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Ottawa's urban farming leverages appetite for locally grown food

The modern face of farming in this region is changing. In a multi-part series, this paper looks at the evolution underway in agriculture and how it’s changing our rural and urban communities.
 
Neither heat-scorched drought nor record rainfall could dry up or dampen David Mazur-Goulet’s enthusiasm to be a successful urban farmer in Ottawa.
 
BeetBox, a one-acre co-operative farm he and two other eco-centric, sustainable-food-producing enthusiasts established last year on Davidson’s Side Road in Nepean, defied weather challenges to produce a bountiful crop of about 30 soon-to-be, certified-organic vegetables for 106 customers who paid in advance to receive weekly or biweekly baskets of fresh produce.
 
The urban micro-farms VegBox CSA (community-supported agriculture) program sold out this year and earned Mazur-Goulet and his business partners, Jeremy Colbeck and Lise-Anne Léveillé, $38,000 in revenue in its first year of operation.
 
It is a modest return, considering that the trio draws income from sales, and have to pay the National Capital Commission, which owns the 1,100-acre Greenbelt property on which the farm is located, $2,400 in monthly rent.
 
For now, the three BeetBoxers, who also work on the vegetable farm, earn a minimum wage. But Mazur-Goulet has high hopes that the business seed the co-op has planted on an acreage situated between Carling Avenue and the Ottawa River will soon reap rewards.
 
“We expect to be profitable by the end of our second year,” he says.
 
BeetBox is among about 25 small-scale vegetable farms that lease land from the NCC. The farm also reflects a demographic trend, according to the NCC’s chief of agricultural and residential property management.
 
Geoff Frigon says that demand for urban farmland is increasing, particularly from prospective tenants in and around the millennial age-range of between 28 and 40 years old.
 
“What I’m hearing is that they don’t want to work in an office anymore and want to reconnect with the land,” he explains. “Some are done with their careers and want to try something different.”
 
Frigon says that he and members of his team receive “dozens of calls a week” from current and new urban farmers looking for land.
 
With less than a one per cent vacancy rate, competition for space is tight and the NCC screens applicants based on their farming knowledge and intent.
 
One with considerable experience that recently signed a 25-year lease with the NCC is Gourmet Acres, which, Frigon highlights, is one of Canada’s largest producers of cauliflower and broccoli. It relocated from Greely to a 660-acre parcel of land located at the intersection of Russell Road and Anderson Road in Ottawa’s east end.
 
Other NCC tenants include non-profit group Just Food, which runs a 150-acre farm on the west side of Blackburn Hamlet and offers a start-up program for budding farmers in the Ottawa region, and Youth Now Farm, which engages teenagers facing challenges in raising livestock and growing vegetables on a 70-acre plot of land on Russell Road in Carlsbad Springs.
 
Then there’s BeetBox, which is sowing the seeds for future growth.
 
Incorporated as a workers’ co-op in 2017, the vegetable farm has sold preference shares to nine other investors, excluding the three founders, which will provide a three percent annual return starting in January 2019 for five years. The $32,500 raised will allow the farm to invest in equipment to expand to three acres next year and hire two more workers.
 
BeetBox bought the greenhouse on the land from the previous farm on the property known as Riverglen, and Mazur-Goulet, Colbeck and Léveillé live in the more than century-old, four-bedroom farmhouse. (Mazur-Goulet’s life partner, Kate Garvie, who runs her own one-acre organic vegetable farm called Heartbeet in Woodlawn, is also a resident.)
 
“With our low margins, we have to be careful where we spend money to grow the business,” Mazur-Goulet says.
 
“We are also learning about the characteristics of the land, such as understanding the soil and what we need to add to it, and knowing where water may accumulate and where there is drainage.”
 
The 30-year-old Ottawa native, who was raised in Hintonburg, is a fourth generation branch of a family tree that leans toward agricultural.
 
His maternal great-grandfather, Louis Goulet, was a market-gardener in the Vanleek Hill area, and his paternal great-grandfather, Alexander Cottick, grew wheat in Dauphin, Man., home to many Ukrainian-Canadian immigrants.
 
Mazur-Goulet also briefly worked on a farm in Vermont in 2012 when he was pursuing a certificate in sustainable vegetable production from the University of Vermont.
 
But the idea for launching an urban farm sprouted from a market garden he started in 2014 in L’Ange-Gardien, near Buckingham, Que.
 
Mazur-Goulet called it The BeetBox, and grew and sold 25 different types of certified organic vegetables — from heirloom tomatoes and peppers to beets, cabbage and carrots — that are on the current BeetBox’s list of veggies for sale.
 
He got a sense of the appetite Outaouais residents have for locally grown vegetables and encountered an opportunity to advance his foray into farming at an eastern Ontario mixer for new farmers two years ago where he met Colbeck, who has a diploma in aerospace engineering from Carleton University and had previously worked at three market-garden farms, and Léveillé, who manages international programs at USC Canada, which promotes sustainable small-scale farming globally.
 
The three became fast friends, and recognized a chance to establish a farm co-op based on the changing agricultural landscape.
 
“We realized that the concept of the family farm was dying, and many people don’t have the money to purchase a large farm to keep that tradition going,” explains Mazur-Goulet, who earned diplomas in entrepreneurship and green business management from Algonquin College. “But we also knew that more and more people want local and fresh food, and thought that we could start something small in the city and grow the business little by little.”
 
The trio visited about 30 properties in the Ottawa-Gatineau region before settling on their current digs, based largely on the ability to live on the farm along with the bonus feature that it is also accessible by public transit.
 
They then prepared their business model. Rather than selling their vegetables at farmers’ markets, or to grocery stores and restaurants, BeetBox’s founders decided to pre-sell their VegBoxes through two options. From December to June, customers either pay $530 to receive 16 boxes a week from late June to early October, or $280 for eight boxes every two weeks during the same period, and pick them up either at the farm or at the Kanata North Community Hub at 400 March Rd.
 
“The idea behind our approach to community-supported agriculture is simple yet elegant,” Mazur-Goulet explains. “Members of the community want fresh vegetables in the summer, and pay in advance for that privilege and to support us purchasing the materials and supplies that we need to grow the food and pay ourselves a fair wage.”
 
There are some restrictions and risks associated with the VegBox program. Customers don’t get to choose which vegetables are included in their baskets. And if crops get damaged by flooding, drought or hail, there also may be fewer greens and legumes in the VegBox.
 
“We hope that our clients support us through the tough times,” says Mazur-Goulet. “They share the bounty and share the risk.”
 
However, it may not be as much of a gamble in the future.
 
BeetBox plans to add raspberries and strawberries to its basket, and diversify its offerings.
 
“We’re looking at selling eggs, chicken and beef in the future,” Mazur-Goulet says.
 
Bringing the farm to the city reflects the desire of people to both produce their own food and be close to the people that do, says the NCC’s Frigon, who was raised in a family that ran greenhouses in Leamington, Ont.
 
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