In March of 2012, I had the fortune of attending a workshop here in Calgary held by an individual named Curtis Stone. When I attended this I didn’t know that the ideas I would have would create such a story.
In 2012 I was searching for a job, or a career, or frankly an adventure. When a friend of mine, Chris, invited me to go to an urban farming workshop that he had heard about. I thought it would be a pretty good idea and we attended. At the workshop, we learned about urban farming, its history, and Curtiss own techniques and farming methods. He used a method called SPIN farming or, Small Plot Intensive – Meaning that you would use a small area of land to produce as high a yield crop as possible by rotating crops one after another with a small turn around time. He also discussed the various ways to make sure the soil wasn’t depleted.
After meeting with Curtis, several of us took a trip to see Curtiss farms in Kelowna, BC. We were very impressed with what he was accomplishing with such small plots of land and relatively minimal financial input. I myself was really attracted to the way that it created a useful space out of a previously underutilized area as well as how beautiful the spaces were.
When we came back to Calgary, we immediately started to work out the logistics of how we could start our own farm. I was fortunate enough to live right near downtown Calgary in a house adjacent to a vacant plot of land. Knowing that the owner was the same individual that owned the house I was living in, I called him up for a meeting.
We sat down for a coffee at a little cafe and I went over the basics of the plan and he gave the approval on the condition that we gained approval from the Cliff Bungalow-Mission Community Association. I didn’t know this at the time but he had some negative experiences with the community association. It turns out that he owned various properties throughout the Mission/Cliff Bungalow area and the Association had opposed some of his development plans.
Chris and I attended an association meeting and gave them our pitch for the garden. They were happy to see the land used for something so nice and did give us their approval, although only verbal. They did tell us that it wasn’t really necessary as they didn’t really get a say as to what landowners did with their land so long as it was legal but, I explained that the property owner wanted it and they understood as they knew who he was.
Chris and I came up with the name Urban City Farms and Chris commissioned a logo design for the company. The logo to this day is one of my favorite logos.
In April, we began to prep the land. This was a very difficult task as it had been untended to for 20 years with the exception of a monthly cut in the summer. To add to the difficulty, it turned out that the house that was on the land had burnt down and the stone foundation had been pushed in on itself and the area backfilled. This meant that the entire lot was covered with both small and large pieces of debris, mainly stones. With the acquisition of a walk behind rototiller, Chris and I made relatively quick work of tending to the soil. I should clarify that this wasn’t just Chris and me through the remediation process and that in fact, it was an effort put forth by many of our friends that would come down to help out.
We had caught the attention of lots of people as we were located only 2 blocks away from one of the most popular and trendy streets in Calgary for businesses and bars. One of the individuals who took notice was Evan Woolley, who later went on to become a City Councillor for Ward 8 – which included Mission/Cliff Bungalow. He helped get a small amount of funding for the community project – Somewhere in the $200 range and I still can’t recall if he gathered it from the community association or from the Arts branch of the City of Calgary where he worked.
With that money, we purchased some small plants for the gardens in the front of the lot which were meant specifically for beautification and not production. We filled them with flowers and lined the front walkway with some of the same. In addition to the plants up front, Evan had 4 large sheets of plywood that had been decorated for some function that the city had held and they weren’t of any particular use to them anymore and so they were donated to the lot. I very much liked these. They really encompassed what my vision for the lot was and made it much more of a community venture.
With the lot coming together at this point, we started planting all of our seeds. Carrots, radish, green onion, beets, beans, peas, lettuce mixes, kale and many other crops started to grow in rows in an east to west run. We had the perimeter of the lot lined off with farm posts and 4′ high chicken wire with an open entry at the front of the lot.
Because I lived right next door to the lot, my kitchen window faced directly into the yard. I often watched as people walked in and looked around. I don’t believe that there was any ever damage or theft from the garden in the whole time we were there. I do remember finding that people had started cutting through the garden to the rear alley as part of the wire fence started to be pulled down.
When the crops started to come in, we found that we were getting a fair amount of attention from various media. An online newspaper featured an article which has now been removed since they’re defunct. We were mentioned, along with a few other SPIN farmers from Calgary, in an article of City Palate written by Karen Anderson. You can see the whole Magazine here.
My favorite of all of the articles we had written about our garden was actually written by Evan Woolley and published on the cover of the Mission/Cliff Bungalow community letter named ‘The Mission Statement‘. You can read the whole issue here.
The harvest started pretty early in the year for many of the crops, all of the leafy greens, spinach, kale, arugula, mustard, dandelion, and a few others were all great to harvest around a month after first sowing the seeds. Later in the year, we harvest some of the larger produce, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, carrots, beets, and even one ear of corn.
We ended up giving away most of the produce to various locations. A small business selling local food took most of our harvest while some made it onto the menu at Brava Bistro, an upscale restaurant on 17th ave. We did take part in the Blackfoot farmers market for one weekend and while it was mildly successful, it didn’t warrant going back again.
Evan Woolley invited us down to participate in the Calgary Eats food festival at Olympic Plaza to sell the remainder of our produce. That was a pretty neat event as it was all about local businesses, local food producers and bringing the community together around Local food.
In the end, we made no profit and likely lost a bit of money on the project. But, if I’m honest, it wasn’t about the money. It was about building something and changing perception. We took a piece of vacant land and turned it into something that an entire community could enjoy.
If you ever have the chance to take on projects like this, or something out of the ordinary, something that tells a story about who you are and what you’re about; take the leap and try it. It projects like this that are the most rewarding in your life.
As for the land, it has reverted back to its natural state. I visit it a few times a year when I’m in the area to reminice and see what kind of condition it’s in and sometimes, I find some mustard greens poking through the grasses. I do miss the garden and the community interaction that it provided and I very much hope I get to experience something like that again.