Warehouse rooftop supports urban agriculture

Warehouse rooftop supports urban agriculture

Baker, Lauren

Toronto nonprofit nurtures and eventually takes over reins of small business that grows produce on the roof of its warehouse.

WHEN I first climbed the ladder and squeezed through the window onto a rooftop in Toronto, the potential for urban agriculture became clear. A small garden abundantly producing tomatoes was an oasis amid the surrounding desert of flat roofs and vacant lots. A warehouse located in a derelict area of the city has proven to be fertile ground for experimenting with the idea of urban agriculture and how to make it part of a sustainable food system. Three years after my first visit to the roof of Field to Table, a warehouse run by the nonprofit group FoodShare Toronto, urban agriculture has become my livelihood.

Annex Organics was founded in 1996 by Jonathan Woods, an entrepreneur interested in simple and accessible agricultural technologies. He was soon joined by Tracey Loverock and myself. We met through Field to Table – Woods was working at the warehouse, Loverock was working parttime for Annex Organics, and I had a short contract with FoodShare’s community gardening program. We came from different backgrounds, but had complementary skills and a common vision about the potential for urban agriculture.

With almost no investment other than our labor, we began experimenting with a wide range of food production activities. The Toronto market was ready for interesting vegetables, and we felt we could fill the niche by growing organic, atypical varieties. We already had contacts with local chefs and health food stores who were interested in our product. Small samples of vegetables such as sunflower seedling sprouts, zapotec pink tomatoes, cape gooseberries and turkish orange eggplants were snapped up by eager buyers. It was clear that marketing was not going to be our challenge.

Initially, we were convinced that we would be able to make a living growing food in the city. Although we quickly began selling small amounts, production volumes could not support salaries for three people. FoodShare understood our dilemma and supported our experimentation. Our work fit the group’s mandate, and we started offering workshops to the public on behalf of the organization. Eventually, half of our income came from growing food and the rest came from providing educational and community development services for FoodShare.

As the relationship between Annex Organics and FoodShare evolved, the seeds of an urban agriculture program within the nonprofit group were planted. The story of our experience involves interesting experimentation, building fruitful relationships and marketing a unique idea.

INNOVATIVE FOOD SECURITY

FoodShare Toronto has over 13 years of experience in developing and delivering innovative food security projects at the community level. FoodShare’s mandate is to increase access to affordable, nutritious food. It does this by working in the related areas of agriculture, health and income, which intersect in the issue of food security. The largest project is Field to Table, a hybrid nonprofit/business model operating out of a warehouse in downtown Toronto. Since its launch in 1994, Field to Table has grown from distributing 40 Good Food Boxes of fresh produce to over 4,000/month. Other Field To Table projects include Focus on Food, a community service program for youth, and the Field to Table Catering Company.

FoodShare also has a community gardening initiative run in partnership with Toronto Parks and Recreation that has helped start over 30 community gardens in just three years. A community-based research project called Seeds of Our City connects the Urban Agriculture Program with FoodShare’s longstanding Community Gardening Program.

Toronto has over 80 community gardens across the city and a strong network of gardeners. Seeds of Our City is working with gardeners at eight sites to document the food they produce, their techniques and plants, and the process that established the gardens. The gardens are situated in immigrant communities, and the project is linking the city’s cultural diversity to the biodiversity represented by the variety of plants grown. The purpose for the research is to provide information about the food that immigrant communities are eating and whether some could be grown and profitably marketed by local farmers.

In the basement of the Field To Table warehouse is a large industrial kitchen that houses the catering company, hosts training for community cooking and nutrition classes, and serves as the Toronto Kitchen Incubator. There are 11 businesses renting space in the kitchen, ranging from a spanikopita maker, to cookie bakers, to a specialist in healthy vegetarian entrees. Other FoodShare projects include a community kitchen resource network, a student nutrition project, a baby nutrition program, and a seniors food and health initiative.

BUSINESS TRANSITION

FoodShare nurtured Annex Organics by providing a market for the products grown on the site, a space to incubate, and financial support through a variety of consulting contracts. The partnership was mutually beneficial. My business partners and I started up Annex Organics with minimal capital investment and free space for growing produce. In turn, we composted FoodShare’s food scraps (one ton each week), using the finished product to fertilize our crops. FoodShare and its extensive community network also provided us with workshop and youth training contracts. In return, the Field to Table warehouse became a greener space and a model urban agriculture project.

When Woods and Loverock decided to leave Annex Organics, we had to make a decision about its future. One choice was to leave the FoodShare nest and find new space to develop the business. This would have meant dramatically expanding the sprouting operation and giving up the other activities. Because we felt so passionately about our work with FoodShare, we decided to formally make Annex part of its umbrella of activities. My job shifted from business entrepreneur to coordinator of the new Urban Agriculture Program at Field to Table.

MICROENTERPRISES

The small businesses developed by Annex Organics, as well as several new initiatives, form the core of the Urban Agriculture Program. These microenterprises are based on several principles: starting small; slow, but steady growth; sustainable, accessible technologies; and low start-up costs. The emphasis for workers is on transferable skills that would be useful in other work environments. Closed cycle resource use is encouraged – wastes are transformed into resources. The focus is on building relationships and partnerships with people and community groups. The idea is to build regional self-reliance, a sustainable local food system, and food security.

One of these microenterprises is an operation that produces over 1,000 bags of sprouts each week. A low-tech system constructed from pallets and food grade buckets produces alfalfa sprouts, a spicy lentil and clover mix, and a crunchy legume mix. These sprouts are rinsed with water twice a day, and are ready to harvest after a week. The materials used to construct the system were scavenged at night from dimly lit back alleys. More than a few times we had to explain to questioning strangers (and police) what we were looking for.

Sunflower, pea and radish seedling sprouts are grown on a thin layer of soil, requiring only ambient light to become green. These certified organic products are sold to home delivery businesses, local retailers and health food stores. Sprouts are an easy way to eat local food in winter climates. The sprouting business generates the most income of all FoodShare projects (approximately $35,000/year).

Another venture is a rooftop greenhouse that produces greens and herbs in the winter, seedlings in the spring and vegetables in the summer. The greenhouse is located on the southern side of the building on the lower level roof of the warehouse. Windows that open into the main warehouse space allow for heat and air exchange between the warehouse and greenhouse. Throughout the winter, we grow greens and herbs for Field to Table’s Good Food Box. In the spring, we grow heritage and rare vegetable seedlings and medicinal and culinary herbs to sell to home gardeners and for community gardens. In the summer, intense heat in the greenhouse is perfect for melons, eggplant and peppers. The rooftop greenhouse is on one level of the Field to Table roof and we have a rooftop garden on the other level. Annex also has a kitchen garden around the warehouse and a space for production of oyster mushrooms in the near future.

We have been experimenting with rooftop gardens for several years using a hybrid hydroponic system. Nutrients are fed to the plants through water, but the plants are potted in soil. The system involves a shallow trough in which pots are placed. The plants take up water and organic nutrient solutions from the trough. We choose plants that love the heat and thrive in the hot rooftop conditions. The roof garden is still in an experimental stage. Although we have successfully harvested produce from the system, there is little information on organic nutrient solutions. We are researching and testing a variety of solutions made with compost tea, kelp, fish emulsion, molasses and minerals. In our “back 40,” outside the doors of the warehouse, we are constantly experimenting with fragrant brews. Our solutions are notorious for stinking up the warehouse on a hot, humid summer day.

ROOFTOP POTENTIAL

Rooftop agriculture has great potential. There are acres and acres of empty, flat roofs in urban areas. There are barriers to using the space, however. Access to roofs is difficult. Even after convincing a property owner to allow use of the roof, it is hard work to haul construction materials, soil and plants up and down. Another barrier is structural limitations. For example, roofs in my area are built to withstand a snow load of approximately 30 pounds per square foot. Our system has to weigh less than this to not damage the roof surface. Soil and water are heavy, making system design quite challenging. The hybrid hydroponic system reduces the amount of both soil and water necessary at one time.

Growing food in the city makes great sense. Transportation is reduced from the farmer’s field to the consumer’s table. This has huge environmental benefits, and eliminates the need to import produce from far away. City farmers also are close to their customer base, enabling them to respond to market demands and understand niche opportunities.

People respond negatively to urban agriculture in several ways. Some think that cities are too polluted to grow food. This perpetuates the myth that rural areas are pure and pristine, and urban areas are dirty and polluted. Many rural areas are experiencing contaminated groundwater problems due to over-fertilization and pesticide use. People also think that urban agriculture threatens rural agricultural production. In fact, the two can go hand in hand. Rural agriculture always will be needed to feed our cities. By growing food in the city, however, entrepreneurs and community groups can generate income by responding to emerging niche markets. Urban agriculture also connects city residents with food production and fosters a greater understanding of agriculture.

It has been challenging to couple production goals with research and community development objectives because to some extent, they can conflict. For example, it can be difficult to illustrate the economic viability of microenterprises when you are not operating within the framework of conventional business values. The lessons we learn through our microenterprises and the information we collect through our research is shared with an international network of people interested in urban agriculture, sustainable food systems and community development. We hope to develop models that others can use in their own community contexts to start small businesses and encourage growing food in the city.

Copyright J.G. Press Inc. Mar/Apr 2000

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