Join our community shared agriculture program today and get a weekly share of some of the most lovingly grown produce!
Join our community shared agriculture program today and get a weekly share of some of the most lovingly grown produce!
We are preparing for another great harvest season and are looking for passionate urban farmers to join our growing team! Cultivate Toronto is looking to fill positions for a Compost Manager, Volunteer Drivers, Garden Coordinators, and a Recruitment Coordinator.
Fit the following?
Urbanites into sustainable living and their community
Foodies passionate about fresh produce and heirloom verities
Students and gardeners looking get dirty
Elaine is passionate about sustainable agriculture which inspired her to co-found Cultivate Toronto. She has been involved in all aspects of the organization, from crop planning to strategic planning. As an entrepreneur, Elaine is part of a greater movement towards access to safe, local food, and has shared her knowledge and experience with many. Hear what she has to say about CTO and urban agriculture.
To anyone who’s never heard of Cultivate Toronto (CTO), how would you describe it?
Cultivate Toronto is a Toronto-based food project, aiming to connect communities through food. We use backyards and rooftops to grow food, train farmers, and share the harvest with the community members through our CSA program. It’s entirely volunteer run, which is remarkable given the success and continued expansion of the organization
A CSA is a niche market – what inspired you to co-found Cultivate Toronto?
When I moved back to Toronto after university, I was really interested in sustainable agriculture and food security, and was exploring different ways I could get involved. I worked in community gardens, I was part of a community-based food security network, and I attended all sorts of educational and networking events. At the time, urban agriculture was emerging as an important aspect of food security, community-capacity building and health promotion. However, the urban agriculture programs in existence at the time, seemed to be contained to community gardens and school programs. Yet, there is so much potential growing space in Toronto, with a lot of it located on private property. Similarly, backyards are so often neglected or under-utilized; so I decided that we should be using that space to grow food! Once we’d realised the potential of residential backyards, we had to figure out how best to connect the food grown within the community, to the community members themselves. The CSA model has been extremely popular and successful with small-scale, organic farmers, and there were an increasing number of urban CSA’s popping up in cities like New York and Vancouver. So we decided to hop on the bandwagon and start the first urban CSA in Toronto!
What has been the key to Cultivate Toronto’s success and growth?
I think our success has been completely due to the people involved in CTO. I think food is re-becoming something that is really valuable to us, and the link between sustainable agriculture, local food, health, food security, and community building has become more and more apparent. For my own example, my grandparents lived through World War II and were forced to grow a lot of their own while, while my parents didn’t grow any of their own food because we didn’t have to! They were witness to the green revolution, and everything that came with it. However, now that the implications of urbanization, industrial farming, food processing and supermarket chains, etc, are being felt, I think a lot of people have this overwhelming need to reconnect with their communities and where their food comes from. We’ve been lucky to work with many of these people, who have lent their passion, hard work and belief in what we’re doing, to make CTO successful year after year.
What do you think is next for Cultivate Toronto? Where do you see CTO in the next five years years?
We’ve been continually expanding the number of yards we grow in each neighbourhood, as we’re barely scratching the surface of available land. I’d also like to see us expand to new neighbourhoods, especially priority neighbourhoods as determined by United Way. We’ve also got two rooftops under production at the moment, another abundant space for growing food in the city, so I’d like to see us expand that as well.
Can you share your best CTO memory?
There has been many! Groundbreaking is always fun. In early spring we get a huge group of volunteers to come out prepare new gardens for planting. It’s hard, physical work, the weather is often cold and/or rainy, and by the end, everyone is covered in mud, but there is just such a sense of comradery and accomplishment that comes from ripping up a sod lawn and preparing it for planting.
Another favorite, is watching interns plant seeds in the spring. They are usually super excited and full expectation. Then there is about of month of hard work tending to the gardens before the CSA starts, where it is easy to get lost in the repetitive chores that come with farming. Think endless watering and weeding, often on hot, muggy days, battling pests, with nothing (yet) to show for all your hard work. Then the first pick-up takes place, and there is a flurry of harvesting. They get to show participants the now bountiful gardens which they have been working so hard in. They also get to experience the remarkable sense of pride you get from feeding people food you have grown. The first couple of harvests are usually quite small, mainly consisting of greens, but as the season progress, so do the size of the harvests. It’s a slower sense of accomplishment, whereas breaking ground is quite immediate, but it’s that much more rewarding as a result!
What has been or is your hurdle working with a CSA?
Logistics! When you are growing vegetables in 14 backyards and 2 rooftops, spread over 4 neighborhoods in Canada’s largest city, you face different challenges then if you are growing in 2 consecutive acres. While there are a lot of benefits to growing in the city, like a longer growing season, pest and weed barriers, consistent and convenient water supply, access to a workforce, and proximity to market, etc, there are also a number of logistical challenges associated with running a backyard CSA program. For one thing, it takes a lot of time, organization and effort to move people, equipment, plants and produce from one yard to another, especially in neighbourhoods where our yards are more spread out. Similarly, we start our seeds in a commercial greenhouse outside the city, because we found it hard to find access to facilities here in Toronto. This means a lot of trips back and forth, planting the seeds in late winter/early spring, and transporting seedlings back to the gardens to harden off and transplant. And again, it’s not a matter of bringing all the seedlings back to the city in one go, to one location. Rather, each vegetable has its own start date, based on days to maturity (DTM), and transplant date based on frost tolerance. Then, all the transplants need to be divided and dropped off to multiple sites, in multiple neighborhoods. It’s a lot of planning and driving around!
Where do you think the urban community shared agriculture (CSA) is going now? Have you seen a change since you started to become involved in the urban agriculture industry?
There has been a huge increase of urban CSA’s in cities around the world, with approximately five operating in Toronto. A couple were actually started by previous Cultivate Toronto members, which is really quite exciting! I think it just makes sense, both as a business model and a community-building model. Economically, it supports farmers, in that it shares risk associated with farming, such as weather or crop failure, between the farmer and the consumer. It also allows farmers to retain more of the value of their crops, by cutting out the middle man. As far as building community goes, CSAs allow consumers to meet the people who grow their food, participate in that process, and interact with other community members.
Similarly, I think the CSA model has the potential to expand into areas outside of its tradition in farming. For example, I’ve done some work for Rebekka Hutton of Alchemy Pickle Co, who started her own fermenting business last year. While she sells her product at farmers’ markets and specialty food stores, she also runs a CSA, where participants receive a certain amount of fermented goods every week. It’s a win-win for both the consumer/community and the producer/organization.
That’s what Chris was saying too, there is much more shared community in different areas.
Yea definitely, you get to know the people behind the business or organization, and their values. You better appreciate the work and care that goes into the product, so you are willing to pay the true cost/value of it. You are connected to the organization in a way that is more than just a transaction.
You were recently in Nairobi, Kenya working with young entrepreneurs in urban agriculture based businesses. Can you share your experience and what you’ve learned?
Yes! I originally went with Chris on exchange in 2012, and then went back in December 2013 for five months. Food security is a major issue there, and so is youth unemployment, so it makes sense to get youth interested and involved in urban agriculture. I was part of a youth hub, made-up of young people who have, or are starting, urban agriculture-based businesses. It’s a totally different situation there. Access to loans is challenging, and grants are limited. Bank loans require collateral, such as property, which excludes the majority of Kenyans, especially those living in slums, or youth who face very high unemployment. As a result, finding the capital to start a business is a major barrier. However, an urban agriculture business can often be launched with low start-up costs.
Similarly, there is no government safety-net to soften the blow if things, for whatever reason, don’t work out. So if your business fails, and you’ve invested all your saving into it, there is no declaring bankruptcy for protection, no employment insurance, no social services, no welfare, no health care, it’s an extremely unforgiving situation.
Yet the youth I worked with were extremely optimistic, determined and proactive. They were all very passionate about food and farming. To combat restrictive loans and grants, they started their own micro-finance system. Every meeting, each youth contributed 100 shillings to the fund (approximately $1), 150 if they were late, and 200 if they couldn’t make-it. Once a significant amount had been saved, members of the group could apply for a loan, and if approved by the other members, repay it within a less restrictive time-frame and with a much lower interest rate then they would find elsewhere. There were also a number of farming-related training courses, and networking opportunities.
This question goes back to the previous on, what did you learn while you were there? What do you like best about engaging with young urban farmers in different countries?
The greatest thing I learned from the exchange is not to let circumstances hold you back from what you want to accomplish. A lot of the people I met lived or grew up in slums, or with very little resources. Yet they didn’t let lack of space, resources or finances limit them. Instead, they found innovative solutions to work around the barriers they faced. For example, one really inspiring response to growing food with limited space and money, were horizontal gardens or sack gardens. They were made from heavy duty plastic bags and a PVC pipe, with drainage holes punctured along the length and filled with gravel, placed in the center. You then fill the bag with soil, slice pockets along the side, and plant kale, Swiss chard (which they call spinach!) or whatever else, all over the sides, utilizing both the vertical and horizontal space. Even something so simple had the potential to supplement a family’s fresh food intake or income.
To follow up on that, what did you help them with?
It’s funny because when Chris and I first went over, we were like ‘oh, I’m going to teach them this farming technique’ and ‘I’m going to tell them how to make a reservoir container for the dry season’. But when we got there, some of the materials we have readily available or are inexpensive here, aren’t available there, or they are ridiculously expensive. In the end, I feel like the biggest thing I was able to give was a different perspective. For example, CTO, or the CSA model as its being employed here, may not be something that would work well there. But I think just hearing about such an alternative model, could lead to the model being altered and adjusted to fit that culture/community, or something new altogether. Similarly, because the Kenyan economy is starting to really take-off, there are a lot of opportunities in gaps in that development. As a result, I was able to provide insight and suggestions on potential niche markets.
Meanwhile, most of the people I was working with didn’t have access to computers, so they weren’t exposed to the huge resource that is the internet! English was sometimes a difficult language for some of the youth to express themselves in, and skills like marketing or sales were not taught or learnt through exposure. So yes, I helped the logistical or technical skills like setting-up websites, putting together marketing and promotional materials, sales strategies, etc.
Best advice for young entrepreneurs wanting to get start an agriculture-based business?
If you don’t have the farming skills, I would highly recommend that you volunteer or work on a farm, or better yet, sign-up to be a Cultivate Toronto intern!! It will save you a lot of time, money and wasted effort!! I went through a steep learning curve in our first couple years, and I’m still learning every day. Also, study your market and see if there is a niche or demand there. A CSA model might work for you, but there are also farmers markets’, specialty grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, etc, who may be interested in extremely locally grown produce! Do as much research and planning as possible, and talk to as many people as possible, before starting-up. Networking is a great way to find resources, learn from others mistakes, and potentially gain supporters/customers.
Chris is an entrepreneur with a passion for urban agriculture and local food issues. His passion inspired him to co-found Cultivate Toronto, manage Young Urban Farmers, and become involved as a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Despite his busy schedule, Chris was kind enough to share his experiences.
How would you describe Cultivate Toronto (CTO) to people who never heard of it?
I would say Cultivate Toronto is growing food for the community by the community and what that means is that we set up gardens, front yards, backyards, and rooftops. We have a great team of volunteers that manage the garden from seeding, watering, weeding to harvesting and getting the food to many of our great participants so if I had to describe Cultivate Toronto very briefly that’s what I would say.
A CSA is a niche market – what inspired you to co-found Cultivate Toronto?
I would say that as much as CSAs have been very niche and specialized they are becoming more mainstream and for me, I’ve got a really big passion for both locally grown food. When Cultivate Toronto was started we saw that there was an opportunity for people that wanted to learn how to garden, but didn’t know where to go. We saw people that had a backyard or a front yard garden space, but they didn’t have the time and sometimes even knowledge on how to take advantage of that space to grow food. We had people that wanted access to organically grown food without pesticides and chemicals and we used Cultivate Toronto as that organization, that vehicle, to bring everyone together around the idea of fresh locally grown food right in the neighbourhood.
Just to follow up on that, when did you passion for growing food start?
I would say that my passion for local food has really developed the more that I have learned about the issues and that has really been since about the year I stated Cultivate Toronto. Local food and gardening has always been a part of my life. I vividly remember having a backyard garden at my parents house when I was a kid growing up, going out picking up berries, tomatoes, and incorporating that in meals as well as seeing my grandmother’s garden. She grew all sorts of Chinese vegetables and whenever we went to visit for a standard period of time, the food that she grew in her backyard was the same food that we ate for dinner. So being connected to food since a very young age has really been one of the things that has really driven me to have that passion to be inspired around food issues.
How did you come up with the name Cultivate Toronto?
The name of Cultivate Toronto is a fun and interesting story that I don’t think I will get into much into right now, but we were previously called Young Urban Farmers CSA and that was a bit of a mouthful. It wasn’t quite the urban name that we had really envisioned, as the name embodying the organization, and it came down to sort of the level where we knew we wanted to change the name to something. We didn’t know what it was and almost at the very last minute, within the last hour of setting ourselves an ultimatum, I forget exactly who it was but the name Cultivate Toronto came out and we just knew right away that was it.
What has been the key to Cultivate Toronto’s success and growth?
Well, I would say that the biggest key to our success so far has been just the passionate team of volunteers that have stepped up to fill the myriad of needs that we have. When we started off we were very much figuring things out as we went along. We thought okay we should probably have a volunteer coordinator posted at one of the volunteer job boards. We had just an overwhelming number of people, much more than we had expected, apply and throughout our history we’ve had really dedicated and committed people who have stepped in and committed to serving the organization, sometimes in multiple roles and capacities. Some people for many years, almost since the beginning, and we have people that come and go. Some people just come for the internship program for example, but having that really dedicated volunteer base has been really fantastic and I would say one of the keys to our success.
Can you share your best CTO moment?
Actually going back to the name of Cultivate Toronto, I think that it really resonates to who we are as an organization. As we cultivate Toronto, we can do that both literally and figuratively. Literally cultivating gardens – front yards, backyards – we talked about food, but also cultivating skills, relationships, knowledge and people. Giving people the opportunity, to go back to the example of the internship program, people are able to see and work hands on gardens so that by the end of the season they have that confidence to be able to say okay I learned all of this, I can go on to do my own project or expand my own personal garden and we really cultivated those people, the skills and the knowledge from the organization. I really think it resonates in multiple ways.
I thought the word Cultivate stood out cause it’s such a good word to use. If you could share your favourite CTO moment that has stood out?
There are a couple of moments that come to mind. The first one was the first day that we broke ground, our first garden, and I believe it was up on the Lawrence neighbourhood, which is no longer in operation now, but literally putting shovels to the dirt, removing grass, preparing the land to be cultivated was something really exciting where I could say, “yep, this project is for real now, we’re getting the work done” so that was something that really stood out for me. One other really quick story that was really great and that will forever be remembered in the memories of Cultivate Toronto was the first time that Elaine (co-founder of CTO) was on a radio program CBC Radio Here and Now with Sarah Elton and she had this great quote that seeds are these tiny little miracles and she had this great sense of wonder and amazement at the process that a garden goes through from the initial planting of the seed all the way of course to the harvesting.
What’s next for Cultivate Toronto? Where do you see it in the next five-years?
To me there is a lot of potential for Cultivate Toronto and a lot of that I think should get much more clarified as we finish up a strategic planning session towards the end of the year. One of the things I would like to see Cultivate Toronto do and the direction we are moving towards is to have hubs and gardens in every neighbourhood in Toronto. I think that we’ve done pretty well so far, but it’s limited, the number of neighbourhoods and people we’ve been able to reach. I see that with more and more people wanting to know where their food comes from, who is growing it, being able to set up similar programs at every neighbourhood in the city would be just a dream come true for me.
What has been or is your biggest hurdle working with a CSA?
One of the biggest hurdles and I think many people in the farming, agriculture, and urban agriculture industry will mention is just finding enough time to get to all of the different projects. There are so many different hats and roles that need to get done, everything from the gardening work literally planting, the weeding, the harvesting, to other projects like focusing on composting or building garden structures or incorporating other beneficial plants. Then there is of course all the administrative side of things, filing taxes, and making sure our website is up and running, the bills are paid, the mailbox gets checked, and picking up the phone. There are lots of different things and finding the time to get everything done is definitely one of my biggest challenge.
Where do you think urban community shared agriculture (CSA) is going now? Have you seen a change in the last few years?
I would definitely say that I’ve seen a few changes in the last few years. I would say that moving forward we are going to see a lot more CSA programs and community shared other kinds of programs – meat delivery or egg delivery. There’s community shared sea food as well. There are people that, I don’t know if it’s still on going, cut flowers so if you want to have a weekly bouquet of flowers you can have something similar. There’s someone that maybe is growing all these flowers in the neighbourhood and you can sign up for a subscription service around things like that or around artisan food like baked foods and breads. So I see the community shared aspect expanding much more and becoming much more mainstream rather than just predominately around just agriculture and vegetables.
You are a member of the Toronto Youth Food Council. How did you get involved? What do you like best about engaging with young urban farmers?
Yes, actually I forgot to clarify that. I was a past member of the Toronto Youth Food Council and I haven’t been on there for the last two-years, but I am still a current member of the Toronto Food Policy Council or sometimes we call it the adult council as opposed to the youth council. And my involvement in the Toronto Food Policy Council has really been initiated with my involvement with the Toronto Youth Food Council. Of course there is the work that I do with Cultivate Toronto and Young Urban Farmers, but I got involved with it because as much as doing a lot of the work on the ground – getting your hands dirty, growing food, connecting with individuals on the flip side I believe that a lot of great change and momentum can be generated through food policy. Whether it’s institutional procurement, cafeterias, governments, hospitals- say we are going to buy x percentage of locally grown food that can make a huge impact – one simple policy change and so there is both approaches to looking an dealing with the issues. I believe that food policy can really make a difference in peoples lives in a different way that many of the underground work can do as well.
What do you like best about engaging with other young urban farmers around the city?
For me its been fantastic working with other people as well doing the work. There is such an enthusiasm, such a commitment to the work that is happening right now and the thing that I find really refreshing is that there’s a very collaborative spirit unlike other industries which are much more competitive and cut through and there’s more secrecy. I feel like for us in the urban agriculture industry, we’re very happy and willing to share our experiences, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, with other fellow practitioners.
Any advice you have for young entrepreneurs wanting to start an agriculture-based business?
I would say just do it. There are many untapped opportunities within urban agriculture. There isn’t so much in Toronto right now, but there is potential in urban chicken. There are people that are working with honey and keeping bees. I would say that there is definitely opportunities to grow mushrooms. There is of course vegetables, herbs, fruits that different people are already working on so I would say use that enthusiasm. Obviously put together your business plan, strategies, dot your i’s, do your research, but at the same time there is nothing like that can do spirit and attitude that I think has worked well for me in the past and I would say for other people as well.
Any last thing you want to share with Urban Farmers?
I would say that if there is one thing, just be really grateful for the opportunity that we have to grow and enjoy fresh, delicious produce here in Toronto. There’s nothing like the taste of something you grew yourself or you know where it’s grown and how it’s grown.