23. Starting an Urban Farm

Well, here it goes. I'm making an entrepreneurial leap, diving into work for myself in the food industry. Many of my friends have heard me say before that I “could never work in food,” usually in reference to an Applebee's or similar bar & grill type establishment. My aversion to this sort of work is for many reasons:

  • balancing heavy trays of food in front of drooling patrons seems like a pressurized situation

  • gratuity confuses me

  • people are picky about the way their food is prepared, and memory is a finite resource

  • restaurants often have hours that are unfriendly to employees

  • “the customer is always right” seems like a lofty standard to be held to

I could go on. The point is: I appreciate the people in my life who go to great lengths to conceptualize, prepare, transport and serve the meals I eat every day. And to those of you who do this sort of work on a daily (or hourly) basis for a living, you are doing God's work. Thank you from the pit of my stomach.

I'm just trying to put one foot in front of the other...

I've chosen to embark on this new career in food because I truly believe there is nothing more important than knowing where your food has come from. Those of us who are fortunate enough to afford it eat between two and four times per day, every single day of our lives. There are petty few activities that we take part in more regularly. The food we consume is the fuel that burns to complete literally every other task our body is to take on, including digestion. But our national diet has become lazy and mechanized. At the turn of the 20th century, the average American was a farmer on the side, and villages operated on the power of grow and barter. But today our food system runs on the power of fossil fuels, and less than 1% of Americans grows the food that feeds the rest of us (or it's shipped from overseas). And the warming of the globe, the rising of the sea, the expansion of the waistlines: these are all the prices we pay for that lazy, mechanized diet.

This past summer, my partner Chloe and I went on a WWOOFing (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms) sabbatical to and through British Columbia and back. For me, the main goal was to find a way that I could change my career immediately and break into organic farming. My formal education is in film production, and my most recent and consistent work experience is for a small business that sells African beads and antiquities online. I am still as passionate a story-teller as I was when I started film school years ago. I can't say I have ever been particularly passionate about sub-Saharan masks or trade beads, but I appreciate so much the geographic and ethnographic lessons Africa Direct has given me over the last five years. More importantly, I've been able to learn on the job the inner workings of the small business including basic accounting, marketing and e-commerce. They have given me the skills and the confidence to know that I can build and run my own operation, and all the while they were ever supportive of my freelance endeavors in commercial video.

Avalanche Lake, Glacier NP, Montana

So that's the spring-board I jumped from, and this summer I sought to find whether I could discover a way to start my own farming business. On the trip I attended every farmers market I could get my Jeep to and I took notes as fast as I could. I asked every question I could think of to Bryne as we planted, weeded, transplanted, watered, and picked together for three weeks. Every single question was answered with thoughtfulness and often witty humor. I'm still surprised he never got tired of me. But I saw in his little 11 acre Vancouver Island mixed market farm something so beautiful I had to peel back every layer of it. Just he and his wife, and a handful of seasonal volunteers with a highway farmstand and a weekly market table: it all just felt so attainable.

But I didn't inherit massive acreage, which is usually how Americans become farmers. The price of land was my single barrier to entry into organic farming. I hated the idea of starting a new business with a huge bank loan looming overhead. But my next farm host introduced me to the idea of SPIN farming, or Small Plot INtensive cultivation. Basically, there is a burgeoning sector of the farming industry that consists of ambitious farmers cultivating quick-to-market crops like microgreens, radishes and turnips on land that's rented from neighbors and friends. They work in city-close neighborhoods, encouraging their community to eat locally and educating anybody who will listen about what may be troubling their home gardens. This is a business strategy I feel like I can wrap my mind around, and a lifestyle that I think I can thrive in.

Team Clam in front of our beloved patch of carrots on Vancouver Island

At about the same time I was becoming aware of these small plot urban farm ideas, Chloe told me that her mother had made an offer to us that I should hear. Chloe's mum and stepdad, Steve, had moved to Roanoke, VA in March 2017. They sold their little home in Littleton, CO and got double the house and double the yard for half the money. They have a big fenced lawn and a full basement that walks out into what could soon be an attached greenhouse. For cheap rent, Chloe and I can make the basement home for a while. And I can turn the yard into a home base for my market gardening business. Downtown Roanoke has a year-round daily farmers' market, and I can supply local and regional farm-to-table style restaurants. The start-up cost for the business I envision is quite modest; attainable even with my minimal investment prospects. My homeowner clients will be paid in delicious veggies weekly through the growing season, so my overhead should be relatively affordable.

Garden Variety Harvests is the name I've decided on. I think it's pun-y, and represents the idea that I'd like to make eating vibrant, diverse versions of fruits and veggies more normal. Purple potatoes, strawberry spinach, and cranberry bush beans have fascinated me as a gardener from the very beginning, and I hope to bring some of this wonderful curiousity to my customers.

Chloe Johnson at Cameron Lake, BC

Chloe is supporting my hair-brained ideas by being willing to pay the rent and foot the bill for us in the first few months as the business gets its legs. Words can't express how vital her support has been through this whole process of mild mid-life crisis. The Canada Sabbatical started out as a request from her to do an international trip after her long-awaited graduation. I hijacked the whole thing, turned it into a camping and farming roadtrip, then turned that into a wholesale career change. But all the way she has bolstered me with her loving spirit, and she continues to pursue her own professional passions along this path we're pointing toward. Long term, we've theorized how our vocational interests could converge, with her enthusiasm for youth and non-profit endeavors. I truly believe in the therapeutic properties of hands-in-dirt, cultivative work. So I love the idea of spreading that kind of medicine into my community with workshops and internships. Our imaginations run wild with the collaborative opportunities our future may hold.

I think my aforementioned video production skills could come in quite handy going forward for GVH. I could see a video blog, YouTube channel, or podcast as possibilities in the future. I've always gravitated toward video for its ability to garner a sphere of influence. It can be an incredible tool for my little urban farm to introduce ourselves to our market, and to teach techniques to learning gardeners and permaculture enthusiasts all over the world. And I think our world needs more of what my business has to offer; that's evidenced by the steady increase in Americans gravitating toward slow food at home and in their favorite restaurants.

The trusty Jeep went to Vancouver Island and back, and now to Virginia

So I'm going to go to work trying to provide my friends and neighbors with delicious, nutritious produce in front and backyards throughout my new community, and I hope it can be well received. I don't know a whole lot about Virginia; I've only ever been there once. Colorado has been an amazing home for all of my 29 years here and I could list dozens of things I may miss about this place for a while. But I know that with time, I'll find a good number of reasons Roanoke works for me too. And all while I'm taking note of all those reasons, here's hoping the carrots and lettuce will be growing steadily along with my new business.