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“I like digging out my own potatoes and the corn I try to harvest as close to the pot as possible and it’s super sweet. And you just can’t find that, even at the farmers market. I harvest everything Thursdays and they come pick up Thursdays. I don’t have refrigeration and minimal storage, so for the most part it comes out of the ground that day and they pick it up that day, so it’s really fresh.”
Teulon’s business is aptly named City Farm Boy, in homage to his family’s long farming history. He grew up on a 6,000-acre farm in southern Saskatchewan, where his father, grandfather and great grandfather farmed golden fields of wheat and canola and where food gardens were as sure a part of life as long snowy winters. Today he’s working with a much smaller land base, roughly ¼ of an acre in total, but the CSA model delivers customers willing to pay more for freshness.
“I can [earn] about $3 per square foot, comfortably. I can do much more if I’m lucky, or if I’m growing high-value crops. Like garlic, I may be able to gross $15 per square foot.”
Despite the innovative approach, Teulon fits the mold of today’s average farmer, reliant on off-farm income. He pays the rest of the bills through garden design, writing and consulting work and educational workshops about growing food, a skill he deems essential for a sustainable future.
“The [United Nations] says by 2050 we will have to double our food production in the world. We’re losing land mass every year to development and erosion. We’re soon going to have to grow food wherever we can grow food. There’s already a billion people starving on the planet. There’s a million new mouths to feed every week. With the price of fuel going up, we may not be able to get those peppers from South America.”
“[Urban farming] seems a no brainer for me. All my neighbours come and hang out and meet each other. Most of my gardens are places that were a liability. They were just a big weedy area or just a vast area of grass that was being mowed and costing the landowners money. Now they’ve got a garden, they’ve got some vegetables coming in. In some cases, they’re retired and live alone and now they’ve got some company that comes in every week. And they’re always welcome to take whatever they want out of the garden for their kitchen.”
On Sprouts, Bicycles and Mayonnaise Factories
While Teulon grows a large variety of vegetables for a small community of members, another Vancouver entrepreneur is focusing on just two crops for sale at farmers markets. Chris Thoreau used to run a small organic farm on Vancouver Island, but dismal profits fueled a move to the city, where he took a degree in agroecology and started an urban farming business, My Urban Farm, focused on pea shoots and sunflower sprouts. Thoreau got lucky on the land front, when the owner of a small mayonnaise factory in Strathcona liked his idea and let him set up growing trays behind the building free of charge. Thoreau keeps operational costs down by doing all his transport and deliveries by bike.
“Last year I did $21,000 in sales. My goal this year is about $28,000. My expenses were about $11,000 last year, so I did about $10,500 in profit, which was about $13 per hour. I’ve got two employees, both part-time and I’m able to pay them at $12 per hour, so a decent wage.”
Thoreau says the whole project is an exploration of the economic viability of farming in small spaces.
“I love it,” he tells The Dependent in an interview one rainy Saturday morning in late May at the Trout Lake Farmers Market. “This is my job. We talk about food. I give you sprouts and you give me money. I’ve got a limited season, so I need to have off-season work, which is a drawback. But it’s really easy work and it’s really enjoyable.”
Thoreau’s farm occupies 1,800 square feet. Following the same math Teulon did above, Thoreau makes roughly $12 per square foot of production space and is curious what would happen if he scaled up.
But there’s a bit of a problem with that.
“Essentially urban farming right now is illegal,” he says. “There’s no business license designation for it in the city and you can’t sell anything or deliver a service without having a business license. There’s no zoning, except for Southlands, for agricultural use. The farmers market is an exception because as a vendor I’m covered by their business license. But because I sell to restaurants and grocers as well, technically that’s illegal.
“It’s not meant to be super disobedient because the city knows what we’re doing. We’ve talked with city planners quite a bit, we’ve presented to the mayor directly. It’s on their radar, but change takes time at the municipal level.”
The Land Puzzle
Change really does take time. Take farmers markets for example. Now a local food empire with five locations, including a new weeknight addition on Oak Street, they were illegal for 15 years before bylaw changes legitimized their operations.
But today’s farmers and their allies don’t want to wait that long and are pushing for more leadership from City Hall. Among them is Arzeena Hamir, agronomist, co-ordinator of the Richmond Food Security Society and long a thorn in the side of local government officials and land use authorities.
“It is still not legal for you to grow and sell your products within Vancouver city limits. A backyard farm, or an empty lot farm, is not zoned for that in Vancouver. You can grow food for yourself, but as soon as you start bringing in an economic component into it, you’re in that grey area. The climate at city hall is such right now that I think staff has been told to look the other way, which is great, because you won’t see anyone being prosecuted for farming. Unless someone complains.”
Some people do complain, but would-be urban farmers have bigger problems. Especially troubling is their limited access to land and to lending.
“Land prices are so inflated in Vancouver. You cannot commercially farm using our land prices. Even Richmond is about half a million an acre and that’s for farmland. You cannot go to a bank to ask for a loan to start a vegetable farm at half a million an acre. We need to look at food growing in the city as not just a cool thing, but as a public amenity, something beneficial that we want to see. In order to have that happen with the land prices the way that they are, and the pressure on land use, there needs to be some sort of help. Quite honestly, the big farmers in Canada get subsidies from the government to farm. There’s all kinds of subsidies going toward biofuel production and the GMO crowd. So I don’t see that there’s any contradiction in having some kind of support for urban farmers.”