Urban agriculture a growing Edmonton business
Posted on May 6, 2014 by Christopher Thrall
Augustana Global and Development Studies graduate Ryan Mason (’09) leads the way in Edmonton urban farming.
When Ryan Mason (BA Global and Development Studies ’09) talks about being a small Alberta farmer, he means REALLY small — he measures his spread in square metres, not quarter-sections.
Mason and business partner Cathryn Sprague hope to establish a profitable Edmonton business planting organic produce in backyards and empty lots.
Landowners provide the space for free. In exchange, Reclaim Urban Farm Inc. gives them a weekly box of fresh veggies, then sells the rest to restaurants and farmers markets.
“Both of us are really interested in food,” says Mason, who like Sprague is finishing a master’s degree from the University of Alberta in environmental sociology.
“This is one way we think we can improve the food system. Also, we want to get outdoors, away from our computers, outside in the sunshine, working hard with our hands.”
They’re part of an international trend toward agriculture in city centres, whether it’s tiny tomato plots in New York or organic beets in Vancouver.
Producers, often so close to their customers they deliver by bicycle, usually function as sharecroppers, providing part of their bounty as rent to the landowners.
Reclaim Urban Farm has 15 sites totalling about one-fifth of a hectare, mainly in Garneau, King Edward Park and Bonnie Doon, and they’re looking for more in the area.
But it’s more efficient to work a couple of large plots, such as two vacant 83rd Avenue lots being provided in Garneau by St. John’s Institute.
Homeowners have signed up to support the concept, learn about gardening or simply to receive free produce, Mason says.
“One thing we try to sell is beautification …. We’re growing lots of leafy greens, which is really esthetically pleasing.”
Edmonton’s 2012 food and agriculture strategy calls for the city to encourage urban agriculture so people have more control over what they eat.
The strategy recommends removing barriers to urban food production and helping integrate it into public spaces such as boulevards, parks and plazas.
Kevin Kossowan, a partner in Edmonton’s Lactuca Corp., says they were probably Alberta’s first urban farming company when they started three seasons ago.
Now he estimates there are five or six similar operations in the province.
He and partner Travis Kennedy produced about 40 kilograms of salad mix a week last year and regularly sold out.
Their crop includes different types of lettuce, arugula, wild onions and tarragon.
He sees environmental, cost (little transportation or storage expense) and social benefits to tilling city soil.
“I think a lot of farmers think it’s a bit of a joke, to be honest … because it’s small scale,” says Kossowan, a member of the Edmonton Food Council.
“The traditional thinking around food production is it should happen in one place and we should live in another place.”
Inner-city farming means Lactuca can be close to customers without paying a fortune for land.
But small-plot agriculturalists don’t always have an easy row to hoe.
Last week, city staff told Mason and Sprague to stop work at the St. John’s Institute property until a complaint about how development rules were interpreted is resolved.
Mason said they’ve been working to come up with zoning for small intensive farm sites, but the issue still hasn’t been sorted out.
However, there are also successes in the field. Lactuca has reached a deal with Northlands to use about half a hectare of vacant space east of Borden Park.
This will more than double the operation. Kossowan and Kennedy will have space for a self-sustaining permaculture demonstration, bees and lots of greens.
“I can see lots of urban farms fail, because it’s not an easy business. It requires a lot of hard work,” Kossowan says.
“But the general economics of growing food I would say is there.”
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