They are unlikely farmers, sure. But armed with a vision of making a social and sustainable impact in London, a lawyer, writer, business instructor and social service worker are rolling up their sleeves and making it work.
Urban Roots, co-founded by Heather and Graham Bracken, Richie Bloomfield and Jeremy Horrell, launched last year as a not-for-profit organic urban farm, located near the Highbury Avenue and Hamilton Road intersection in the southeast part of the city.
“A lot of people assume we are another community garden – which we love – but we aren’t renting out plots for individuals to grow food. We are trying to organize more intentional production on a larger scale in order to supply various charitable organizations and restaurants in the city,” said Bloomfield, a 2014 dual-degree graduate of Huron University College and Ivey Business School, who now teaches business at the affiliate.
Inspired by similar farm projects in Detroit, the Urban Roots team set out on a mission to recreate a sustainable urban farm model in London.
“We started meeting at coffee shops a year ago, kind of just dreaming and postulating how we might get land and use vacant space in the city for food production and what that might mean,” Bloomfield said.
In six months’ time, they acquired the three-acre property near Highbury and Hamilton, signed a land-use agreement, performed soil tests and started planting. Bloomfield and the team started small, first tilling and growing whatever produce possible in a small portion of the lot. It was a trial run, he said, to prove they could grow food in a vacant space.
“Last year, our model hadn’t been created yet; it was a bit of donate when we can and sell when we can. It ended up being roughly 50/50. We only harvested about 1,000 pounds of food,” Bloomfield noted.
“But this year, we are aiming to do a three-tier model – one third is sold at premium wholesale rates to vendors and restaurants in the city – and there’s probably five to eight restaurants who have tentatively signed on to agreements with us. The second tier is affordable food – sell at a discounted rate to a social enterprise like Edgar and Joe’s or Youth Opportunities Unlimited. They have funds and they are doing good and we want to partner with them,” he continued.
“And the third tier – with an equal third for each tier – is pure donation. Our plan this year is to work with Life*Spin and Crouch (Neighbourhood Resource Centre), an organization near where we are located that gives out a food box once a month. We would like to provide free vegetables to them.”
Urban Roots is expanding to grow more, using four times the amount of land for farming this year and planning a successive rotation. A lot of land can be used to grow as many as four crops in the same growing season, Bloomfield explained.
“We want to prove the model works and it’s important to us – that we can pay operating costs through vegetable sales. A lot of urban agriculture projects in the past have done amazing things, but have struggled to stay afloat, once city funding dried up. We are raising funds independently from various donors, various initiatives and we are actively applying for grants for capital finding. But ideally, the daily cost could be covered with selling what we produce,” he explained.
Aside from addressing food security and sustainability, the group hopes to see this as a model that can be duplicated in other parts of the city and beyond. There is a need for fresh, organic food in the community, Bloomfield added, and growing it and sharing it within the community you live in is the idea.
Urban Roots is hosting a meeting for interested volunteers Mar. 8. For details visit the group’s Facebook page.