Saskatchewan niche market grows

It was first thing on a Wednesday morning in July and Wally Satzewich was busy and mobile.

In about an hour, the market gardener had moved from his Saskatoon home to the city’s farmers’ market where he unloaded his produce before moving to a 10,000-square-foot garden outside of the city to spend a few hours weeding and hoeing.

In a few hours, he’d return to the city, pack up at the farmers’ market and return home to prepare vegetables for when business picks up on the weekend.

“I like to maintain a pretty tight schedule in terms of doing the same things every week,” said Satzewich, operator of Wally’s Urban Market Garden and a 20 year fixture at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

“Get into a routine. That way you know what to expect.”

Satzewich started his market garden in the early 1990s, living in rural Saskatchewan and farming vegetables on a quarter section of land near the riverbank outside Hague, Sask.

“It slowly dawned on us, this isn’t working,” said Satzewich. “There’s too many hassles here.”

His business today looks a lot different. At his old site, irrigation and wildlife were problems and it was difficult to find labour, which was the impetus for his return to the city.

Now he lives a short drive away from where he sells his produce, his garage houses a prep station and a large cooler and he manages a network of residential garden plots, brokering deals with homeowners and commonly paying rent with produce as well as two larger sites just outside of the city.

His wife, Gail, helps to manage another network of gardens in Pleasantdale, Sask.

All tolled, Satzewich’s untraditional farm totals about an acre.

“I’m a city slicker. Born in the city. Not necessarily wanting to live out in the country,” he said. “Yet I still have farming as a possibility even though I live in the city.”

Satzewich will maintain his busy schedule from spring through fall, growing a variety of organic vegetables for market and salad greens geared toward restaurants, which he said accounts for about 30 percent of his business.

Some of what he’s growing, such as sunflower greens, sets him apart from other market gardeners.

“Nobody else is doing that. There’s a lot of things that I do, and operations like this can do, that large operations just don’t have the time for,” he said.

“If you’ve got 10 acres in vegetables, you don’t have time for weekly plantings of pea greens for example.”

There are other advantages to his small operation. He saves on input and machinery costs. His irrigation is a garden hose.

He’s also able to do most of the work himself, although on this day, his mother would help at the farmers’ market while he and an intern worked in the garden.

“I don’t have all my farming activities tied up with one land base like a lot of other farmers. They’re kind of held hostage to whatever circumstances they have,” said Satzewich.

Over the winter months, Satzewich conducts workshops for other small-scale farmers. His lessons in downsizing his operation are documented in a series of manuals marketed under the banner of SPIN Farming.

“Forget about the idealism. Let’s just get to the practicality and see that this can work as a business model. This is a very pragmatic approach,” said Satzewich.

“It’s not necessarily geared towards glorifying urban agriculture, which I’m all into, but it’s more about the pragmatics about getting a small business going in an urban environment.”

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