Our Urban Farmer Workshop Recap
Our first Urban Farmer Workshop is complete! The March 15th event was part of our larger Street to Sky project, which is working to connect farmers with urban land, foster new urban farmers, and increase accessible and equitable food production in Victoria. With almost 300 people registered for the event, we are chalking this one up as a smash hit!
The main event was TOPSOIL founder Chris Hildreth’s wide-ranging and detailed presentation on how he built his own urban farm in the heart of Victoria. He covered everything from his site to design to his crop planning to his net income as an urban farmer, providing all of the details and inspiration a new urban farmer might need.
Following him was Azja Jones Martin of Young Agrarians, who filled in the audience on land matching opportunities in BC and how to approach farming leases with landowners.
The final speaker of the night was Virgine Lavallee-Picard, who is the Food Systems Coordinator for the City of Victoria. She covered the permits and administrative information needed to start an urban farm in Victoria, highlighting the amount of red tape that has been removed in Victoria, making urban growing as pain-free as possible.
We were delighted to have such an engaged and enthusiastic audience for our workshop, receiving over 60 Q & A questions for our speakers. We covered as many questions as we could and have written up the answers below for anyone interested.
To watch the recording of the event, head to our Youtube page here.
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Top Q &A Questions:
Chris, can you address where you source your geotextile planters? How do you ensure the textile is food-safe/not an inauthentic version - i.e. is there a brand name of the geotextile that you recommend? Have you found that the grow bags degrade after the 5-6 years you’ve been using them? Chris uses 15 gallon Smartpots, which he has found are still in excellent condition after years of heavy and rough use.
Can you elaborate on how you regenerate your soil? Uses the compost company ReFuse, which also collects any organic material and pulled plants TOPSOIL has. Also uses kelp fertilizer and a liquid fertilizer created by Ash Whelan, TOPSOIL’s Director of Operations.
Do you think there is room for more similar farms to TOPSOIL or do you think diversity would be needed in order to support more operations? Absolutely! Considering TOPSOIL is one of the only urban farms in Victoria, there is certainly more room for similar farms. We need more people growing food locally and there is a high demand for it.
Could your system be certified as organic farming? Because everything is “in sight, in mind,” organic certification doesn’t seem necessary. Customers can see for themselves that the food is being grown without harmful pesticides and herbicides. The certification process is helpful when your customers can’t see your operation for themselves. However, it could most likely be certified organic.
What sort of permits do you need to be able to sell to restaurants? Just a business license!
What were TOPSOIL’s startup costs? - Chris spent 6 or 7 months trying to convince Vancity to give him a $50,000 loan. It worked! But he immediately cancelled the loan, realizing he didn’t need that much money and a ton of debt to start the business. But, once he could convince a bank, it was easier to convince friends and family to support his idea. He recommends the book “The Power of Broke” about starting a business with no money.
Chris, what do you do with ugly vegetables? They don’t have much, but if any, they give them away to non-profits. If they had more, they would probably just sell it for a reduced price at the market stand.
Do you (Chris) start from seed or transplants? Do you grow your own seedlings? - use starts from CnC Growers. Would love to greenhouse the entire site but it would mean having to grow all year round
For Azja, are there other land matching programs elsewhere in Canada and North America? There is a Quebec-based program called L’Arterre and one in Ontario called FarmLink. Young Agrarians are hoping to expand Land Matching across the country in the future. If none of those work for you, Google land matching/land linking/land leasing in your area.
For everyone, are there any farming grants for those with registered disabilities? Not sure about disability-specific but there are loads of grants for local food production. If you have a disability, you are at a higher chance of getting the funding. BC Small Farm Acceleration Pilot Program has many grants for infrastructure specifically. It can be used to start or expand your small farm business.