Lactuca, Reclaim Urban Farm bring urban farming to Edmonton

One of Reclaim Urban Farms' plots. Photo courtesy of Reclaim Urban Farm.
One of Reclaim Urban Farms’ plots. Photo courtesy of Reclaim Urban Farm.

Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron to anyone who thinks of a farm as a spot in the county with a big red barn and fields of crops as far as the eye can see. But businesses such as Reclaim Urban Farm and Lactuca are showing that farming can successfully be done in the heart of Edmonton. Cathryn Sprague of Reclaim Urban Farm and Travis Kennedy of Lactuca explains what it means to be an urban farmer and how their respective farms work.

Urban farming defined

There are multiple ways of doing urban farming and multiple reasons for doing it. “There’s different models you can do,” says Sprague, noting that urban farming can vary from community or non-profit ventures to a social enterprise with a business model. Kennedy agrees that urban farming “can have different missions,” which may include social goals, but also suggests that with urban farming “typically the scale is big and production is a focus regardless of your social outcomes.”

How Reclaim Urban Farm works

Launched in January 2014, Reclaim Urban Farm is a multi-site urban farm run by Sprague and Ryan Mason. Sprague describes their farming model as “spin farming, which is small-plot intensive.” In order to maximize production on small plots, they space their produce close together and focus on producing greens.

“Last year about 80 per cent of our business was growing greens, salad mixes and spinach, arugula, kale, swiss chard, anything green,” said Sprague. “It works really well for urban. You can space it really closely and get a lot of harvest.” They also grow vegetables including beets, carrots, potatoes, beans and peas, and they harvest apples from their properties that have existing apple trees.

Mason and Sprague farm on empty and residential lots in the Whyte Avenue area and acquire their land through a combination of actively seeking out desirable spaces and responding to offers from people interested in having them farm on their property. Some contracts are for one year, others for multiple years.

Landowners receive a weekly box of produce in exchange for allowing Mason and Sprague to farm their land. Any produce left over from the weekly boxes gets sold at the City Market Downtown as well as to restaurants near Whyte Avenue and downtown. This year Reclaim Urban Farm is also expanding its weekly vegetable box offerings beyond their landowners to a community supported agriculture model and is planning pop-up markets in their neighbourhoods.

How Lactuca works

Travis Kennedy started Lactuca in 2012 with a focus on salad green production and delivering to a hyper-local market, which for Kennedy is the 124 Street area. By focusing on salad greens, Kennedy was targeting a niche in Edmonton’s produce market that nobody had yet filled.

“I really wanted to demonstrate that full model of urban agriculture and get salad mixes on the market,” said Kennedy. He began by growing salad greens in his back yard and selling them at the 124 Street Grand Market. High demand at the market and interest from restaurants along 124 Street quickly outstripped Kennedy’s supply and he partnered with urban farmer Kevin Kossowan for two seasons.

Then Kennedy began working with Northlands and has a contract to farm a half city-block section of land located northwest of Borden Park. The extra space has allowed Kennedy to expand Lactuca’s product offerings to include carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, radishes, peas, beans, onions, cut flowers, edible flowers and herbs in addition to salad greens. Kennedy continues to produce a few items, such as edible florals, in his backyard but has moved most of his production to Northlands.

By expanding Lactuca’s product offering, Kennedy is responding to customer requests. “What we’ve found through the years is customers said, ‘Great, I love getting my arugula from you but do you produce anything else? Can I get herbs from you, can I get tomatoes, are you doing cucumbers?'” said Kennedy. “In the past we said no, but when you scale to the size of an acre or so then you can actually diversify without compromising your salad green production.” In particular, Kennedy discovered that a local supply of edible florals and herbs appeal to the chefs at the restaurants he works with.

Kennedy also plans to expand his business by selling at the Highlands Farmers’ Market this year, which is close to his Northlands plot, and the French Quarter Farmers’ Market.

Involving Edmonton in urban farming

Both Reclaim Urban Farm and Lactuca have received plenty of support from citizens and said they hope to continue to keep Edmontonians involved in urban farming. Reclaim Urban Farm has received plenty of offers from people hoping to volunteer with them and so they plan to expand Reclaim’s volunteer program this year.

“We’ve had lots of requests for helping out so we’re just trying to figure out the best way to use that energy and kind of balance the fact that we’re a business,” said Sprague. “We don’t want to rely on the free labour but we do want to provide those educational opportunities.”

Kennedy said he has enjoyed high demand at markets and from restaurants. He sees farmers’ markets and urban agriculture as a great way to get people interacting with farmers and involved in food production.

Kennedy has also worked with some of the restaurants he supplies, bringing them to the farm and helping them understand food production from a farming perspective.

“That’s a real strong advantage to the urban farm,” said Kennedy. “The restaurants would love to go and visit all their producers but the truth is a lot of their producers are 100 to 500 kilometres away.”

Anyone interested in learning more about urban farms in Edmonton can connect with both Reclaim Urban Farm and Lactuca by finding them at a farmers’ market or on Twitter at their respective handles: @reclaimfarm and @lactucafarm.