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Every spring, I recall my childhood excitement when a box full of seed packets arrived in the mail. Together with my parents, I’d carefully selected vegetable varieties with intriguing names and appetizing photos. Like any kid, I complained about gardening chores, but I came to dig planting, weeding, watering and harvesting the dozen or so crops we grew in our sizable suburban garden.
As an adult, I was not surprised to have limited success with growing cherry tomatoes on a 23rd-floor balcony that faced the CN Tower. Thanks to my green keener pledge, I started thinking about jumping into the local food movement and using my small urban deck to grow some vegetables in containers. This led me to seek some candid advice from a former urban-dweller who recently gave up city life for greener pastures. Here’s what Brent Preston, co-founder of The New Farm, has to say about growing into a farming career.
Bamboo Magazine: How did you come to found The New Farm?
Brent Preston: In 2004, when my wife Gillian Flies and I moved to Creemore, Ontario, our intent wasn’t to commercially farm. Growing much of our own food and the local food movement led to us seeing an opportunity five years ago. After visiting a small-scale, diversified organic farm in Quebec, a light bulb turned on, and we both said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’
BM: As former urbanites, what challenges did you face?
BP: How to grow things, deciding what to grow, and knowledge around succession planning so that we had a continuous supply. Every farm, soil and microclimate is different. Here on top of the Niagara Escarpment, we have a shorter growing season than farms just three or four kilometers away. There is no manual to consult, and, with thousands of vegetable varieties, through trial and error you figure out what works. The financial side, including marketing and distribution, of running a farm, has been the biggest challenge. Now that we are five years out, we are starting to see a return, but it was tough initially.
BM: Has the global downturn affected your business?
BP: A couple of our restaurant clients went out of business. Right now, there is a great interest in local food, and we’ve exploited a very specific niche. The impact has been minimal. We’ve been selling everything we can grow.
BM: Where do you sell your produce?
BP: For the last five years, we’ve been at the Creemore Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving. Farmers markets are a great way to connect with customers, as it’s nice to have immediate feedback from people who are eating your food. This year, we’ve narrowed our focus to just wholesale markets and restaurants. You can find our produce at all of the Oliver & Bonacini restaurants, including Canoe, Auberge du Pommier, Biff’s Bistro and O&B Canteen, and at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café & Bistro, Epic Restaurant at the Royal York, Marben and Ruby Watchco. Globe Bistro was the first restaurant we supplied, and they continue to source from us.
BM: What are you growing this season?
BP: Because our location is cool and great for leafy vegetables, we’re doing a few different mixes of cut and washed salads. We are growing specialty potatoes, beets, carrots and some tomatoes. We also have a few unheated greenhouses for Japanese cucumbers.
BM: Any advice for the budding container gardener? My green thumb is itching…
BP: You can pretty much grow anything. Potatoes can yield a lot in just a barrel of soil. Tomatoes also work well in containers. I love growing lettuces in containers because you can easily do succession planting. Start with just a few seeds or seedlings, and, every week, plant another until you’ve filled four or five containers. This will ensure a continuous supply. By August, you can plant arugula or mustard greens, both of which are frost hardy.
BM: Is there an overlooked or underused vegetable you’d recommend readers try out?
BP: I think beets are underappreciated. They are incredibly easy to grow and attract few pests. You can eat the greens as well as the roots. A freshly harvested beet grown in organic soil will blow people’s minds versus supermarket beets.
Brent went on to recommend a few online seed suppliers–Veseys, High Mowing Organic Seeds and Salt Spring Seeds–and encouraged me to source the best quality soil and compost for my fledgling container gardens. I’ve since stumbled upon The Urban Farmer, Urban Organic Gardener and Young Urban Farmers, all of which are dedicated to helping urbanites cultivate their homegrown gardens. While my aspirations this year are modest, I’m hoping to rediscover my green thumb and harvest a couple of tasty urban crops this summer.
Fascinated by farming? Discover CRAFT Ontario, an informal collaborative of organic farmers who offer full-season internships across the province.
Growing container crops already? Brent recommends extending your growing season with reusable, permeable row cover, a lightweight material that protects plants from frost, insects and the elements, available at Lee Valley Tools.