Food production within city limits becoming more popular as producers seek new sustainable food sources to feed growing population
Josh Hellawell farms 18 plots of land. His largest piece of equipment is a Toyota Forerunner, and he doesn’t use any synthetic chemicals or fertilizers.
His farm, all told, is just short of one acre in size, but it is spread out among various yards and boulevards within the City of Lethbridge.
Hellawell is an urban farmer, part of a growing movement in North America that focuses on local food production and agricultural methods that its proponents consider sustainable.
A website search for “urban farming” turns up eight million hits, one indication of urban farming’s proliferation.
Hellawell rejects any assumption that he gardens rather than farms.
“It’s specifically urban farming, and the reason why I emphasize that is, in the city … to them we’re just gardening, but we’re not because we’re selling the produce. I’m doing this for commerce. This is how I make my living every day.”
He and his wife, Kayla, are the owners and only employees of Synergy Urban Farms, a two-year-old business. It supplies at least one restaurant and 40 clients through a community-shared agriculture program and sells produce at the Lethbridge Farmers Market.
After struggling in the first year, Hellawell said he now has high hopes for the future of his business and for urban agriculture in general.
“The philosophy is to convert us from a large scale commercial ag system, where we’re farming huge, vast amounts of land, using lots of chemicals and using lots of soil carbon and compacting soil with massive equipment, to moving it down to small-scale agriculture. We’re taking the labour and putting it back into people.
“We need to give people labour jobs in farming again, and that’s how we do it, is urban farming … and we’re also doing it in a super sustainable way.”
The arrangement with city property owners involves a contract entitling them to 10 percent of the vegetable crop and requires them to provide water. A liability clause protects both parties from lawsuits in the event of injury to anyone involved.
The contract also requires Hellawell to maintain the farming area, which must be at least 1,000 sq. feet.
In exchange, the Hellawells are allowed to farm the area provided and must be given 90 days notice if the landowner wants to terminate the agreement.
“I do all the work. I water, weed, plant, rototill. I do everything. They get 10 percent and they pay for the irrigation water. End of story,” said Hellawell.
“If they want to help pull weeds or engage in working on the crops, I’m more than happy … but by no means are they required to do anything but provide water and take their share.”
All the usual annual vegetables are planted, including potatoes, carrots, lettuce and salad mixes, spinach, squash, seven types of beets, chard, kale, onions, cabbage, artichokes, herbs and garlic.
City farm plots, with their varying soil types and histories, will prevent the business from ever being certified organic, but Hellawell nevertheless employs organic production methods, such as using compost tea as fertilizer and relying on crop management and biodiversity for weed and insect control.
Urban conditions also provide various production advantages.
“I’m getting two to three weeks at either end of the growing season, spring and fall, of frost-free days because I’m in the city, and also I’m getting higher daytime temperatures and higher nighttime temperatures by a few degrees,” he said.
“It’s enough, when you’re germinating seeds, to make a difference.”
A warm day in early September found him seeding carrots and inspecting the first leaves of a beet plot. The property owner had previously grown lawn on the spot.
“Now I’m going to grow 600 pounds of beets, 900 lb. of carrots and 600 bundles of onions.”
If the carrots don’t reach maturity this year, he will harvest them next year, he said. And if the beets don’t produce root vegetables this year, he will sell the greens.
Hellawell said he also strives to be carbon neutral by limiting travel time in his work, delivering to CSAs instead of having 40 clients drive to him, and by striving for short distances between food source and customer.
“I call what I do authentic food,” he said.
“The idea behind authentic food is that you have the shortest distance between the farmer and the consumer, the shortest distance from where the seed is grown to the farmer. All of the food is grown with the intention of providing excellent food that improves human health.”
Hellawell has high hopes for the future of urban farming generally and Lethbridge specifically and encourages others to get into business for themselves.
“I’m pretty confident we could feed Lethbridge just within Lethbridge. I really think that’s possible,” he said.
“What else is possible is that we could do it sustainably, which is really cool. And if you’re doing that, we wouldn’t have to ship in anything. I’m blazing the path and I’m tripping over all the big hurdles for everyone so all the people after me, it’s going to be way easier.”
He also has a philosophy about the cost of local organic food, which tends to be higher than commercially grown and imported products. He thinks local food should be cheaper while also providing a fair wage for the producer.
Local food production must also consider the future, he added.
“If I can’t do something in my life that makes the world a better place and that stops all the environmental damage that seems to be perfectly OK with a lot of people, guess who’s going to have to clean up my mess? My daughter will.”