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.