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Kootenay Co-op Radio
Nelson, B.C. Canada
September 10, 2009
Title: Farming in the City XI (Nelson Urban Acres / Massachusetts Avenue Project)
Producer/Host: Jon Steinman
Transcript: Jessica VanOverbeek
Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner a syndicated weekly radio show and podcast produced in Nelson British Columbia at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY and heard weekly on radio stations around the world including our newest addition CFIS 93.1FM Prince George, British Columbia and Park Radio 101.1FM Banff, Alberta. And today's episode part 11 in our ongoing Farming in the City series where we'll meet with a young urban farmer who this year launched Nelson Urban Acres - an urban farming business based on the popular SPIN model of farming. Nelson Urban Acres is spread out across twelve plots of land (mostly backyards) scattered throughout the City of Nelson, British Columbia. Co-founder Paul Hoepfner-Homme joined us in our studios here in Nelson to share the outcomes of the project's first year and we'll learn of the challenges and opportunities that come with trying to make a business out of urban farming.
And at the end of the broadcast, a recording of Diane Picard, the Executive Director for the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo, New York. Diane spoke in June 2009 on the challenges presented in many urban communities to access affordable, healthy and environmentally responsible food regardless of wealth. In response to these challenges, urban agriculture has provided one of a number of inspiring methods to get that healthy and responsible food into the kitchens of a Buffalo community and to actively engage youth in the process.
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Jon Steinman: An important update to first bring to you from the world of genetically engineered food - which has of course been a focus here on the show as of late. On September 10th, it was announced that a substantial contamination event has taken place in Europe resulting from the importation of Canadian-grown flax. According to a press release from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, The European Commission's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed has confirmed the contamination of Canadian flax exports with a genetically modified (GM) flax. The GM flax has been illegal to grow in Canada since 2001 when flax growers forced the government to take the product off the market but a German company has confirmed the GM contamination in its cereals and bakery products.
To provide a bit of history, in 1998, Genetically Modified flax called "Triffid," was approved by Canadian regulators but the Flax Council of Canada convinced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to remove variety registration for the GM flax in 2001. Flax growers took this action to protect their export markets from the threat of GM contamination. As in Europe, they do not permit the importation of genetically modified organisms. According to flax grower Terry Boehm of the National Farmers Union, "This is an absolute nightmare for flax growers and why we worked so hard to have the GM flax removed. Flax growers forced the GM flax off the market eight years ago to prevent any threat of contamination and protect our export markets. GM flax was never wanted or needed. We knew it would destroy our European markets and now we fear this has happened."
In an article by the weekly publication, the Western Producer, the president of the Flax Council of Canada, Barry Hall is quoted as saying "It has created quite a bit of a furor and we're working now with the Canadian Grain Commission and industry to find out just what's going on."
68% of Canada's flax is exported with 2/3rds of that heading each year to Europe.
Jon Steinman: Our ongoing Farming in the City series has been airing for over three years now and focuses on a subject (urban agriculture) that is constantly receiving more and more attention by the public and government alike.
Now for the most part, urban agriculture as it exists today is often restricted to urban residents cultivating and raising food for their own consumption, but, as the first episode of our series featured back in August 2006 pointed out, there are some people who are trying to make a living from farming within city limits. That episode back in 2006 heard from Saskatoon's Wally Satzewich - the co-founder of SPIN farming, a model for growing food in the city and making a living doing it. Wally helped develop the model with partner Gail Vandersteen and Philadelphia's Roxanne Christensen. And since that episode aired three years ago, SPIN farming has really taken off throughout North America with the SPIN website listing 18 of just some examples where SPIN projects are underway in cities like Middletown, New York, Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and Vancouver, British Columbia among others.
And among those others is Nelson Urban Acres - a project launched just this year in Nelson, British Columbia - right here in the hometown of Deconstructing Dinner.
Nelson Urban Acres has become a familiar vendor at Nelson's weekly markets selling a wide array of vegetables grown within the urban centre of the city and all of it on twelve individual plots of land, which urban homeowners have offered in exchange for fresh food.
Nelson Urban Acres was started by Christoph Martens, who has lent his voice previously on the show, and Paul Hoepfner-Homme.
Deconstructing Dinner invited Paul to get out of the sun and soil and into our studios at Kootenay Co-op Radio to share with us, how the first year of the business went, what challenges they faced and exactly what type of person gets into the business of urban farming.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: I came from Ontario originally. I grew up in Oakville, a very suburban environment-lots of lawn. But my mom had a very green thumb and she dispelled the idea that you have to have a lawn in suburbia. And we had a beautiful garden - we had almost no lawn. Front and back yards full of a lot of native plants and some vegetables and I would often help her out in the garden because it was really fun. And, I don't know, she just had a passion for plants and for good food and I think I kind of absorbed that from her as I was growing up there.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: I was also very much kind of a computer geek guy type guy since I was very young as well. Over the years I developed a passion for programming and computer graphics and stuff like that. That led me to go to University of Waterloo to study computer science. I pursued that pretty solidly for several years. I don't know, at the same time throughout university I started to get interested in larger world issues relating to sustainability and peak oil, global warming, all those things. I started to think that living solely in the world of computers and office environments that there was more that I could probably do to help the state of the world. And a couple of my friends also felt similarly and one of them ended up on a farm in Ontario called Everdale. And did an internship there, a farming internship, had a really really great time and learned a ton about growing food, and got really excited about it and told me I should do it. I loved it. I fell in love with farming and realized I felt very much in my element when I was outside in the garden working with plants and the soil. I would have had no idea five years previous that I was going to be farming.
Jon Steinman: Not long after Paul moved from Ontario to British Columbia, he came across mention of the SPIN farming model while surfing on the Internet. The model immediately spoke to him as an ideal way to get into farming without having to encounter the barriers that so many young farmers face - such as the big one of having to purchase land.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: I discovered the system called SPIN farming and it just kind of appealed to me the idea so I looked it up. Went to the website. To me it appeared a way for me to get into farming in a serious way without really any barriers; like getting land and investing in tractors and organizing a ton of people or whatever. I just thought it seemed really feasible. Like WOW! I can see myself doing this. Well, SPIN stands for Small Plot Intensive. It's basically focusing on a small amount of land, a relatively small amount of land, like less than an acre to grow a lot of food and focusing primarily on high value crops. Things that will yield a lot in a small space and produce a good value at the market. That's the basic idea. From there it expands to multi-plot farming. When you have such a small amount of land that you need it's really well suited for cities. In cities, lots are definitely quite small. I mean you would need more than one or two usually to actually make a living farming from it. So, the idea is to spread your less than an acre land across multiple plots in the city. And the other idea is that you don't have to own these lots. Urban land is generally quite expensive and there is no way you could do that in your first year. Get started farming on land that you own in the city. That's why you have this barter exchange idea with your landowners. You give them some food throughout the season and they give you the land. Every landowner we've met just is so thrilled to have us there for the most part and just so happy to get vegetables and happy that they don't have to take care of their yard. Then as it happened I met another, Christoph Martin in Nelson and he had already heard of it. He was definitely interested in doing it as well and we just started talking and got started last spring.
Jon Steinman: Located on the SPIN farming website are a series of guides for any new and upcoming urban farmer, and Christoph and Paul selected one of the models to apply within the city of Nelson.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: In the SPIN model it's basically a business plan that's sold online. And in different sections you can purchase different parts of it. There are three parts where they have these example farms, example SPIN farms. There's like a hobby scale farm, which is usually a quarter acre. There's an intermediate scale that's about half an acre. That's the model we tried to pursue. Then there's a full acre or maybe three quarter's of an acre, the larger scale model. You would need probably more than two people to manage that successfully. Yeah, so we pursued the intermediate.
Jon Steinman: Once the model was chosen, Paul and Christoph embarked on the most important first step; finding the plots of land in the city that would soon make up the foundation for their urban farming business.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: First step was getting the land and we had a couple leads through people we knew, of gardens that were not going to be tended to this year and the landowners were interested in having us take care of it. But it took a while to get started. We got one or two kind of early on in the season. After that we were kind of short and we really wanted to get some more stuff planted quickly and we didn't have the land yet. So it took a while us to make all the contacts over the season and we continue to make contacts. Even now, people want us to farm their land for next year. So, if I had had time to plan this better like if I had known that I was going to be farming last fall I would have gotten started then. That would have made this year way easier. At first when we realized that we weren't getting that much land we decided we were going to advertise in the Express. We made these brochures and tried to hand those out a bit. And, you know we did get a few interested people, at lease one in each method that we chose. So, it was really good to put the energy out there in those directions. So that was establishing the land base. That was a big part in setting up.
The other one was setting up our walk-in cooler. The SPIN model recommends you have a walk-in cooler. There are different kinds also. You don't necessarily need a walk-in cooler just some large space you can store your produce. The idea isn't to necessarily harvest all in one and store it just for the market. It's a little difficult to do that especially for one person. You're just on your own and you're farming you can't really do everything in one day so you need a few days to harvest and you need a place to store during those few days. That's why it recommends a cooler. We built that using this device called a 'CoolBot'. It's a little electrical device, very simple device that you can order online - it's developed by a farmer actually. What it does is it allows you to use a standard air-conditioner, like a window fitting air-conditioner, to make a walk-in cooler. Normally, air-conditioners won't go down bellow a certain temperature so this device tricks the air-conditioner into going cooler than it is designed to go and it's very effective. It works really well and it's a lot cheaper than buying a pre-made walk-in cooler. So, we used that and an air-conditioner from Sears and these Styrofoam blocks you would normally fill with concrete. They are really easy to build it's like LEGO and they insulate really well about a foot deep. And you can take it apart if you want to move it. So, it's a really great little system and it wasn't as expensive as suggested in the SPIN Farming guides. We saved quite a bit and it's also supposed to be more energy efficient than your normal walk-in coolers.
Jon Steinman: Paul Hoepfner-Homme. This is Deconstructing Dinner and part 11 of our ongoing Farming in the City series that we first launched in August of 2006. That first episode featured the SPIN farming model - a business plan of sorts that's sold on-line to anyone interested in pursuing a full or part-time job as an urban farmer. Three years since that broadcast, we're now featuring the model yet again, but this time as it applies to Christoph Martens and Paul Hoepfner-Homme of Nelson Urban Acres who put the model to work this year in Nelson, British Columbia. The pair has been cultivating vegetables on twelve backyards scattered throughout the city limits, and on today's episode we're learning of the challenges and opportunities that have arisen as part of the business's first year of operation. And also be sure to check out some of the photographs of Nelson Urban Acres' first year in business - those images are linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the September 10th, 2009 episode.
Now among the substantial investment of a walk-in cooler, were many other investments needed to get the business up and running, and Paul explains.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: I guess our biggest expense is, well, one was the walk-in cooler, fertilizer is expensive and there wasn't a composting system at each of our plots. Sometimes there was but it wasn't nearly enough, as we would need. So, we invested in stuff like alfalfa meal and rock phosphate and greensand. These inputs do add up. Some of them are ones that you only have to apply once every few years - maybe just once is enough. The alfalfas are kind of ongoing fertilizer expense because that supplies the nitrogen. A lot of our crops are high feeders and we need a lot of nitrogen to grow well. Seeds were fairly significant but not as much as I was expecting. It's kind of a one time per year cost and sometimes you can save them over years if you store them properly and if you buy in bulk you get a lot more seeds for a lot less so we were doing that. Fencing. Fencing is something that the SPIN model actually suggests as something you wouldn't need to invest in if you were growing in the city. Basically, fencing against stuff like deer is often the reason a farmer would need to invest in fencing. Deer. Bears. That kind of stuff is expensive but it's almost always required if you are going to grow leafy greens and many vegetables outside of the city. In the city, deer are hardly an issue although we do have some dog issues and we did set up as cheap fencing as we could set up. Usually it could be extremely lightweight just something to keep them out. Chicken wire, bird netting is really lightweight. Plastic netting is fine.
I purchased for myself, I didn't include this as a farming expense because I use if for everything now. I purchased an electric bike kit for my bike. It's a kit you get and you install it into your regular mountain bike or road bike or whatever you have. Because, I found I just couldn't get up the hills on my bike with the trailer and all my tools and whatever else I was carrying. I really needed help. I don't have a driver's license so I had no choice but to bike to get around to get to the different plots. Nelson is just too hilly for me plus having enough energy on the property to do the work I'm suppose to do whether it's weeding or harvesting or digging. That was a big expense for myself but I decided not to label it as a farm expense just to keep things simple. The other thing we use to get around is the truck from the car co-op often. That's an economical way of having a truck because you don't have to buy the truck if you are a member of the car club - which Christoph is. You can just use it when you want if it is always available. You just pay for the gas. Usually a SPIN farmer will have something like a truck but I think electric bikes are making a lot of headway these days and I'm really serious in continuing in that way.
Jon Steinman: Also among the set-up costs associated with starting an urban farming business, is the extra labour that Paul and Christoph were required to invest in order to convert the many donated plots of land into adequate soil in which to grow their produce. A number of the plots had never been used to grow food and some were even standard lawns. Paul shares the challenges of preparing land for cultivation and some of the strategies used to overcome them.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: A lot of the plots were lawn, lawn or turf grass or couch grass or weeds and those we needed to work to get to turn to garden. We tried different ways. Because some of them were mostly clear but there were a bunch of weeds and maybe we wanted to extend into the lawn a bit. Since it was just a small area of the lawn we wanted to cultivate we decided to do it by hand just using spades and forks. That was slow and a lot of work and I don't think I would do it that way again. Maybe if you don't have a rototiller then that's your only choice. No, there's other ways actually. You can use plastic and lucky weather to kill grass. We would use clear plastic and basically cover the lawn with this plastic and it would turn it into a greenhouse. If you have hot, sunny days, like weeks of that, it should kind of fry it up a bit and would make it a lot easier to get rid of and work in the soil. We found that the most effective was rototilling. If we wanted a garden to be ready in the same year, like if we started with lawn and we wanted it ready in a month or so, the most effective way to make that transformation happen was to take a rototiller and till the whole thing up about once a week for three or four weeks and by the end of the four weeks it would be almost unrecognizable. I mean it would look all like soil with maybe a couple weeds sticking out. That was usually enough for us to get it started and shape beds and plant fertilizer and plant.
The other way that I think I prefer and I'm doing for next year is if you can get your property in the fall prior to when you want to start gardening, you till it once in the fall and then you sow a cover crop which we would chose a mix of rye and clover, red clover. That has the effect of kind of doing a lot of that tilling work for you. The rye roots go really deep and add pathways for future plants. They are nitrogen scavengers so they bring a lot of nitrogen into them so when you till that in, that nitrogen gets released into the soil. The clover's a nitrogen fixer so it transforms nitrogen from the air into a form that is usable for plants. Nitrogen is of course the most important component for most of our crops. You till it in the fall, plant that stuff, it would get established, leave it over the winter, and till it once more in the spring. You've got all this extra organic matter added to your soil, it's already loosened by the roots and you are doing less harm to the soil by rototilling. I'd like to avoid using the rototiller as much as I can because it inverts the soil profile. There're microorganisms that adapted to different layers of the soil and when you rototiller you're just kind of churning it all up - churning up their habitats and I don't think that's a good thing. So I try to avoid using the rototiller as much as I can. That's why I think that this other method is better because you are only rototilling twice.
Jon Steinman: Paul Hoepfner-Homme of Nelson Urban Acres. Now once the land was sourced for their urban agriculture business, Paul and Christoph incorporated a strategy of planting that is not often found in the traditional urban backyard garden - as it's a strategy that is most often found on farms and has helped ease the extra workload that comes with managing as many plots as they now do.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: At this point we have twelve plots and it just kind of increased from one right at the beginning of the season. They are all in Nelson, except for one - one we have in Blewett because there is a lot of space there. It is our farthest plot by far so we would plan to grow things on that property that don't need regular attention - stuff that you could weed once or twice. So our plan for next year for that property is potatoes, garlic, winter squash, and melons. Those are all kind of long season crops and I think that would just make us a lot more efficient in terms of our use of time.
As far as the other properties go, in the city, they are all relatively close together. The SPIN model talks about planting your most frequent yields - those that you're growing frequent yielding crops such as leafy greens, closest to you because you are going to be visiting them more often. You are going to be harvesting from them, weeding them, replanting. The SPIN model has a term 'relay planting'. So that means right when one crop is done, your first crop, you till everything else in and you plant right away again. You do that up to three times in one season and that is quite feasible for something like leafy greens because they grow really fast - especially in the height of summer. We've been having really, really productive gardens and it's been quite amazing to see. The idea behind 'relay planting' is to be able to grow a lot of food in a small amount of space. Generally you're not going to have a lot of space in the city. For instance, on one plot we would focus on a variety of leafy greens at one time. Stuff like baby lettuce, kale, mizuna, spinach, baby chard. Basically, they would all or more-or-less mature at the same time-lettuce we found was a bit slower. So we might, for next year separate the lettuce - do it just kind of a lettuce planting and put all the other greens elsewhere. You want to combine the crops together that are going to be maturing at about the same time and finishing at about the same so that you can wipe the whole thing out and plant something else right away. Otherwise it gets complicated to manage and inefficient because if your spinach is still going but everything else is done you could replant those other beds. It's difficult because you don't want to have to be moving around a lot too, you don't want to go to a property just to harvest the spinach you want to harvest a bunch of things at once if possible.
So then at another property, for instance we would have carrots - almost all carrots. We just happened to plant some herbs there as well but it has worked out because the herbs just keep on yielding and the carrots we just harvest very slowly, one bed after another and we're still harvesting from that bed. Then at another property we just have beets. It doesn't look like your traditional garden where you have a bunch of different things growing in one spot. It looks more like a farm.
Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner - a syndicated weekly radio show and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman and you're tuned in to part 11 of our ongoing Farming in the City series - a series that explores the increasingly popular world of urban agriculture - a method of raising food that while popular in many parts of the world is not one that is practiced nearly as much here in North America. The Farming in the City series is archived on our website at deconstructingdinner.ca
On today's episode we're hearing from urban farmer Paul Hoepfner-Homme of Nelson Urban Acres - an urban farming business which he and business partner Christoph Martens launched this year on 12 plots of land scattered throughout the city. The duo have followed the SPIN model created by Saskatoon's Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen and Philadelphia's Roxanne Christensen.
With almost a year under their belt, Paul and Christoph can share some valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities found from starting an urban farm with perhaps the most important challenge being getting paid! As was discovered this year, the markets in Nelson have not proven to be as lucrative as they would have hoped, and their experience sheds some interesting light on the challenges that some communities like Nelson face in attracting sufficient customers and farmers.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: We only planned to sell at the farmers market this year. Part of that was because it was already set up for us. I mean the market existed. Christoph had heard that in past years farmers were very successful at the markets in Nelson and that we would probably have no trouble making a good income on the markets alone. I believe our first market day was either early June or late May. So for most of the markets we managed to actually do our whole harvest on the day before. We had a really professional looking display and it was really fun, I really enjoyed selling at the market. It was really nice to meet all the people who frequent the market and get the feedback of those people. And begin to get returning customers who had really enjoyed our produce. I find people in Nelson are quite happy that we are doing this. They think that growing food in the city is the next biggest thing and it's going to be really important for the future and I agree. It's really nice to get that support even if a lot of them have their own gardens and say they can't buy any produce today.
There's also the Wednesday market. For some reason we thought the Wednesday market was going to be busier than the Saturday and I think that because last year maybe it was. From what I've heard it was quite successful last year but it was at a different location. It was right on the main street of Nelson and it was easy to stumble upon and you couldn't miss it. We heard that farmers would often sell out there. So we had actually signed up for the whole season of the Wednesday market in advance thinking that it's going to be just as busy this year and we found it was quite the opposite. It was not nearly as busy as the Saturday market so we did a few of those - the Wednesday markets and we found for one thing it was difficult to do two markets even for two people. We had too many things to do to, to be able to pull it off. We realized that we would have to focus on the Saturday market if we wanted to make more money this year because that's just how it worked. Even thought we paid in advance for the season of the Wednesday market, we would still be making more money if we paid weekly for the Saturday market. I think it's partly because it's a more established market on Saturday and the Wednesday market I've heard it just keeps moving around and their still looking for a really good spot for it. I really hope the next year that they find a really good spot for it 'cause this year it was a little bit out of the way.
I think we are averaging for the Saturday market our average has been about $300 a week. Sometimes more than 400, sometimes just around 200. Depending on what else was going on that weekend. We found it was very dependent on the weather, the various festivals that happened throughout the summer. Music festivals- there seemed to be one every weekend for a while. The Wednesday market it was between a half to two-thirds of the Saturday market.
One of the forms of inspiration for me for starting SPIN farming was actually something that was mentioned in the SPIN guides. Wally Satzewich, who started this model in Saskatoon, he says he's able to get thousand dollar market weeks often in Saskatoon. I thought 'Well, that's great. I would love to be able to do that." I could totally cover my expenses really quickly if that was the case. So I kind of had this idea 'Ah, well Nelson's like so alternative and there's going to be a ton of people going to the farmer's markets. Surely I can pull that off." But no, it's not quite like that and I think part of the problem here is, it's kind of a vicious circle. A lot of people aren't going to the markets to buy food because there aren't really that many farmers, there are a lot of crafts people and a lot of other people doing other things but not that many farmers and so people don't think that they can go to the market to buy their produce for the week. That causes farmers to think that it's not really worth their time to go to the market so you have fewer farmers and fewer customers. I think it's important for all farmers, maybe not all farmers but a lot of farmers to go to the market regardless of their other sales routes. Especially when the market isn't terribly established in the food area. I think that's just the way we need to get these markets going - is just to have a little more consistency from the farmers and season long. I would love to see a year-round market in Nelson. People buy food all-year round, why can't they buy local food direct from the farmer all-year round. There're all kinds of things you can grow and store in the winter. Even greens you can grow throughout the winter and using very low energy means. There's all kinds of things people can do and it's just a matter of getting those markets better established.
Jon Steinman: Paul Hoepfner-Homme of Nelson Urban Acres. Paul went on to say, that they will continue selling at the markets next year and perhaps pursue more commercial customers as the one restaurant that they've also been selling to this year has proven to be a lucrative and efficient way to sell their urban produce.
As I neared the end of my conversation with Paul I revisited with his earlier comment on the feasibility of operating a financially viable urban farming business. At the start of the year the model seemed to be one that could work (as indeed it had for others), and now that the growing season is nearing its end, I asked Paul if he continues to believe that it is feasible to grow food in the city, and make a living doing it.
Paul Hoepfner-Homme: I tried to have low expectations for this because I have just heard from everyone I know, who is a farmer pretty much, that it's not easy to do, not easy to pull it off - especially in the first year, to be successful as a business. All I really wanted to do was give myself the opportunity to be farming throughout the year and doing a project of my own, more or less, Christoph's and mine. Something that I was basically running and I was making the decisions. I felt that I was growing the food and so that goal we certainly achieved. I've spent the whole season really really busy and farming and I loved it.
I would have liked to break even as far as covering our initial expenses and recovering that through our sales but I didn't really expect that we would and we're not quite there yet. But there was a lot of first year investments that are not going to be the case in the second or the third or down the line. So I can see it being quite easy to break even next year. I mean I would like to break even and also pay myself a living wage. That would be ideal. But things I know are going to change for next year and the coming years.
I mean I've learned a ton this year in terms of gardening, farming. I've learned a lot from Christoph. He's got a lot of experience in growing greens and growing all kinds of things in his own garden and he had a lot of very useful information. I think I would have a lot slower learning curve if it weren't for his help. Just this year alone has been a really good learning experience. I've realized you can grow a ton of food with not that much effort. I think that's kind of really interesting. I think the effort you have to focus more on is the sales and getting more people wanting this food and that's what I'm planning to do for next year.
Jon Steinman: Paul Hoepfner-Homme of Nelson Urban Acres. You can learn more about the project by visiting their website at nelsonurbanacres.com where Paul has been posting a detailed and informative blog throughout the summer that provides even more insight into Paul's and Christoph Martens work. You'll also find photographs posted on their site and those images are also posted on the Deconstructing Dinner site at deconstructingdinner.ca where links to other resources on urban farming can also be found including more on the SPIN farming model and our 2006 interview with SPIN co-founder Wally Satzewich. Today's episode is posted under the September 10th 2009 broadcast.
Jon Steinman: Urban agriculture is taking many shapes and forms across North America whether it's businesses like Nelson Urban Acres or this next urban agriculture project that we'll learn about that's been underway in Buffalo, New York since 2003. Known as Growing Green - this unique and well-established program is part of the Massachusetts Avenue Project - a youth development and urban agriculture program focused on increasing healthy food access and revitalizing the Buffalo community through urban farming, healthy nutrition, environmental stewardship and social enterprise.
The Executive Director of the project is Diane Picard and in June 2009, she shared their work at the annual conference of the Association for Community Design hosted in Rochester, New York. Here's Diane Picard.
Diane Picard: Good morning. I'm Diane Picard. I'm from the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo, New York and we do community food systems work there. I'm delighted to be here this morning to talk to you a little bit about the work that we are doing. To start out I just want to tell you a few stories about some of the people that we work with and some of the people that we affect. This is Edwin, he's 17 years old. He lives in our neighbourhood on the west side of Buffalo. He lives at home with his single mom and four brothers. He's been in our Growing Green Program for three years. He walks to school everyday through a neighbourhood of vacant lots and abandoned buildings and Edwin loves to eat. He loves all kinds of food but he won't eat his schools lunch because he thinks it's inedible. So on his way home from school his choices when he's starving is either to go to a corner store or to go to McDonald's.
This is Kimmy and her daughter Fatimas, they live in the neighbourhood as well. Kimmy came from down south, moved to Buffalo about four years ago. She's taking care of two daughters and one of her nephews. She works two part-time jobs and she doesn't have a car or access to a car and she doesn't have a lot of family support. She also loves to cook her specialty fried green tomatoes. There's no big grocery store in our neighbourhood so to really get good healthy food for her kids she has to take two buses, it takes her, round-trip four and a half hours and that doesn't include grocery shopping and she can only buy what she can carry on the bus. So, for a working mom with kids it's hard to do that every week so she ends up having to shop in corner stores a lot or there's a McDonalds a block away from her house.
This is Dominic, he is a ninety year old sweetheart who lives in our neighbourhood. He's from Italy and he's lived on the west side for about 65 years-raised his family there. He now lives alone and also loves to cook but doesn't drive anymore. He has to rely on his kids to bring him meals and they try to do that once a week but you know. For him to walk to the closest market that carries the fresh foods that he likes to cook with it takes him a good part of the day and he's ninety! Walking a mile and a half is a little challenging for him.
This is Daniel Oles. He runs a Promise Land CSA, which is in Alden it's about thirty miles outside of Buffalo. He's been farming for about twenty years and has really seen the decline in family farms in that part of western New York. About three years ago he decided to start a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It's a model where farmers and consumers are linked directly. Consumers buy sort of a subscription from a farmer. They pay the farmer at the beginning of the season when the farmer needs the money for inputs and buy a share of his produce and then usually starting in May through the end of the growing season consumers get a share of produce every week from that farmer. So he started that about three years ago and we are a distribution point for his CSA and he has 200 members right now and it's growing.
I just also want to give you a little context about Buffalo and where we're located and why community food systems matter there. Buffalo is the third poorest city in the nation. Most of our poverty is concentrated on Buffalo's east and west sides. Our overweight rate, Buffalo pizza and wings, is three times the national average, twice the state average. We have over 657 acres of vacant land in Buffalo and that's growing, of course lots of farmland and economic opportunity in the greater region. The documented food deserts and economic opportunity in the region especially in low-income areas, we are fortunate that we have a strong partnership with the University of Buffalo and Doctor Samina Raja there, who has been a leader in the planning world and getting food systems into the planning world. So, she has done a lot of research for us. In 2003 we partnered and she and her graduate students did a community food assessment plan and really looked at our specific west side neighbourhood and the access people had to food and transportation. This document was really instrumental in helping us move our programs forward and plan in response to community needs. Dr. Raja continues to do research for us. She just finished a food desert mapping in Buffalo and looked at racial disparities around food access. So that brings us to the Massachusetts Avenue Project and what we do, our mission is to nurture the growth of a diverse and equitable community food system to promote local economic opportunities, access to affordable, nutritious food, and social change education.
We are located on the west side and on Buffalo's west side there's a huge number of youth - about 38% of the population is under the age of 18. It's also the most diverse neighbourhood in Buffalo, we are a centre for refugee resettlement so we have refugees from all over the world. At the local high school they speak about 38 different languages. Our main program is Growing Green and it's an urban agriculture program that we started in 2003. We trained teenagers, ages 14 to 19-20, on how to grow their own food organically and all about food systems issues and micro-enterprise and sustainability.
We have a number of components, I'm going to go through these and show you some slides. Our first is our urban farm and greenhouse. We started our urban farm in 2003 just on one vacant lot and it's a half acre right now, it's seven adjacent lots currently that are not vacant right now. They are full of vegetables. These kids farm these lots in the summer for eight weeks, they work for us for 20 hours a week and we employ them so they are paid for their work. We grow about 40 different varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on our farm and those are distributed in the neighbourhood and soon through our mobile market, which I'll talk about. We also have, about two years ago, partnered with the university and they designed and built a straw-bale greenhouse at our urban farms, so this is shots of that. We just finished it actually, it took two years to build because we were doing it kind of with semesters and the community but the wonderful thing about this project is it was very much a community project. Kids came and did it - our kids did it. You didn't have to have any skills at all to really help with this project and the kids did all the plastering of the walls. So this was the first winter we used it and it was very productive and we're actually, this year, installing an aquaponics project in the greenhouse. Where we will be growing about 3,000 tilapia in a closed system with plants so the fish waste from the water that the fish are in gets pumped and fertilizes the plants and then the plants filter the water and they go back to the fish. This of course, you can see Will Allen in one of those pictures, Will and Growing Power was our inspirations for this. Our kids also distribute the foods. So we sell the produce that we have and we donate some but we sell the produce from our garden in the neighbourhood and we also take it to, for the past three years, a senior housing complex in the neighbourhood and sold to the senior citizens there.
Our kids are taught business skills so they both learn how to market the produce and they also learn how to run their own business. So we have a youth enterprise. The youth use the produce at the garden to test recipes, come up with recipes and then they create their own products. We partner with the local farm quarter farms and they provide larger scale all the produce for these products and we use the local packers. The kids are involved in all these steps - they create all the designs for the labels. Then they have to go out to all the stores and make presentations hoping that stores will carry their products. We also do a fair amount of direct sales. These are our kids at a local Wegmans Store doing a demo of their products. Of course they like the money part of it but the kids in this group really learn how to right a business plan. They learn all the steps in running their own business and the money goes back into employing markets.
This is our Mobile Market and we will be launching this on June 17th, which we are really excited about. It's a 1979 Winnebago, which we are praying it won't break down. We ripped out the inside and installed shelving and bins and so it's sort of like a little market and people come on. We are taking that to four sites to start with on the east and west sides and their range is public housing projects, schools, community centres, churches, and things like that. Hopefully bring more fresh, affordable produce into neighbourhoods that lack grocery stores.
Another component of our project is peer education. A smaller group of our kids are training to be teachers and during the school year are employed to go out and teach about growing and nutrition and food processing and cooking and all sorts of food systems issues to younger kids. So they go to schools and after school programs during the school year and teach. We also do field trips at our farms so some of the kids come to our farm. Another group of young people mostly kids who are interested in art or graphic design, they are part of our community outreach and education group. They design informational and educational flyers that we use in our work. This was a kid design flyer that we used to talk to get across the importance of local food. They also do a lot of public theatre and try to get a across the importance of nutrition and local food. So this was a skit they were doing, it was pouring rain at the time but they carried on. This group also plans events so we two big events during the year that the kids help plan. One is, 'Be Vocal Eat Local Week,' which happens the first week in August and the kids plan events in cooperation with local restaurants. Trying to promote local foods and they have a big barbeque at our urban farm at the end of the week. Then the other big event that they plan is an, 'Eat Up Conference.' In Buffalo we have a conference that's been happening for about six years called, 'World on Your Plate,' which was a regional food conference. We partnered with them and this conference is specifically for youth and it really engages kids, about food and why it's important for them to think about food, and why they should care. It's run by the kids so the kids actually put the conference on as well, which is pretty powerful.
We also have a youth dinner co-op where kids, once a week they plan a meal, they cook a meal and then they invite other kids from the neighbourhood to come in and to eat with us and we talk about food stuff. It's a lot of fun! It's a way of engaging more youth and the discussion. We have a farmers school program. Again, it's liked with our peer-education program. Right now we're working with six Buffalo Public Schools trying to incorporate both nutrition and education but also healthier foods in the school lunches. We're working with the food service director at the district level, and local farmers to try to source more local food into those lunches. This year we've identified twenty new farms that are interesting in supplying the school district. There are a few bumps to get over to make that a reality but we're working at it.
We also organize field trips for schools to go to local farms. It's amazing how many urban kids have never been to a farm. They don't really get that experience. It's a lot of fun to take kids out! Then we are also working on policy issues. The past couple of years this has really developed and two of the things we're working on right now is legalizing backyard chickens. It's unfortunately illegal right now in Buffalo to keep chickens even though there are chickens all over the west side. We have actually a resolution is going before the Common Counsel in two weeks and we are hoping that will pass. We have also been a part of a group that has helped establishing Community Gardens Tasks Force at the city level. We've again partnered with Dr. Raja and have done a plan for using land in the city for community gardens and urban agriculture and securing that land. Right now the situation with our gardens and our urban farms is if it's city owned land that the garden is on they can lease it from the city and usually the lease period is two-five years but there is a thirty day notice clause in the lease so if the city decides they want that land they just have to give thirty days notice and they can take the land so we are trying to make the land more secure for urban agriculture. Last year, these were just some of our key impacts. We trained about 53 youth, at-risk youth and that's about an average number for what we employ every year. We really try to train our youth to be community leaders so those youth impacted over a 1,000 other residents. We were able to provide greater healthy food access to over 500 people and one in particular I'm really proud of is that in Buffalo the drop out rate is about 45%, it might be higher now actually. All of our seniors that were in our programs graduated last year and they just finished their first year of college and they were all the first person in their family to go to college. We are on track to have that same result this year.
Thank you. One of the things that's in the works because we've seen this kind of growing explosion of urban agriculture, we are trying to develop an urban farms development centre and demonstration farm. We'll still do the training with youth but really making it so that we can do training with the broader community as well. If someone is interested in coming in and they don't know about compost or they want to learn about rainwater catchment they can come to our farm. We have pretty extensive composting going on. We have a 1,000-gallon rainwater catchment system that we installed last year. We're really trying to teach about sustainability so we are hoping that will happen in the next few years. We own a house right at our farm and we are hoping to turn that into the centre for training. Again, as Matt pointed out this is a systemic issue and an issue of justice for people. Really looking at systemic solutions is very important.
Jon Steinman: That was Diane Picard of the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo New York. More information on their Growing Green Program including a great video news story about their converted Winnebago Mobile Market is linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the September 10, 2009 episode.
Jon Steinman: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman and I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.
Theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident, Adham Shaikh.
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