Urban Gay Farmers
Гей-пара канадців Пол і Лер перечікують зиму в Бангкоці. Пол, професійний програміст, отримав запрошення від свого канадського колеги приєднатися до команди девелоперів і переїхати на півроку до Бангкоку для участі в одному проекті. Разом з Полом переїхав до столиці Тайланду і Лер, його хлопець. Пол вже давно втратив пристрасть до роботи програміста, але не міг відмовитиcя втекти від суворих канадських снігів. Пол і Лер вже кілька років мають садівничу ферму поряд з власним будинком у невеличкому місті Кобург (Онтаріо, Канада). І саме вирощування їжі та просування ідеї міського фермерства захоплює Пола і Лера все дужче. Поки Кобург був засипаний снігом і грунти вбирали вологу для гарних врожаїв, у спекотному Бангкоці ми говорили про історію заснування Victory Garden — ферми Пола і Лера, про можливість досягти економічної незалежності у місті і про те, як сьогодні ми можемо відновити простіші стосунки з їжею.
Paul and Laire, a Canadian gay couple, are staying in Bangkok this winter. Paul, a professional software developer, was invited by his Canadian colleague to join the team of developers and moved to Bangkok for half a year to participate in a project. Paul moved to Thailand with his boyfriend Laire. Paul has lost interest in software development long ago, but could not help getting away from harsh Canadian snow. For several years now Paul and Laire have been running a horticultural farm located next to their house in a small town Cobourg (Ontario, Canada). Growing food and promoting the idea of urban farming fascinate Paul and Laire more and more. While Cobourg was buried under snow and the soil was absorbing moisture for good harvest, in hot Bangkok we discussed the founding story of Paul and Laire’s farm Victory Garden, the possibility to achieve self-sufficiency in town and how we can restore simpler relationship with food today.
— What was the reason you both became farmers? What are your professional backgrounds?
Paul: Before I was a farmer, I was just a software developer. I studied computer science, I got my degree. I started programming when I was really young. Later when I grew up I got really into wanting to «save the world». I kind of lost my desire to be a full-time developer, because I could not see how I could make a positive change as one. I also wanted to live more outside, more connected to the earth.
Around that time, my friends started doing organic farming. So I ended up in Ontario, volunteering on organic farms for a few weeks. And I realized how much fun it was. Being in the garden, being closer to plants, and being nourished by good food — I wanted farming to be a part of my life.
Later I moved to a town called Nelson (British Columbia, Canada), which is in the mountains. I made a friend there; he was really into idea of urban farming and he discovered SPIN-Farming (Small Plot INtensive farming). SPIN-Farming is a business model for farming on a small amount of land. This friend and I decided to start a farm business in Nelson, and we did. The farm was called Nelson Urban Acres.
Laire: I was a hairstylist in Toronto (Ontario, Canada). Then I started to do WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) — volunteering on farms around the world. I wanted to get out of the city and was thinking of moving to Nelson. So I googled “gay farmers in Nelson” and I saw Paul’s picture on one of the online dating sites with the words “gay”, “farmer” and “Nelson” in his profile headline. I started volunteering on his urban farm. That’s kind of how we got to know each other.
I wanted to farm more for myself. I had no intention of saving the world, because I do not think it can be saved; I just want to look after myself!
Paul: Our farm was made up of the land from people’s backyards. It was about 10 backyards. In exchange for the land, we were giving some of the vegetables that we were growing to the land owners. Everybody was happy — they did not need to keep up their yard, there were beautiful vegetables growing on their property. Besides that, lots of people in Nelson are progressive; they like supporting local farmers.
After three years we moved to Cobourg (Ontario, Canada), a town of 20,000 people. We moved to my dad’s house after he passed away. My dad used to have a garden and knew how important it was to grow more local food. So we had a one-sixteenth-acre garden there. We decided to start with something pretty small.
— How many people do you have in your team?
Paul: Just the two of us. It’s pretty easy, we have our system. The SPIN-Farming technique is quite detailed and really helpful for getting started as a small market gardener. Choosing the crops, preparing the soil, marketing your produce – it covers all the basics, and includes suggested plans for only one or two full-time farmers.
In Cobourg we are lucky to have very friable soil, not overgrown with weeds, so working the soil is done by hand. You could also use a rototiller. For planting, we usually use an Earthway seeder to speed up planting of the leafy greens and root vegetables, our most common crops. After planting, it’s a matter of weeding, watering, weeding, and more weeding. Every week, we do our harvest the day before the market. This is when it helps to have two people working together. We also grow a weekly crop of microgreens in flats, which I tend to focus on more, while I let Laire manage the garden.
And actually, I did not find it too hard last year; I think we can work a little harder.
— So what do you grow?
Laire: We specialize in salad mixes mostly; we do a lot of different salad greens. We do as well lots of root vegetables — radishes, carrots, beets — as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. Next year we are doubling our garden space — we met some folks that have a giant backyard, and they want to turn it into a vegetable garden.
Paul: We also grow sprouts — microgreens. Our main customer of these is a chef from a local restaurant and he really goes for them. We need so little space to grow lots of sprouts, and they sell for more money than salads. So we focus on these higher value crops. With salad greens you can keep growing them over and over in the same spot. So with salads we can get about 3-4 crops in one bed per season.
But people like variety, and you can grow a lot of amazing things.
— How did you build your market?
Paul: We do a good job in our branding. I happen to have a background as a web designer with a slant for graphic design, so I created the website, business cards, market stall sign. We spent a little money on our market materials, such as a good-quality tent that would hold up to the harsh Ontario winds.
We also of course put a lot of effort into creating an awesome product – the freshest vegetables you can buy. This meant building a walk-in cooler to ensure salads were cooled off quickly from summer’s heat and kept a long shelf-life. And making sure the soil they grew in was rich in nutrients and organic matter by adding tons of compost. Most of our major expenses were for purchasing supplies to build the walk-in, and for buying fertilizers, market materials, potting soil and seeds.
After all that, I guess we’ve ended up with a pretty marketable product!
Laire: And we got chickens this year. We are probably not supposed to have them in the city.
Paul: In Canada this issue has been divisive — I mean, some people are for it, others not. In Toronto they are against the law. People think having chickens turns the city into the country.
Laire: It is almost the same when people say to you: «You grow vegetables in your front yard? Wow! What do your neighbours say?». I did not ask my neighbors what they think.
Paul: But most of the people have been very supportive. We actually have not got anyone who has been concerned about our chickens.
Laire: We also built a very beautiful chicken house. It is very gay chicken house.
— What marketing tools did you use to get customers?
Laire: We just showed up at the market. We had a great stall. And business cards. And Paul made a great logo. Mostly the rest was word of mouth.
Paul: We give a lot of tours because lots of people are interested in seeing urban farming. I think that’s partly successful, because people can see how their food is grown. And they do not need to see an organic certification as long as they can see where and how the food was grown.
— What are the problems of being the urban farmer?
Paul: I guess — lack of space. Limited space. You do not have those long rows where you can use a tractor and set up everything really quickly and efficiently. It is much more fragmented. You just can’t grow everything you want.
Laire: You have to buy fertility inputs — like manure. You also do not have a community of farmers around you, which in rural areas usually exists for sharing equipment, skills, and local wisdom.
— What are your 5 tips of being a successful farmer?
Paul: 1. Start small! Because it is such a learning process, which makes it so exciting, so addictive. You can learn for the rest of your life. And usually people from the city do not have any knowledge about farming in the beginning.
2. Compost. If you can find a good source of compost, ideally from an organic farmer in the area, it is going to make a big difference in how healthy your plants are. Because if you have healthy soil, you can grow almost anything, anywhere.
3. Know your microclimates — know where the shady spots are, know where there is sandy soil. For example, we grow salad next to our house. And even in December lettuce is still good for cutting, even if it is cold and snowy outside, because it is next to the house.
4. Use mulches effectively — use organic mulches (straw, chopped leaves, etc.) to offer protection to your soil, especially around plants that require more moist or moderate soil conditions. Use clear or black plastic mulches around plants that thrive in warmer soils, like squash and cucumbers. Mulches also really help to keep the weeds down.
5. Know your market — who you are selling to and what people want you to grow. For instance, in our area there are lots of seniors, so we have to provide quantities of salads and other vegetables that are reasonable for a senior citizen to consume in a week.
16 acres — total area of Victory Garden
«Focus on leafy greens, and you’ll be fine»
— Food and nutrition ideologies have been evolving to a great degree over the last century. How can we restore a simpler, healthier relationship with eating?
Paul: Michael Pollan spoke about it. He was saying that we still cannot figure out what we are supposed to eat. It keeps changing all the time. Everyone has a different opinion about it. And we are so focused on the details. We are measuring every component, breaking foods down, molecule by molecule. And it is really detaching us from the experience of eating.
His advice is, when you are eating you should not be doing something else at the same time. Pay attention to the experience of eating — your body and your mind. And simply eat more vegetables. Do not constantly forbid yourself from eating something. Focus on leafy greens, and you’ll be fine.
— What is your big idea?
Laire: Forget this urban shit and move to the country! We want to become self-sufficient someday. But our goal here is to inspire our neighbors — one guy gets chickens, someone else sees that and gets them, too.
Paul: And I really want to learn how to support my community, whatever my community is. I want to support it, because I’m relying on my community to support me.
— What does it mean to be a gay urban farmer?
Laire: People are often surprised when I tell them that I am a farmer. I guess I don't always look the part, but I think in some small way I am challenging people’s ideas of what gay culture is, and bringing a little gay culture to the country as well, which seems needed in our town.