source for information about GAPs and reducing your food safety risks. Part of GAP certification may be writing a food safety plan. The above link has a template to get you started or visit this site which helps you step by step. 

Selling Food

You might assume that selling the food you grow requires many permits and inspections, but it may be simpler than you think. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture licenses and inspects retail food facilities, but in some areas the jurisdiction is local. In Allegheny County, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) handles it. The related regulations were updated with Act 106 of 2010, which covers farmers markets and farm stands and states that each vendor/stand at a farmers market is required to have a food safety license unless the vendor is exempt. You are exempt, you do not need a food safety license from ACHD, if you: sell only raw products (fresh fruits and vegetables) or sell pre-packaged, non-potentially hazardous items. Potentially hazardous foods are those that need to be temperature controlled, like meat, dairy, and cut produce. The PA Department of Agriculture explains these rules in this document and has other helpful resources on their website. If you are not exempt, you will need to get a Food Safety permit from ACHD. The Food Safety Program at ACHD can help you determine which type of permit you may need and their contact information is listed on their website

If your food is grown on a city-owned lot, you are permitted to sell it on-site as detailed in the ordinance. If you are growing on private land, you are allowed to sell your food on-site if you have gone through the Urban Agriculture Zoning permit process and also satisfy the Outdoor Retail Sales and Services zoning. Without the Urban Agriculture permit, you are still able to sell any food you grow, but only off-site.

Direct Marketing

Once you have decided to sell your food, you have a variety of ways to do it. Growers can sell their products directly to consumers at farmers’ markets or on-site stands, eliminating the need for intermediaries like wholesalers or retailers. This direct-to-consumer model often results in higher profit margins for farmers. Here are several reasons why farmers’ markets are advantageous:

Fair Prices: You could have an or a stand at a farmers market with other vendors. A farmers market can help grow your customer base and introduce you to consumers in other communities. Pittsburgh operates several markets within the City. Lawrenceville and Bloomfield neighborhoods in Pittsburgh operate their own markets. 

Direct Sales and Profit Margins: Farmers have more control over setting their prices at farmers’ markets, ensuring they receive fair compensation for their efforts and the quality of their products.

Consumer Interaction: Farmers’ markets provide a platform for farmers to interact directly with customers. This personal connection allows farmers to share information about their farming practices, the quality of their produce, and build relationships with consumers.

Market Diversity: Farmers’ markets often attract a diverse customer base seeking fresh, local, and unique products. This diversity allows farmers to reach a wider audience and introduces their products to new customers. 

Promotion of Local Agriculture: By participating in farmers’ markets, farmers contribute to the promotion of local agriculture. This supports the local economy, reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation, and fosters community sustainability.

Flexibility in Inventory: Farmers can bring a variety of products to farmers’ markets based on seasonal availability. This flexibility allows them to showcase a diverse range of produce and respond to changing customer preferences.

Quick Turnaround: Farmers’ markets provide a platform for quick sales, allowing farmers to sell their fresh produce directly to consumers shortly after harvesting. This can help reduce food waste and ensure that consumers receive the freshest products.

Marketing Opportunities: Farmers’ markets serve as a marketing opportunity for farmers to build brand awareness. Positive interactions with customers and word-of-mouth recommendations can lead to increased sales and customer loyalty.

Community Support:Participating in farmers’ markets fosters a sense of community support. Local residents often appreciate the opportunity to buy fresh, locally sourced products, and farmers’ markets can become community hubs.

Regulatory Compliance: Selling directly to consumers at farmers’ markets can simplify certain regulatory requirements compared to selling through larger distribution channels. This can be especially beneficial for small and local farmers.

Overall, farmers’ markets offer a valuable avenue for farmers to sell their products, establish connections with consumers, and contribute to the vitality of local agriculture and communities. Two resources can help guide you to success at a farmers market: Standing Out at a Farmers’ Market and Selling at a Farmers Market

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another way to sell directly to customers. CSAs typically involve the customer paying for a season’s share of produce before the growing season starts. Penn State Extension has a good article covering the different aspects of CSA and this publication from ATTRA may also be helpful. Lastly, see if any restaurants in your community are interested in buying produce from you.

Adding Value to Your Produce

In addition to selling raw fruits and vegetables, you can also create value-added products which typically involve processing food in some way. For example, fruit jam and salsa are value-added products. These types of food products often have more regulations, so make sure to inform yourself before selling anything with value added. Penn State Extension provides a wealth of resources about value-added products on their website. 

Some local commercial kitchens available to the public are La Dorita, Fulton Commons and Oasis Community Kitchen. Regional co-packing facilities that can process raw farm goods into value-added products for you include Stello Foods Inc Trufood Manufacturing and Castle Copacker, LLC. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also allows some “limited” types of food processing to occur in residential kitchens. More information on home style kitchens can be found here.

Donating Food

If you are interested in donating some of the food you grow, there is a law called the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that protects you from liability. Feeding America explains how it protects you here. Not sure where to donate it? Check out Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Community Harvest program which connects you to nearby organizations that can use your fresh produce.

Planning for Donating Produce

If part of your garden’s goals are to donate produce, here are some things you might want to consider.

  • Connect with a local organization that already has a Food Pantry or Food Distribution program.  Once you’ve identified one or several potential sites, contact them to confirm:
    • Days and times when they’re able to receive donations.  This is often a regularly scheduled time.
    • What types of fruits and vegetables they are able to/prefer to accept. 
    • How the produce should be packaged for convenient distribution.
  • Websites such as Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank or Ample Harvest have lists of potential donation sites searchable by location.
  • Track your donated produce. The simplest metric is to track by total weight using a countertop or hanging scale.  
    • Yearly statistics on total donations not only gives you insight on your garden’s impact, but is also a great data set to share with your community and funding partners.
  • Practice good food safety and hygiene when growing and harvesting food.
    • Always test soil for heavy metals before digging in urban soil. Soil contamination can come in many forms, from lead paint to brought-in contaminated topsoil. 
    • If you are using water from rain barrels, water only the roots of plants. Do not water leaves or parts of plants that will be harvested with non potable water.
    • Remove and dispose of plants that have been contaminated with animal feces.
    • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before harvesting. If unavailable, use a wipe or hand sanitizer after rinsing with clean water. Do not harvest produce if you are sick.
    • Keep tools and equipment clean. Use food grade containers for storing produce.
    • Remove rotten produce regularly and compost it. Keep overripe produce out of the sun to keep fresh.
    • Keep good records of what was harvested, by whom, on what day, and from which row/field.
    • Crops that are typically washed before packing: carrots, turnips, beets, broccoli, leeks, lettuce, spinach, parsley, cilantro, chives, and kale. Dry these crops immediately, either in a salad spinner or under a fan out of the sun. 
    • Crops that should not be washed: potato, sweet potato, tomato, and squash. Cabbage, cauliflower, pepper, melon, and cucumber need not be washed if they are in a clean condition.
    • Store produce off the ground. Use a tarp or other barrier if transporting produce in a car.
  • The Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS) helps to support Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry statewide by making connections between production agriculture and the nonprofit sector. PASS provides an efficient mechanism for Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry to donate safe, wholesome food products while being reimbursed for the costs involved in harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting these foods. Without PASS, these food products would likely otherwise be left to rot in the field, be plowed under, be dumped, or be landfilled.
  • 412 Food Rescue works with food retailers to prevent surplus food from going to waste. Transported by a growing network of volunteers, 412 Food Rescue directly transfers food to nonprofit partners that serve those who are food insecure.

Managing Employees and Volunteers

If your growing operation needs some help, hiring employees or finding volunteers might be just what you need. There are many laws regulating employees, volunteers, and interns, so read up before you get started. Check out this page on employing workers from Penn State Extension which includes information about taxes, and this section on UrbanAgLaw.org which discusses the differences between employees, volunteers, interns, and independent contractors. This resource from Farm Commons explains farm employment basics. 

Apprenticeships & Interns

Pasa’s Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship (DVA) is a formal, paid apprenticeship program registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. It pairs beginning farmers with established farmers—or master growers—to provide a guided pathway toward managing or starting a vegetable farm. The program operates in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. The DVA benefits both beginning and experienced growers: Apprentices acquire the skills they need to manage or start their own vegetable farm, while master growers gain a committed employee invested in farming as a career. 

The PA Department of Labor & Industry also has a variety of resources including specific guidelines for internships, as well as lists of farm labor contractors and established minimum wage for seasonal farm workers.

Job Boards

Evaluating Soil Safety and Suitability

Growing healthy plants requires soil that is suitable, with sufficient nutrients and good soil structure, as well as free from harmful contaminants. Soil contamination can come in many forms, from lead paint to brought-in contaminated topsoil. 

It’s critical to do soil testing to ensure that the soil you are growing in is under a specific threshold for lead contamination. While there is no “safe level” of lead, the EPA suggests not growing food in soil with more than 400 Parts Per Million.  Depending on your site’s history, you may also wish to test for Arsenic, Cadmium, and Chromium, as well as organic chemicals.  Many soil testing labs will do a nutrient analysis, but the Penn State lab does this inexpensively; soil testing kits are available at the Penn State Center. The Allegheny County Conservation District also offers testing services and technical assistance for community projects. Email conservation@accdpa.org to request more information. Finally, the City of Pittsburgh will be offering free soil testing for community food gardens growing within City limits. 

Knowing a site’s history can give you valuable insight in planning how to take samples. Use the Google Earth time slider, PGH ESRI website and/or Sanborn fire insurance Penn State maps to get your site’s history. Web Soil Survey provides information on soil types in the region.

Follow the soil testing protocol on the Grow Pittsburgh website to take your samples. Grow Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Conservation District offers periodic events where you can get a free soil lead test.

To read more about soil safety, check out this fact sheet from the EPA and this guide from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Working with Urban Soils

Urban soil that used to be buildings can contain quite a lot of debris: rocks, bricks, pipes, etc. As well, it is often severely compacted. Using urban land means taking on the task of removing this debris and dealing with extensive soil compaction. This process can take years. There are a variety of resources for growing healthy soil, a few of these include Amending urban soils through organics, EPA’s guide for land revitalization, and managing risks of contaminated urban soil.

Soil Nutrition and Structure

An initial evaluation will inform your soil building strategies. Specifically, 

  • Look at the Colors:
      1. Dark colors (like chocolate) usually mean your soil is rich in nutrients, which is great!
      2. Light colors might suggest your soil needs more organic matter.
  • Check the Texture:
      1. If the soil feels soft and crumbly, it’s good for plants.
      2. If it feels too sticky, it might have too much clay. If it’s too loose, it could have too much sand.
  • Examine Nutrient Levels:
      1. Look for nutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).
      2. If they are in the right amounts, your soil is well-fed. If not, you may need to add fertilizers.
  • Understand pH Level (ideal between 6 and 7):
      1. pH shows if your soil is acidic (sour), neutral, or alkaline (sweet).
      2. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH. If it’s too extreme, you might need to adjust it.
  • Review Recommendations:
      1. The soil test report often provides recommendations.
      2. Follow the advice for adding fertilizers, lime (to adjust pH), or organic matter.
  • Consider Special Conditions:
      1. Some plants have specific needs. If you’re growing particular crops, check if the soil meets those requirements.
  • Keep Track of Changes:
      1. After making any suggested changes, monitor your garden.
      2. Pay attention to how your plants respond to the adjustments you’ve made.
  • Regular Testing:
    1. Soil conditions can change, so it’s good to retest periodically, especially if you notice issues with plant growth.

Accessing and Storing Water

The land you are growing on may already have a water hookup. But if not, accessing water is a challenge you will have to face. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) is no longer providing water tap installation as a service to gardens on city-owned land. In order to get water access on private land, the Single Family Residential Development process with PWSA will need to be followed for a new water service tap. You can apply for a residential permit here. The process can be confusing so contact PWSA with any questions. Note, if there is already a line and meter at the property, it can be used for the Garden.

PWSA does offer a Water for Community Gardens Program, that provides a flat donation of $500 per growing season to approved gardens. If approved for water assistance, PWSA will coordinate with the project leader to provide water access at the site. If a garden exceeds its assisted water usage limit ($500.00 worth of water), bills will be issued monthly at the residential rate for consumption over the assisted amount. Visit the FAQ page for more details. 

Another option is to work with a neighbor to share water access or by harvesting rainwater. You can install an inexpensive ($50-$150) water meter on a hose bib on the outside of a neighbor’s house to estimate the water used through a hose for the garden. 

Lastly, you can harvest rainwater to use in the garden. The Pennsylvania Resource Council hosts Watershed Awareness/Rain Barrel Workshops throughout the area where you learn about rain harvesting and receive a 55-gallon rain barrel. If you would rather build your own, check out this resource from Keep Growing Detroit. Larger cisterns can hold hundreds of gallons and need to be installed on a gravel or concrete surface. Vegetables in the summer will need about 1 inch of water over the surface area of the garden bed per week. That is equivalent to 0.623 gallons per sq ft, for example: a 4’ x 8’ garden will run through one 55 gallon drum in two weeks. Use efficient growing methods and mulching to reduce the need for water. Many produce buyers require GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification which prohibits the use of rain barrels to irrigate food crops in order to reduce the spread of bacteria. It is also recommended that rainwater collected off asphalt shingles should not be used for food production. 

Streams, rivers and ponds

In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, property rights and access to waterways are governed by specific laws and regulations. If your property borders a waterway, you may have the right of use to pump water from a stream or other waterway. It’s recommended to consult with local authorities, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, to get accurate and up-to-date information about your specific situation. Understanding the local laws and regulations will help you navigate any restrictions or permissions and make sure the water is safe to use.