A new SPIN on agriculture

Sarah Nixon surveys her crop. She’s weeded, watered, fertilized with organic kelp. But the blooms she needs are slow to arrive, given the cool summer.

Sarah Nixon works in her own garden

TORONTO — Sarah Nixon surveys her crop. She’s weeded, watered, fertilized with organic kelp. But the blooms she needs are slow to arrive, given the cool summer.

“I have two weddings coming up. I have to just figure that out. That’s one of those things. It’s farming,” says Nixon, clipping the stem of a delicate purple cerinthe for a “romantic-sophisticated” bride coming to survey her bridal bouquet.

Nixon’s farm isn’t out in the country.

It’s in the city’s west end. She grows flowers in a number of back and front yards around the Parkdale area and then sells them for weddings, office receptions and, perhaps this season, to a nearby florist.

What do the landowners get in return?

“They get a free flower garden without lifting a finger,” says Nixon with a smile.

Nixon is part of the new wave of farming, called SPIN — small plot intensive farming — which is growing in cities across North America. Riding on the crest of the local food wave, SPIN is cashing in on a new eager market.

There are some surprising benefits to growing crops in the city, says the movement’s leader, Wally Satzewich.

You can’t turn a tractor in a tiny backyard, so there are fewer expensive start-up investments, for one.

Then, there’s the city’s asphalt, which absorbs the sun’s heat and makes us all sweat more on hot summer nights. But, for farmers, it means a longer growing season in the spring and fall.

And there is the garden hose.

“All I have to do is turn on the water faucet in the house and there is irrigation,” says Satzewich, who moved from his eight-hectare farm outside Saskatoon into the city 10 years ago.

“If I had to go back to getting my tractor to a river bank and getting the pump going . . . When you’ve learned the hard way out in the country you really appreciate the benefits of the city.”

Plus, there is money to be made.

Satzewich says an urban farmer can make $50,000 profit on an area of about half an acre (0.2 hectare) by planting up to four high-end crops like arugula and spinach over a single season.

The idea has taken root with recruits in cities from Atlanta to Vancouver.

“There’s a huge interest in it,” says Harris Ivens, who co-ordinates a farmer-training program at the Everdale Learning Centre northwest of Toronto near Erin.

More than 30 people attended a workshop on SPIN-Farming he hosted in February.

“The field is wide open because there is so much demand for local, ecologically grown food, and so little supply.”

The idea came to Nixon independently, before she’d heard of SPIN-Farming.

She simply loved to grow flowers — dropping off pots on friends’ porches from her garden. She decided to make it a business, first in her own yard and then expanding to the yards of a few friends.

Next came cold calling — dropping off notes in the mailboxes of homes with big empty yards.

Today, her farm business — called My Luscious Backyard — includes five gardens.

While many think of the city as polluted, her farm is as green as it gets, she says. The flowers have none of the carbon emissions or pesticide residue of many imported blooms from Mexico and Peru.

She uses less water, irrigating her own backyard with rainwater.

Inside her “barn” — a shed beside her home — she grows them from seed in coconut husks instead of “unsustainable” peat, which “takes 300 years to regenerate,” she says. “We’re draining Canadian bogs.”

She’s just bought a new bike trailer to deliver the weekly bouquets to the dozen offices around town that are her regulars.

“I’m working with a local ceramic artist to make vases so they don’t come from China,” says Nixon, 37.

The drawback, of course, is seasonality. The romantic-sophisticated bride had her heart set on peonies. The blooms are long off that flower in Toronto —the same as they would be here in Red Deer, after a late, cold spring and a near nonexistent summer.

But, hey, that’s farming.

Nixon’s hoping her client will become enchanted with her white-tipped burgundy lilies or purple drumstick alliums.

“They have to be a bit flexible because we’re dealing with Mother Nature. If that yellow dahlia is not ready on their wedding day, we’ll go with something else. Most brides attracted to organic local farming are not as high-maintenance.”

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