Chain Reaction Urban Farm
A small urban farm delivers fresh produce to your door by bicycle.
Jared Regier and his wife, Rachel, used to be environmental educators. This year they’re taking their passion for sustainability into the field and getting their hands dirty by starting their own small farm. Are they leaving the city for rural pastures? Not at all. In fact, they are using backyard lots that have been disused and neglected to grow fresh produce right in the city, where they will deliver it to the doorsteps of their neighborhood customers by bicycle.Using borrowed backyards located in the city of Saskatoon on the South Saskatchewan River, the couple has brought dormant gardens back to life. Freshly picked produce from this loaned land will soon be delivered to the doorsteps of city dwellers who have purchased shares in their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program called Chain Reaction Urban Farm. The CSA sold out this year, its first season in operation. In an interview with Ethical Foods, Jared speaks candidly about the special challenges of growing in the city, his path to profitability and why urban farming may be the best way for new farmers to get started.
Why did you decide to distribute locally grown organic produce via bicycle? What significance does pedal power have for you?“One of the reasons we are starting this business is to help build a sustainable local community and this priority has impacted every decision we make on the farm. When we needed to make a decision about transportation, the bicycle was the most sustainable choice. A bicycle equipped with a trailer is quite capable of meeting our transportation needs within the city. It will not always feel like the easy choice, but it is the right choice. Pedal power for us is the exclamation mark reinforcing our sustainable farming practice.”
How do you decide which crops to offer customers belonging to your Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program? How do you decide what to plant?“The first factor that affected our crop selection was popularity. We chose to grow crops commonly used in North America so people will recognize them easily and know how to use them in their kitchen. We knew from speaking to some CSA members of other farms that not everyone is excited to receive odd crops like kohlrabi [a form of cabbage], but most people can figure out what to do with a fresh heirloom tomato. “The second factor we had to take into consideration was profitability. The production of some crops like corn and potatoes can be mechanized on a large scale and transported great distances without serious damage. It does not make sense for us to try to compete with this market because we have very limited space to work with in the city. To make urban farming viable, we need to focus our attention on crops like salad greens and heirloom tomatoes that are difficult to transport and are best enjoyed fresh from the field. This will allow us to produce the most value per square foot from our small land base.”
Tell us about your farm. What kinds of spaces are you using? Is it a challenge to find space to farm in urban environments?“We are currently using 4 separate plots on our farm for a total area of about 8,000 square feet. These are all extra-large backyard garden sites that were used by master gardeners in their former years but have since gone to weeds from neglect. It feels good to restore these plots of land to their former glory and the homeowners are also happy to see their spaces put to good use. Once we secured one plot and started to share what we were doing, more offers of land started to come in. The challenge will not be to find land, but to concentrate our land in certain areas of the city so we can operate efficiently.”
Are you certified organic?“No. We have no intentions of becoming certified. The organic label has been so misconstrued already by products in the grocery store that it is no longer meaningful. We use untreated seeds and organic farming methods and have personal relationships with all of our customers. The trust we build with these direct relationships is worth more than any certification we could obtain.”
Your 2015 CSA subscriptions are sold out. How do you find your customers? Are you planning any expansion of growing space?“We were delighted to sell all of our memberships this year. It is clear there is a demand for sustainable and locally grown food. We found our customers with a combination of social media and word of mouth. When you share your passion with the world and have something valuable to share, the people who are interested in what you have to offer just come to you. While it was hard to limit our membership this year, we wanted to intentionally start small to make sure we can handle the learning curve of our first year and keep the quality of our produce high. We definitely want to expand our membership next year.”
What particular challenges do you face farming in the city? What are some unique opportunities of urban farming?“The biggest challenge of farming in the city is the separation and nonpermanence of our farmland. Our plots are kilometers apart and our agreements to use the land are short term. As a result, I feel like we will continually need to adjust our planting strategies and routines to make the most efficient use of our time and space. “However, the benefits of farming in the city seem to greatly outweigh these challenges. The urban microclimate, or local climate, offers consistently warmer temperatures, clean water is available for irrigation at each plot, and our customers are all around us. Some farmers spend hours on the road each week getting their produce to market. We can avoid this cost of time and transportation along with the cost of land by locating our farm within the city. We have been able to barter fresh produce or yard maintenance services in exchange for the use of our plots.”
How long will it take you to become profitable? Is urban farming a viable career for beginning farmers?“An urban farmer can be profitable in their first year if they choose the simplest technology needed to make their operation functional. Since there is no need to buy land or expensive farm machinery, they can often even start debt free. For this reason, I think urban farming is a great way for people to begin a farming career. A young farmer can get a taste for production, marketing, and management without the risk associated with purchasing a larger farm operation. “We chose to invest some extra time and money upfront in building a walk-in cooler, indoor seed starting shelves, drip irrigation systems, and a nice bike trailer. We also acquired a few expensive pieces of farm equipment that we know we will use for many years to come. Our earnings this summer will barely cover these initial costs, but next year, we can expand our production with all of this same equipment and be much more profitable. We are intentionally starting small this year and consider this our year of farm education.”
What does sustainable farming mean to you? How do you incorporate your values into your business?“A truly sustainable farm must be able to maintain its function environmentally, socially, and economically without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Environmentally, this requires us to enrich our land as we use it and to carefully consider all of the indirect impacts of our farm practices in relation to the packaging we use and the infrastructure we build. Socially, we must ensure that operating the farm does not jeopardize our own wellness or the wellness of others impacted by our operation. Economically, we need to continually earn a living wage and make sure the farm is profitable. If the farm is unsustainable in any one of these areas, it won’t have staying power. We don’t have all of the answers yet, but when faced with a choice like using a bike or a truck for example, there is already a clear solution. The bike wins hands down. It’s environmentally friendly, it improves our health, and it saves us money.”
What do you find most satisfying about your work?“The most satisfying part of our work is the autonomy. We are responsible for everything on our farm from web design to pulling weeds. The variety of tasks keeps the work interesting and challenges our brains and bodies. Since we have a hand in everything, we can make sure that every decision aligns with our values. “The second most satisfying part of our work is that we get to impact the quality of life in our community so positively. We are reclaiming unused land and helping people improve their own health by providing them with nutritious food. One of the farmers I respect most claims that he is in the business of ‘growing body parts.’ This thought made me chuckle at first, but in food markets increasingly void of nutritional value, it is apparent that the responsibility of growing body parts lies more and more with the small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners who take the time to nourish the soil and grow nutritionally dense food. “The third most satisfying part of our work is that we get to build and nurture relationships. I wouldn’t get much satisfaction from dropping off a load of carrots at a warehouse, but delivering a selection of fresh vegetables to a young family is a different story. Our motivation to keep our standards high comes from the fact that we know our farm members. It is rewarding for us to be able to enrich their lives with great food and give them support and encouragement in making healthy lifestyle choices.”
Why should people consider membership in a CSA program? What are the benefits over, say, shopping at the grocery store or going to the farmers market?
“Every farm is different so I can’t speak for all CSA programs. The benefits that stand out for our farm members are the convenience and quality we can offer. We deliver our weekly shares right to the doors of our members and this direct relationship allows us to minimize the time between harvest and delivery. There is some quality produce available at our local farmers market, but it is only open on certain days and it takes time to make the trip. Our members can experience the benefits of having a productive garden in their backyard, but not do any of the work. How great is that! To top it off, they can enjoy the peace of mind that they have invested in a local business and a sustainable farm practice.”