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.