Interview with Chris Wong, Co-Founder of Cultivate Toronto


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.