How did you come up with this concept?
It hit me like a lightning bolt while visiting an urban farm in Kelowna, BC. I had been working with another backyard farming group in Toronto, the Young Urban Farmers CSA, and so urban farming already consumed my mind. Seeing the operation in Kelowna work so well and enjoy numerous successes in its first year was fodder in the trough. Fuel on the fire. It just added electricity to an already raging thunderstorm of excitement going on in my own head. I was really recognizing an opportunity that I needed to seize. Potential to harness. Bicycle-powered backyard farming in High Park. It all made so much sense.
I recall saying to the head farmer in Kelowna, "I think I should do this in Toronto". He replied, "Heck yeah! Get on the next bus home and start asking your neighbours if they'd be interested in sharing their yards". So I did. I went door to door with a City Seed Farms brochure, saying, "Hi, I'm your neighbour. Are you interested in seeing part of your backyard turned into a productive vegetable garden?" I just wanted to assess the interest of the homeowners in my neighbourhood. Within a couple of days I had seven responses. To date, I have ten yards under cultivation.
What else will you be doing with your crops besides selling them at the Sorauren Farmers' Market? Does any of it go to the homeowners, and will you be selling your produce to any restaurants?
We give a weekly share to each landowner and bring the rest to four restaurants in the area.
From my experience volunteering with Young Urban Farmers CSA, I know that turning a back yard lawn into veggie beds is hard work. Who helped you do all of that double-digging?
My sister and my cousin, as well as about ten other friends and volunteers. I provided the granola bars and they provided the strong backs and stamina.
Your backyard growing method is a form of SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming. Can you explain to the readers what that's all about and how you make it work?
SPIN farming is a method of farming that maximizes yield and profit in small plots of land. It is meant for plots in the 1/8 - 1/2 acre range. It uses farming methods like relay cropping and standardized bed sizes to make the operation efficient and consistent. For instance, I will plant one backyard with entirely low-intensive crops like squash and beans so that I can allot a certain amount of attention to that yard and not leave any crops to become neglected. All the high-intensity crops like lettuces, arugula, spinach, radishes, etc., are also clustered together. This allows me to focus my time and energy at the sites that need it.
If the SPIN farming method comes through for you, how long do you think it might take until this business transitions from a cost-recovery model to making a healthy profit?
End of next year. Once I pay off my start-up costs like my rototiller and double-door refrigeration unit, I feel that City Seed can profit.
A very important question: what are you growing this year?
Mmmm. We have so much bounty in the gardens right now. Carrots, beets, radishes, leafy greens of all sorts, herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, pearl onions, bunching onions, peas, beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers. My favourite plant is the beautiful and tasty Bordeaux Spinach. It has a fiery red stem and tastes more spinachy than any spinach I've ever had.
What do you think City Seed Farms will look like in five years? In ten?
I hope that City Seed Farms flourishes the way I imagine it. I want this business to continue on its path toward becoming a trusted name in west Toronto, and a legitimate and substantial contribution to the food supply in my community. I want to see our fleet of four bikes grow to forty. Our yards from ten to one hundred. Ideally, every backyard in Toronto will be a mini-farm by the ten year mark.
What advice do you have for young farmers who might like to follow in your footsteps?
Do it. The resources and support are there. The opportunity and need that exists around urban farming is real and pertinent. Hope on board! There is no better time than now.
If you would like more information, check out the City Seed Farms website! You can also e-mail Erica at lemieux.erica(at)gmail.com.
All photos used by permission from Erica Lemieux/City Seed Farms.