FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Farm school grads give agriculture a SPIN
By Arlene Kroeker – Richmond Review
Published: May 19, 2011 10:00 AM
Updated: May 19, 2011 10:30 AM
Meet Charles Wilson. He graduated from farm school in December, 2010. What is he doing now? Farming in Richmond.
Which might seem impossible for a new farmer, given the cost of land. However, Richmond, recognized as a leader in farmland protection and urban farming research, is making it possible for new farmers like Charles to grow food.
The City of Richmond and Kwantlen Polytechnic University joined together with the Richmond Food Security Society and the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project and started the Richmond Farm School. The first class began in 2009, a one-year, non-degree program that trains students in a small-scale sustainable agriculture.
Charles lives in central Richmond, his house backs on to a park, his backyard a quilt with patches of garden beds. He has a business partner, a fellow grad Anna Rollings, and together they farm under the name of Natural Urban Growers. Together they farm half an acre of leased land in South Richmond, land owned by the City of Richmond.
When Charles retired from the workforce a few years ago, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. Farming wasn’t even an idea until 2008 when he read an article in the Vancouver Sun about the impending farm school. Then he realized that his first ambition at the age of seven, when he visited a farm, was to be a farmer. During his teen years, he had a garden, but that ended when his family moved to the city. He took up cooking, attended farmers markets, but he’d never heard of urban farming.
Acreage. That’s what Charles thought farmers needed. He found out that’s not true. The Farm School, with eight students the first year, was a comprehensive study of farming that took place half the time in the class and half in the field at Terra Nova or the orchard on Dyke Road in South Richmond.
Charles and his fellow students studied fruit crop management, including grafting, with Kent Mullinix (who is also the director of the Farm School). They studied all the steps in the food chain: soil management, plant science, animal husbandry (goats and birds), farm infrastructure, farm management (with Arzeena Hamir), beekeeping (with Brian Campbell), how to drive a tractor (a Kubota dealership donates a tractor for use during the season), sales and marketing (with Chris Bodner).
They learned how to do intensive farming on small plots—SPIN, which stands for Small Plot INtensive. And at the end of it all, Charles realized that there were many options open to farmers, and he and Anna decided to SPIN farm. For first generation farmers, SPIN farming removes two barriers—land and capital.
Using both the half acre and 800 square feet of Charles’ back yard, the new farmers operate a Community Supported Agriculture program. They sold shares to family and friends, giving them operational funds and time to plan for the season. Shareholders will receive a weekly box of produce throughout the growing season. Charles and Anna also sell at the Steveston farmers market.
These professional food gardeners grow tomatoes (not necessarily heirloom), gai lan, bok choy, beets, kale, cabbage, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, lettuce, herbs, grapes, as well as flowers – hollyhock, zinnias, columbine, sunflowers. They practice organic gardening.
Since their partnership began, just before graduation, Charles and Anna spent the winter doing soils tests and mulching (when weather permitted). They planned the layout, calculated the amount of seed required, marketed the program, started in the greenhouse in March (to deliver first order in mid-June), set up their own bee hive, and tended to all the administrative and practical aspects of owning a business.
For Charles, the father of three grown children, it is a luxury to be able to do what he wants to do at this time of his life. With farming, there’s always a new way of doing things—it’s ongoing learning. Before the class began, Charles had no idea about SPIN, or that farming could be accomplished at what seems like a small scale. And now, he’s growing potatoes in leaves and burlap sacks to jump start the process. It’s all about improvisation and problem solving, but for Charles finding solutions is highly fulfilling. Feeding friends and family has some satisfaction as well.
Arlene Kroeker writes about food every Thursday in The Richmond Review. She may be reached at email@example.com.