How does one man with a few backyards make such a difference?
It is out of curiosity and, I have to admit, a twinge of jealousy, that I find myself routinely walking past one particular house in my East Vancouver neighborhood. It is set on a corner lot, so it is easy to see the grapevine and bee boxes in the backyard. Last year, the corn grew seven feet tall in the boulevard on the side of the house. There are extensive bean and pea trellises and berry canes galore along the side fence. The front yard boasts beautifully espaliered fruit trees and a cold frame that inspired the design of my own. Parked on the side of the house is a white van advertising that this is not the work of an ordinary hobby gardener. No, this is the residence of the City Farm Boy. The concept intrigues, and yet baffles. How can it be that this "farmer" can farm in a city where a lot for a single family home costs a million dollars or more?
Who is City Farm Boy?
Meet Ward Teulon. Teulon grew up on a commercial farm in Southwestern Saskatchewan, on land that was originally homesteaded by his great-great-grandfather and has been in the family ever since. In fact, his brother farms there to this day, mostly wheat for the commodity market. So, Teulon is no stranger to agriculture, or to agri-business for that matter.
Before starting his City Farm Boy business in 2006, Teulon had an extensive career as a Technical Director with Nutri-Lawn, a company franchised across Canada and parts of the United States that is dedicated to providing "ecology friendly lawn care," according to their website. Extensive business traveling, though, began to wear thin when Teulon's son, now 5, was a baby. He started City Farm Boy as a way to work in town and be with his family, he said, as well as put to good use his extensive knowledge of agricultural practices. But City Farm Boy is not merely an in-town lawn business. Teulon is running an actual farm business right here in Vancouver.
Actually, there are several components to the City Farm Boy business model. First, for those who are interested in starting vegetable gardens in their own backyards but don't where or how to get started, Teulon does garden consultations for $90. He'll study your soil, drainage, and sun exposure and identify the "micro-climates" on your property, areas that, due to features like hedges, walls, water, rocks or slopes, might be cooler, warmer, wetter, etc. than the average for the area and, therefore, may be particularly well-suited (or not at all) to growing what you want to grow.
Basically, Teulon will tell you where in your yard you can grow what.
Secondly, he provides turf removal and soil prep services and sells hand-hewn cedar wood frames for raised bed gardening. Teulon is also keen to share what he knows about farming and gardening techniques by speaking at lecture engagements and leading workshops on topics like organic practices and backyard beekeeping (he has two hives right now in his backyard).
The most fascinating and innovative aspect of City Farm Boy is the CSA component. For those who aren't familiar with the term, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and a CSA farm works like a co-operative in that shares in the farming business are sold up front to supply the farmer with the resources he needs to get started each season. Working small-scale plots close to home and using organic practices instead of expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides allows Teulon to keep his costs down. He also likes to keep his carbon footprint to a minimum and prefers, therefore, to farm plots within a 5 km radius of his home. Often he makes the rounds on bike if he doesn't have any heavy hauling to do.
Currently, Teulon has at least 16 separate plots in cultivation around the city, including a large rooftop garden downtown. They range in size from 500 to 1000 square feet, for a total cultivated area of roughly a quarter of an acre. Teulon does not own, nor does he pay to rent, the plots of land that he farms. He's worked out various complicated relationships with the garden owners, depending on their expectations and reasons for offering their land.
Some owners just enjoy the sight of a garden when they look out their windows. Others want to be able to pick a basket of lettuce for dinner without the hassle of having to grow and maintain it.
Teulon says a very common reason people offer him their yards for farming is that they are simply tired of wasting money on lawn care. Of course, not every backyard offered is suitable for farming and Teulon will turn down a plot based on soil quality, sun exposure, or distance from his usual route. He is running a business after all… a successful and growing business at that.
Teulon has expanded the CSA component of his business every year since its inception in 2006. This year, he will cap off his business at fifty share-purchasing members. He'll grow some 40-50 different varieties of veggies to insure against crop loss due to pests and untimely weather.