A grower ventures into farming through the backyards of the big city

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Reclaim Organics is a farm with an unusual trajectory – it has moved many times and existed both in town and in the countryside.

Owner Ryan Mason grew up on a broiler chicken and grain farm near Pigeon Lake, but farming wasn’t his career focus when he headed off to college.

“I had no intention of going back to farming,” he said.

But his studies in community and global development rekindled his interest in agriculture, and he started talking to classmate Cathryn Sprague, who had the same ambition to grow food.

“She and I started the farm while we were doing our masters (degree) to kind of pilot why we wanted to make it a way of life,” Mason said. “We both had an interest in food production. We were trying to find accessible ways to do this in the environment we were in (Edmonton), so we focused on the SPIN model, which stands for Small Plot INtensive.

As the name suggests, this model (which started in Canada decades ago) aims to generate a good income by growing high-value crops on small plots of land, usually in backyard plots.

“Most farmers don’t look at a piece of land and think about what they can get out of a square foot. It’s about how much they can squeeze out of an acre,” he said.

In 2014, Mason and Sprague found about 10 back (and front) yards to farm along with three vacant lots, and operated what was then called Reclaim Urban Farm for four seasons in Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue neighborhood.

Having a farm with multiple urban locations had its advantages.

“If you have hail, you were never picked up because you were scattered,” Mason said. “You had a little microclimate wherever you were – the sun changed depending on where you were. Then you had different wind patterns where the buildings were taller or shorter.

The operation began by growing green leafy seedlings, which were profitable as they could get three or four crops per season, as well as scallions, baby carrots and beets, as well as herbs such as cilantro. and dill. The duo sold their vegetables at the downtown Edmonton Farmers’ Market and a few restaurants. During those years, the farm moved four or five times and continued to expand, including into Mason’s basement, where he grew microgreens.

Staff member Melissa Peter at the Reclaim Organics booth at a farmers market in Edmonton in the pre-COVID era.

Photo:
Recover organic materials

In 2017, Sprague decided to leave the company and Mason started thinking about returning to Pigeon Lake. Family and lifestyle considerations were the main reasons, but farming in an urban area was also difficult – there was opposition to practices such as composting and circle houses, as well as the need to many permits to operate.

So in 2018, Mason returned to the family farm, a 45-minute drive southwest of town. The microgreens operation (which had by then expanded to a warehouse) was moved to a former chicken coop and grain land was prepared for market gardening.

“One of our main problems was access to water and irrigation,” he said. “We had water that we thought would work (but) it was under capacity. Intensification of irrigation was a problem.

And the bounty of so much land led Mason down the proverbial garden path that first year.

“We went from one acre in the city to six acres here – we quickly realized that was unmanageable for rapid scaling, given the equipment we had,” he said. declared. “The weed management was amazing. The transformation of conventional cereal land in one year into vegetable crops has blown us away in the face of weed pressure. »

But it was forward and up. A canoe solved the water supply problem and the number of acres increased to 12. And with the harvest running from mid-May to the end of October, the payroll also increased (to two full-time employees , two part-time and four more in spring and summer).

Restaurants are the farm’s main source of sales, but since the pandemic began, Reclaim Organics has increased sales at grocery stores and also sells at farmers’ markets and customers can purchase a weekly box of vegetables for the season. The farm produces 25 to 30 varieties of microgreens, around 100 vegetable crops, cut flowers and a few value-added products, such as condiments.

And while Mason is happy on his rural farm, he said he misses the city too.

“In an urban setting, you have people around you all the time, seeing what you’re doing, asking you questions, so it’s really about changing the landscape around you,” he said. “I really miss the idea of ​​growing food in the community.”

And the SPIN model — intensively growing high-value crops on small plots — is a path others can follow, he said.

“In urban farming, you can find small plots of land and grow food and sell it,” Mason said.

But it is a model that can also be transplanted.

“When people consider starting a farm outside of town, they think of buying the land, which can be a huge economic barrier to starting a farm.”

But there is also the possibility of making an agreement with a farmer on a long-term lease for an acre or two.

“You can take the urban model and bring it to rural areas,” he said.

About Keneth T. Graves

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