Farming in the City

It was 2010. The farm boy in me was captivated by a new idea— SPIN Farming (Small Plot INtensive Farming) – an urban agriculture technique that takes backyards and turns them into profitable vegetable gardens, to grow and sell produce locally, in the city. I grew up on a farm and knew about working the land. My brother-in-law was a willing business partner interested in learning how to grow food. So, we set off to grow market vegetables in Calgary. We committed ourselves to discovering if engaging in urban agriculture could provide a decent livelihood for someone living in the city.

We registered our experiment and called it Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms. A local food event landed us on CBC radio to share the story of our enterprise. Four more times we went back to update listeners on our progress. Every time people heard our story, they offered us more land; the interest and excitement stunned us. That first summer was a lot of work – cutting and rolling off sod on yard after yard; travelling to many neighbourhoods to cultivate, plant, weed and water all of our small crops, food we were growing by hand. At the end of the season we both put $500 in our pockets. We consoled ourselves with a statistic that most new start-ups don’t break even until the third year of business. One thing we learned is that farming could be done without the huge costs of land and equipment, so generating a livelihood began to make some sense.

Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms is about to enter its eighth season in Calgary. I have become the sole proprietor – with a land base of just over 1/3 of an acre spread across 30 different backyards. In 2016, I sold over 5,500 lbs. of produce to local people and netted about $32,000. I employed two students through the summer, as well as a Syrian and a German newcomer in the fall. I have come to understand the joy in seeing others discover a love for locally grown food and helping them to develop their own farming skills. For me, this is the foundation of food security – to know how to grow your own food. It is a rare skill today in our society!

“Where did this food come from?” asked a man at the market one day. He was from Ethiopia.
“I grew it. I’m a farmer,” I answered.
“Oh, so you’re close to God. That is what we say about farmers in my home country,” he responded.

I liked his response. We don’t think about farmers this way here in Canada. One of the things I have discovered having my hands in the soil is that I am, in fact, doing a simple job that countless others do across this planet. I feel very connected with farmers who share these skills no matter where they live. Global agriculture – this critical ability of people to shape and preserve arable land – is paramount to development and humanity’s well-being.

But how does farming like everyone across the globe fit into our hyper-driven culture? It is certainly counter-cultural! This was made clear during a meeting with a business consultant who found it really difficult to add the actual pace of healthy farming into the structure of my business plan. For instance, the demand for locally grown produce is very high, however the living soil (healthy land) required to produce healthy food is a slow, natural and long obedience. Building a livelihood for myself has meant adjusting my expectations of how fast that takes, what good work means, and that a livelihood for me is a livelihood for all.

When I say living soil, what I mean is an incredible unseen web of life that is the basis of all other life – of you and me. Genesis reminds us that we are dust filled with the ruah or the breath of God. Take some time to learn about the commonalities between soil microbiology and the needed microbiology of your digestive system. If soil is healthy, the microbes are in balance, meaning that bad microbes simply do not have the ability to get established. This is the world we were given. It really does reproduce 30, 60 or even a hundredfold, but it also requires passionate, skilled and faithful stewards.

I feel very connected with farmers who share these skills no matter where they live. Global agriculture – this critical ability of people to shape and preserve arable land – is paramount to development and humanity’s well-being.

Many are waking up to the need to be kinder and more in step with creation. The vision of a healing garden in the book of Revelation points to the movement of God within this as well. The possibility of urban agriculture is “increasingly recognized by city authorities and civil society organizations for its capacity to strengthen the resilience of the urban food system, enhance access for the urban poor to nutritious food, generate (self-) employment and income, and help the city to adapt to climate change and reduce its ecological foot print.” (www.ruaf.org)

Municipalities are being pushed to engage the topic of urban agriculture as citizens find policy that stands in the way of us growing food in the city. Kristi Peters Snider, Sustainability Consultant to the city let me know that change is on its way: “[Calgary] is integrating urban agriculture and food systems planning into both municipal sustainability and community planning. Agriculture in urban areas is beginning to be seen as a resource that contributes to public health, food security for families and communities and to the improvement of conditions for poor neighbourhoods through socialization, education and food literacy skill-building.”

The horizon for urban agriculture is inspiring. Three years into my farming experiment I was finding the counter-cultural work overwhelming and isolating, so I helped to create a farmer cooperative. We are now nearly 20 farmers, from both urban and rural small farms. We practice growing techniques that highlight the fertility and vitality of the soil – to produce the highest quality vegetables that will nourish and satisfy our customers.

In 2012, the Calgary EATS! document suggested that 3% of the average Calgarian’s diet was locally-grown. The goal set by this same document is to see 30% local produce by 2036. Other cities in the world are already doing a much better job of this. “In Shanghai – the city with the world’s fastest train, the tallest hotel, the biggest TV screen – 60% of the vegetables and 90% of the milk and eggs come from urban farms.” (Bill McKibben in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future)

What is possible in cities across Canada? My desire to see creation cared for and to see people energized by meaningful work means that Leaf & Lyre is shifting to focus more on training entrepreneurs. One exciting possibility is 20 acres of provincial land that will become an employment strategy for urban agriculture on the edge of Calgary. We hope to inspire and recruit newcomers to Canada to develop the skills for growing locally and to see them build a livelihood in a new land. The movement continues to grow.

From urban farming to refugee settlement, Rod Olson, owner of Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms, is in the business of nurturing life and relationship for people and planet.Rod is a renaissance man who has sunk deep roots into the land he calls home: Calgary, Alberta. You might find him growing kale in city backyards, singing professionally, teaching, or hiking with his wife and two daughters in the Rocky Mountains.