Company turns Vancouver yards into gardens

Two women convince big city home owners to allow their front and back yards to be converted to vegetable production

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Once upon a time, many city folk had a backyard garden.

These days landscaping has replaced the vegetables but two Vancouver women are bringing back an old tradition.

Madelaine Clerk and Elana Evans own and operate City Beet Farm, where they convert Vancouver back and front yards into garden space, growing a variety of vegetables sold through the community-shared agriculture (CSA) program and pop-up markets.

Two other women started the project in 2013. They began by going door-to-door and asking homeowners if they might be interested in letting them plow up their yards and plant gardens. A few agreed and they built up a small CSA business.

When those women were ready to move on, Evans and Clerk bought it and started working in 2017. Originally from Toronto, they met working as tree planters in northern Alberta. Both were looking for career opportunities and farming appealed to them.

Clerk is a financial planner and Evans is a soil scientist who studied sustainable agriculture at the University of British Columbia farm.

They have built up the business to about half an acre of plots scattered throughout the Mount Pleasant district of Vancouver. Most recently they acquired 1,000 sq. feet in another community.

They want yards with full sun exposure and they do all the work from turning over the sod to clean up in the fall.

“There are people who do it because they don’t want to cut their grass so this is a free landscaping service for them,” said Evans.

Others are generous people who want to see the yard used for a better purpose or want their children to see a garden grow.

The women bring in organic compost from Abbotsford but they do not usually bring in new soil to amend the glacier silty loam found in the area.

“It doesn’t feel intuitive that they can use the native soil. We are really lucky where we are growing,” Clerk said.

In their three growing seasons, they have witnessed a transformation in soil health.

Clerk had little experience as a professional gardener and in the winter she works as a financial analyst. Her financial skills are an asset.

This year with 82 CSA clients and more requests from homeowners to donate their land, she feels the business is in a good place.

“This year has been fun for me because we have grown quite a bit. It feels like we are at a point where my skills are becoming helpful,” she said.

The business side is her forté but she likes digging in the soil and has relied on Evans to teach her about soil and crop planning.

They have also formed good relationships with homeowners, who see them about once a week working in the yard.

“At this point, people approach us and ask us to turn their property over. There are enough people in the city who know what we are doing that they are asking us,” said Evans.

They use social media to promote the business. CSA shares go on sale in January. Homeowners can get a 50 percent discount on their CSA program or extra vegetables.

The business continues to grow. In their first year with few assets and not much money they travelled from one site to the next on bicycles. They now rent garden equipment like rototillers and they have vehicles. They are getting a trailer so they can efficiently process vegetables and set up pop-up markets at a local cafe every other week.

The work is growing into a year round enterprise.

City Beet Farm photo

They start all their own seeds in Evans’ home in February and are ready to work the soil by April so they have vegetables by June. Each delivery offers seven to 10 items.

“I feel our CSA is very family oriented because it is people who can afford to spend that much money up front whereas with the pop-up market it is passersby who aren’t really familiar with us and people who are just buying a few things,” said Clerk.

They grow 30 different vegetables with most being leafy greens, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and root vegetables. On their new larger site they want to grow crops like cabbage and potatoes.

The farmer-client relationship includes education. They strive for quality but gardeners know vegetables can turn into surprising shapes.

“The beauty of the CSA program is you can get away with a bit more aesthetic blemishes if you can have a conversation about it. People are somewhat intrigued if something is different from what they see in a grocery store,” said Evans.

“They know the flavour and the quality is terrific so they are willing to play with things that look a bit unusual.”

Both would like to expand to a large acreage in one place. Land is at premium in the Lower Mainland and probably beyond their reach unless they can link up with a willing landlord. Turning over lawns for gardens allows them to start farming right away.

“We are happy with the amount of growing space right now. Right now it is nice being the actual farmers,” said Clerk.

Added Evans: “We could expand if we wanted to hire people. I don’t know if we are ready for that kind of work.”

They hired one person this year to help but they prefer farming over managing a crew.

They also like living in Vancouver.

“We can practise our entrepreneurial skills and learn a lot about farming while still living here. I know I want to keep farming but I don’t know if I want to be doing this for the next 10 years,” said Evans.

They have learned how to grow things and how to manage pests and market themselves in three years’ time.

“It has been such an amazing opportunity to learn so many skills. We think quite differently because we are restricted in space. We have to logistically problem solve. I look forward to what it would be like having one big plot,” said Clerk.

They also see the ironic side of life as an urban farmer.

Vancouver wants to be a green city and they see themselves as a good fit but so far there is little financial support or offers of unused land that could be cultivated.

“To me, it feels very disconnected between the people who are doing the marketing and doing the policy decisions and the people who are in practice with hands on day-to-day, who are exercising these sustainability initiatives,” said Clerk.

There are a few other urban farms in the city but they are often nonprofit.

Evans and Clerk are keen to earn a living as farmers rather than living on grants.

“We like being young women entrepreneurs and I am not willing to give that up,” said Clerk.

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