On a recent visit to Vancouver I took the opportunity to catch up with Camil Dumont, a founder of Inner City Farms (ICF), one of the urban farms that has sprung up there over the past few years. While the city is known for its milder than most of Canada climate, more recently it has been building a reputation as a hub for true local food with the number of community gardens and small scale urban horticulture start ups rapidly increasing. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with grocery shopping there’s a growing niche for organisations such as ICF “We harvest and provide the same day, grow all in our own city and mostly offer an opportunity to support social and ecological values tied to food citizenship when we offer our veggie shares. Not many others provide this package.”
Initiated by a group of five friends who were motivated to garden and grow their own chemical free food but lacked viable land due to inner city apartment living, they approached friends and family in more suburban areas with ample lawn space that could be converted into vegetable patches. After turning their first sod in 2009 the group soon realised they would easily grow more than they could eat and ICF was born. In their first year 6 yards underwent conversion with sod being replaced by composted growing beds; three years later they work at 20 different sites which total just under an acre in area.
Word spreads fast and they get more offers to convert front yards than they can handle so each proposed site is assessed for orientation, soil quality and presence of invasive species before any decisions are made. Homeowners need to have the right attitude towards the project and establishing and maintaining good relationships with them is essential, as Dumont says “It’s not for everyone, a farm no matter what the size is a working space and it won’t always look like nice straight perfectly weeded vegetable rows.” Due to changes in ownership or householder priorities they have had to return several sites to their original lawn covered state but overall the majority of the land providers are happy to host ICF.
While they haven’t had any major issues with theft or vandalism, attributable to the neighbourhoods they choose to grow in and the fact that their gardens are owned by someone, the group does flout the law on a daily basis as what they do is technically illegal. There’s a host of council by-laws they break but luckily, as policy slowly catches up with the changing world that is urban agriculture, a no enforcement policy in place so Dumont and his team can continue to work without the threat of fines.
Besides fruit and vegetable production, ICF also places importance on improving access for people with low or no income to fresh produce “They are often the people that can benefit the most” says Dumont and with this in mind, ICF donates a huge weekly box of veggies throughout the season to Oppenheimer Park Community Kitchen where it’s used to cook dinner as part of the DECK project. In the current food distribution system, organic food is simply priced out of reach for many people and as part of bridging this gap Dumont has plans for a sponsorship system where companies and individuals can sponsor vegetable deliveries via local charities.
On the business side of things, ICF follows the CSA model where shares in the harvest are pre-sold in the spring and members are entitled to a box of fresh veggies each week for the duration of the season. Initially ICF had just 9 shares available and this has consistently increased to a whopping 65 with restaurant orders gradually being added to the mix. Key aspects of their approach to minimise capital input have been to:
- Sell produce directly to the consumer.
- Hire big equipment, like a roto-tiller or sod cutter, only when required.
- Exchange produce for use of front yard space.
- Exchange labour for access to greenhouse space.
- Exchange labour for additional products (currently sprouts from Food Pedalers are included in the CSA boxes).
- Good planning so wastage is minimised.
- Avoid cultivation of delicate greens such as lettuce and arugula eliminating need for refrigeration.
- Maintain a small scale operation so produce is always harvested on delivery day eliminating the need for storage space.
Profitability has continued to improve and ICF was able to pay a salary for the first time in 2012 with a ute purchase planned in 2013 to replace the trusty farm Corolla.
All five co-founders are long established Vancouverites and this has definitely been a factor in their success as connections with their sprout supplier, soil testing lab and commercial customers had already been established through friends and family. Dumont’s advice to anyone who wants to start urban farming is “Go for it! We didn’t know a lot when we started” and with plenty of hard work, persistence and passion they have managed to build a thriving business that grows great food and supports their community.