Small-plot farming puts new ‘spin’ on urban agriculture

In the fall of 2010, Erica Lemieux was writing a grant proposal for Cultivate TO, a not-for-profit group that runs a food box program supplied by backyard vegetable gardens.

“The grant guidelines said to discuss ‘SPIN-Farming,’ so I started delving into it,” she says. “I became quite inspired, and ended up branching off and starting my own farm.”

Lemieux’s City Seed Farms now provides four part-time jobs through sales at farmers’ markets of produce grown on one-quarter of an acre spread out among 11 urban plots around High Park and The Junction in west-end Toronto. She is among the new urban farmers who are bringing SPIN-Farming to Toronto, and with it new models for agricultural employment and urban food supply.

SPIN-Farming, an acronym for Small Plot INtensive farming, is the brainchild of Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, who developed the concept over 20 years of farming on sub-acre urban farms around Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Their techniques were tested in the U.S. on a half-acre plot farmed by Roxanne Christensen in Philadelphia; they achieved gross sales of $68,000 within three years.

Now Satzewich and Christensen sell SPIN-Farming guidebooks for about $150 and count more than 70 farms across North America among active community members who support one another with online advice, not only about maximizing yield in a small acreage, but also about which crops are most profitable, how to price produce and ways to address potential customers.

Some, like Curtis Stone of Green City Acres in Kelowna, B.C., gross as much as $60,000 annually on tiny plots.

“It’s a worldwide phenomenon, but they don’t really know how many SPIN farmers there are, because there are people who choose to SPIN-Farm without buying the modules,” says food writer Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City. “If you’re an urban farmer, you will automatically incorporate some of their techniques, like dense planting.”

This is the first planting year for Adrienne Mendicino, co founder of Big City Greens. After a farming apprenticeship in Salt Spring Island, B.C., she returned to Toronto, partnered with anthropology graduate Rosie Pokorchak, ordered the SPIN-Farming literature and acquired planting rights for 2,000 square feet of farmland in residential yards in the Humber Valley and Etobicoke.

Big City Greens is starting out with salad greens, radishes, and beets to be sold every other week at the John Street Market in Grange Park.

Also new this year are Jason Hirsch and Steve Reiss, cofounders of The Neighbourhood Farm, which is committed to spreading the local food movement beyond the already-committed segment.

“We’ve set up a home delivery box scheme with online order. We have three farmers and three farming apprentices who choose however much land they want and what they want to plant. What we do is create a market for them,” says Hirsch.

This year, The Neighbourhood Farm is planting about one-third of an acre spread over 18 backyards and one rooftop (chosen from more than 85 offers of land).

“We’re really inspired by this SPIN model. Because we’re working hard to set up the market, and because we’ve received such tremendous feedback from the neighbourhood, we think that we’ll be able to keep growing here,” says Hirsch. “Our vision is to grow towards full-time employment for the farmers. That won’t be this year.”

In business since 2008, Bob Baloch of The Fresh Veggies is one of this area’s most experienced SPIN farmers. “I was looking at 100 acres and spending $100 million,” he says. “I found out about SPIN-Farming, and it made perfect sense.” Beginning with a quarter acre, Baloch has expanded to five acres and sells through farmers’ market and even through Loblaw. However, it’s still only a part-time income.

“I tried to do it full-time, but it doesn’t pay enough,” he says. Nonetheless, “It gives me satisfaction that I have some income coming from it. The whole environment is changing; people are going back to buying from the local farmers. You have to work slowly, find out your best mix of what you can grow and what your customers like, and pick a few crops from that.”

A box program is the backbone of Fresh City Farms, which started planting in 2011. “The idea of creating a company that forges a for-profit model for city farming really appeals to me,” says founder and former investment lawyer Ran Goel. “People are advocating for better food simply by doing their jobs.”

Fresh City Farms plants about five acres, including space at Downsview Park and Black Creek Community Farm. “We have three full-time farm staff, and about an acre and a half is farmed by about 20 member farms who have access to a greenhouse, tools, and shared seed,” he says. “We help them find a market.”

The box program employs additional full- and part-time staff, with about 1,000 subscribers at about $30 a month; about one-quarter of the contents come from the farmers, and the rest from other Ontario producers and some winter imports.

“Right now, it’s the purview of activists like ourselves, but I don’t think the path has been forged yet for truly profitable urban farming,” Goel says. “It’s an interesting time, because there’s a lot of attention and a lot of people trying it.”

“I do see a lot of bright lights that burn out in this sector,” says Lemieux. “It’s difficult because it’s seasonal and also physical, but our generation became so disconnected with how to grow food, and I feel curiosity all around me. I feel momentum, and I think it will continue to rise in the coming years.”

When you want to integrate community into an economy, you need to reduce the sense of an individual relating to a corporation,” says Hirsch. “When you shift that, you see that we can supply our basic needs to one another. We have the skills. We are stronger together than apart.”

Sarah B. Hoods writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book, We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, was a finalist in Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012.

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