By Sarah Buell and Ryan Elias
This summer, Ilana Labow and Gray Oron plan to feed 150 people from six backyards in East Vancouver.
Labow is the director and Oron the head farmer for , an urban agriculture project that turns yard space into farms and divides the spoils between hosts, gardeners and shareholders.
“We wanted to really test ourselves and see, can we really grow food on a larger scale in the city without having actual land and using people’s backyards that are laying covered in sod and not tended?” said Labow.
Converting a backyard is a labour-intensive 12 to 18 hour process. It begins with Labow, Oron and a crew of interns and volunteers converting empty expanses of grass and moss into lush, fertile soil which they then seed and irrigate.
By mid-May, Fresh Roots will be producing weekly boxes of produce and herbs. Hosts and labourers will each get their own crate filled with the week’s harvest. The rest will go to shareholders who buy in at the beginning of the season for $650.
That amount buys them 22 weekly produce crates and sets aside $100 towards a farm investment fund which covers the cost of present and future conversions.
“These people are buying their vegetables for the year,” said Oron. “They support the farmer in a way that allows the farmer to have the cash that’s needed in the beginning of the season and use the full potential of the area that we have.”
Because the gardens are grown with techniques, each will bear a wide range of produce.
Over the course of the growing season, they will harvest over 100 varieties of vegetables, berries and herbs, including but not limited to:
- Four varieties of arugula
- 15 varieties of baby greens
- Edible flowers
- Spaghetti and butternut squash
- Many kinds of herbs
- Several varieties of peas and beans
Both Labow and Oron have day jobs: Oron is a software engineer and Labow the multifaith coordinator for . Fresh Roots was initially conceived as a side-project.
“The idea was we were just going to do a project, see how it goes and grow food in backyards,” Labow said. The question the pair sought to answer: “Is it possible to really grow food reliably in this way and make it something that the community can have access to?”
With the success of a one-garden pilot project in the summer of 2009, the two started converting additional yards last November. Neither expected it to quickly dominate their schedules.
Labow and Oron both work 80 hour weeks just to keep up. The administrative and logistical demands of running six farms with diverse owners and needs spread out over a two square kilometre area are greater than either anticipated.
“Farming on its own is a huge amount of work,” said Labow.
Chris Anthony is one of the East Vancouver residents who gave over his backyard to the project. He heard about Fresh Roots through Oron, whom he met two years ago at , a local community garden.
As part of his contract with Fresh Roots, he’ll get a portion of the garden for his personal use.
“I think in areas like this a lot of the kids and a lot of people don’t get a chance to experience a lot of the same things that you could in other neighbourhoods,” he said. “I find this is a really good way to get people out and trying things that they might not otherwise get a chance to try. I think it’s really good for the community and for the people.”
Though everybody involved in Fresh Roots is passionate about food, Labow and Oron hope to go beyond simply producing weekly vegetable boxes. They see the project as a starting point for education programs to rebuild food skills and knowledge.
Fresh Roots already has an internship program in place with UBC’s program. With a background working with underserved youth in Chicago, Labow hopes to offer vocational skills programs next year, possibly in tandem with the .
“The momentum of the possibilities of what we can do and what we can offer… it’s huge,” she said.
In the meantime, Oron is excited to get some of the region’s most fertile soil out from under sod and back in the hands of farmers.
“Cities were built on the best growing areas because that’s where people started living and expanded into,” he said. “We’re reclaiming that soil.”