Interview with Ron Berezan: The Urban Farmer and Permaculturalist

Ron Berezan is the founder and proprietor of The Urban Farmer and is joined by colleagues from throughout Western Canada in this work. Ron has been an organic gardener for over 30 years and permaculture practioner for over ten years. He is trained in the “Grow Bio-intensive” organic gardening method at Ecology Action in Willits, California, and in Permaculture Design through the Kootenay Permaculture Institute and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Centre. He is a Master Gardener through the Devonian Botanic Gardens in Edmonton Alberta. Ron has taught hundreds of permaculture and organic gardening workshops in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and the Yukon and has consulted on many permaculture and urban agriculture projects throughout the country. He has a close working relationship with the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation and the Association of Cuban Agricultural Technicians and Foresters in Cuba and regularly takes groups of Canadians to Cuba for educational tours and permaculture internship opportunities.

Ron writes on a variety of permaculture, urban agriculture and organic gardening themes and has been a regular gardening commentator on CBC radio and in a range of newspapers and gardening magazines. (see In the Media). He is the author of the upcoming book,”Down the Garden Path – Cultivating Hope for the Coming Ecological Age.”

(above bio courtesy of the Urban Farmer website)

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1. How did you get interested in urban farming?

I often refer to myself as an “accidental gardener.” My first small farming venture was at the age of 18 while living in a shared house with a bunch of other first year students near the University of Calgary. At the end of the term, I was cleaning out a broom closet and found a bag of long forgotten potatoes, sprouting wildly and smelling a bit funky. My friend wanted to throw them out but I convinced him that we could at least dig a hole, throw them in the gorund and see what happened. When we came back to that house again in September, we had a great harvest of potatoes – free food for hungry university students! From then on, I was hooked.

Through the years, I continued to grow haphazard food gardens, relying on my vague memories of my grand mother’s and my father’s gardens and a whole lot of trial and error (probably more error than not!). As the years went by and I had a family, I became more motivated to see what we could gorw in the urban yards we occupied. One Christmas, my wife gave me the book “How to Grow More Vegetables” by visionary organic gardener John Jeavons and it blew my world apart! I finished that book by the end of Boxing Day and from that day forward I took a far more methodical and technical approach to growing food. I also underwent an awakening of sorts, as the book led me to take a hard look at the global food system – the utter unsustainability of it, and to ask the question – “How are we going to feed ourselves in the years to come?” I became somewhat obsessed (well, according to my wife, utterly obsessed!) with determining how much food could possibly be grown in one city lot. Some 20 years later, I still haven’t reached the upper limits of that equation.


2. Why did you decide to start your own business “the Urban Farmer”?

I had been working in non-profit organizations for many years – good and interesting work, often touching on the same questions of sustainability and social justice that were important to me in my personal life. However, I came to the point where I could no longer take sitting in an office, staring at a screen for most of my days. I also wanted to create something I thought would be useful and worthwhile and something that I would enjoy spending my time and devoting my energies to. I had been sitting on the idea of starting a business that would help people grow food but I had no idea then whether it was a viable one.

At that time, early 2003, the local food movement was just beginning to take off. “Food security” was still a word unknown to most people and urban agriculture was just beginning in Canada though it has been flourishing for decades in other parts of the world (and indeed there was a somewhat forgotten history of it in Canada as well). I quit my job, got some help in developing a business plan and put my vision out there. I was utterly shocked by the response! Clearly there was fertile ground for such a business in Alberta and things took off very quickly for me. I also received scads of media attention and quickly became the “go to guy” for stories relating to urban agriculture in the Edmonton area. With a fairly steep learning curve, the business developed from there.

The name “The Urban Farmer”, by the way, began as a bit of a joke and a nickname given to me by an old timer in my neighbourhood. He saw me out in my gardens while walking by and would say “How is the urban farmer Ron doing tonight?” A few others picked it up and it stuck!

3. What is an “edible garden landscape”?

An “edible landscape” refers to the fact that we can design our surroundings to be beautiful, functional, and productive all at the same time. We don’t have to choose between an ornamental garden and a food garden; they can be wonderfully integrated together! Everyone who has a yard spends time, energy and money maintaining that yard – why not get something concrete back in return?

I really encourage people to move away from thinking of the food garden as the rectangle in the back corner of the back yard. Edible species, annuals and perennials, can be spread throughout the whole yard according to the needs of the plants and our own aesthetic preferences. We can create a beautiful Saskatoon hedge instead of using catoneaster or caragana and have a great harvest of berries. We can use wild strawberries, creeping thymes, oregano and mints as very effective edible ground covers and hardy kiwi or grapes as trellis plants to give shade over a deck. We can create beautifully shaped long sweeping beds in our front yard that integrate annual vegetables like peppers, squash and corn with edible and ornamental flowers grown in positive synergies with each other. There are so many great fruit bearing trees and shrubs that can be integrated into our own yards or in public landscapes as well. The possibilities are endless!

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4. How do you use permaculture to create the edible gardens?

Permaculture is a wonderfully inspiring way of using ecological principles to design sustainable human habitat (including our homes, yards, communities and public spaces). This means that we consider our yards, for example, as a system in which there are a diversity of elements that need to be in proper balance and relationship with each other – just like in an ecosystem. These elements will include the soil, the plants, the built environment, animals (wild and domesticated), water, energy systems and, of course, the people.

So we configure all of these elements so that they are supporting each other rather than working against each other. We use the micro-climates that buildings create to grow the particular plants that might need extra heat or protection from the wind. We might use plants in turn to shade the house in the heat of summer and those plants might also produce food for us or for the chickens that we raise for their eggs. The waste from the chickens goes into our compost which nurtures our soil enabling us to grow healthier and more nutritious fruits or vegetables. We might take our grey from the house and run it outside into a small wetland that adds additional bio-diversity to the yard which helps keep down negative pest populations, etc., etc.

Another concept from permaculture that I am particularly excited about and have been promoting widely, is the ideas of “edible forest gardens.” These are multi-storied plant communities (from fungi in the ground to ground covers to herbaceous perennials, to shrubs and trees) that look and act like forest ecosystems while offering us a tremendous yield of food, medicinal plants, beauty, bio-diversity, carbon sequestration and possibilities such as timber species and plants for bio-fuel. Even in an urban yard we can create a very productive small food forest that has very high levels of production with very low inputs of time or energy.


5. What does it cost in time, energy and resources to begin turning your land into an edible garden?

This is a very interesting question. I am a big fan of getting people involved directly themselves in the transformation of their space into an edible landscape or a permaculture oasis. That way, it will cost them less and they will be more engaged and better aware of the needs of the landscape and their role in it. In many cases, I have worked with families to create a design for their yards (usually costs between $500 – $800 for the design) an then we will hold a workshop and workbee where they can invite all their friends and family to come and learn while participating directly in the transformation of the space. These are great events and it is wonderful to see what can be accomplished in a couple of days with many hands. A bit like the barn-raisings of days gone by, I suppose. I get paid to order people around and make sure things are done right and at the end of the day, this is a very economical option.

This may not be a possible model for everyone, however, and for those who want the work done for them, an edible landscape is comparable in cost to a more traditionally landscaped yard. The most costly items are typically “hardscaped” elements like decks and patios but these can also be greatly reduced by using reclaimed or repurposed materials. Buying fruit trees, berry producing shrubs and edible perennials can also add up in cost but once again this is no more expensive than buying strictly ornamental species, often cheaper in fact. And when you add into the fact that apple trees is going to provide thousands of pounds of apples over its lifetime, edible landscapes are a bargain!


6. What are some simple steps to get started as an urban farmer?

It is very exciting to me to see so many creative urban farming initiatives emerging across Canada these days: people borrowing space from yards in their neighbourhood and growing enough food to sell at the farmers market; commercial greenhouse operations on the tops of city buildings; community gardens and orchards popping up at an exponential rate; school gardens; public permaculture projects; the list goes on and on.

For someone with a desire to get involved in this movement either for personal consumption or in a commercial way, I would say the following: “Start small. Develop some skills. Take some course. Meet other urban farmers. Decide what you really enjoy doing – is it greenhouse gardening? keeping bees? creating food forests? growing vegetables for market? teaching children how to garden? etc. etc. there are many niches out there and I believe that the need and interest is only going to increase as there are more and more pressures placed on our global food system as we are seeing played out before our eyes today.


7. Which aspect of urban farming do you enjoy the most?

While my business has given me the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of activities relating to urban agriculture and permaculture from working with communities to create new gardens and food projects, to teaching countless food gardening and permaculture workshops, to taking now over 160 people to Cuba to see the incredible urban agriculture and organic agriculture movements in that country, I must say that the most satisfying and inspiring work continues to be the design and transformation of spaces into vibrant, productive and beautiful gardens.

I really believe that gardens are a very powerful tool for changing how we connect to the place we live, to the land that we are sustained by, and to the communities that we belong to. To accompany people in the process of creating a vision, a design and then the transformation of their space is really a magical process for me. I also see the transformation occurring as much for the people that are involved as for the landscape itself. When folks are empowered to be able to grow some of their own food, meet some of their own needs, it can really change their lives. I am grateful to be able to share in that process.


8. Do you have any words of wisdom you would like to give to urban farmers just starting out?

You are undertaking important work on the cutting edge. Remember that. Find the niche that is right for you and then go wild with creativity, innovation and experimentation. Enjoy yourself – that is the most seductive marketing technique out there!

 

For any more information on the Urban Farmer you can visit him here.

All pictures by Ron Berezan

Feed Testing is a No Brainer

Have you had your feed tested this winter?

Article courtesy of Beef Cattle Research Council

While feed testing seems like a “no brainer”, it is surprising how many cattlemen skip this critical management tool. It seems many would rather rely on visual appraisal (i.e. colour, plant species, and leaf content) or knowledge of cutting time to judge quality. While these are all indicators of forage quality, they do not substitute for a feed test particularly when it comes to the energy and protein content of that forage. For example, the protein content of brome hay can range from as low as 5 to 6% up to 18% depending on stage of maturity at cutting. While visual appraisal may help separate the good from the poor quality hay, it is not going to help you decide how much protein supplement, if any, you need to background calves when feeding this hay. Only a feed test can accurately help you make this decision.

~  John McKinnon, Ph.D. at the University of Saskatchewan

Read more about the importance of having your feed tested and related resources.


Locavore: Sarah Elton Interview on Sustainable and Local Food

1. From a locavore perspective, what would the ideal food system look like?

We need to create sustainable food systems for communities big and small. That will require thinking about where our food comes from and asking how it is grown and what kind of environmental impact it has on the planet. Yes, this will mean a lot of local produce. Instead of buying snap peas flown in from half way around the globe, we should be choosing sustainably produced local alternatives that don’t rely on the global food supply chain that pays no attention whatsoever to environmental impact. The number one priority is to measure the environmental impact of food production and strive to nurture farming systems that cycle nutrients, that conserve water, that use energy efficiently, that don’t allow livestock waste to pollute, that foster biodiversity, that build resilience–these are the systems we need to equip us for the future.

Then the food grown in such a sustainable system also needs to foster economic sustainability–of farmers, of rural communities of cities. And that food must be accessible and affordable to everyone. Local and sustainable food systems are more likely to be able to provide for all of these important things as opposed to the long distance, corporate industrial food chain.

Do we need to build greenhouses to grow bananas here in Canada? No. And it certainly doesn’t mean that every town and city should become self sufficient, growing wheat along the sidewalks.


2. What evidence is there that a locally based food system is becoming more widely accepted? (For example, increase in farmers’ markets?)

It’s obvious that people wherever they live, when they are given a real choice between fresh food that is grown nearby, without the use of pesticides, and long distance food grown by who knows who, who knows where, people gravitate to what they know. For proof of this, all you need to do is look at the rise in farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture schemes, urban farms and all the creative ways regular folk in rural and urban Canada are supporting their local farmers. BMO released a study in August finding that Canadians are willing to pay more to support their local farmers.


3. Many urban Canadians enjoy gardening as a hobby, but how can urban farming become more of an economically viable activity? (considering lack of time and land)

There are many entrepreneurs in Canada today who are trying to figure out how to run urban agriculture businesses–their goal is to produce food in the city and make a profit. I’ve interviewed many urban farmers and while they are often running new businesses, they are doing very well. In fact, the opportunity to make money in urban farming is so great that there have been investors who are putting millions behind this idea of growing food sustainably in cities.


4. Food is wasted at every step in our food supply – how do you think this problem could be solved?

People need to shop better: buy only what they need and then use it all! I use my freezer as a way to avoid waste at the same time as easing my cooking burden. I freeze leftovers for future meals rather than throwing them out. But there are lots of websites out there with tips for how to reduce waste at home.

Individuals aren’t only to blame though. The food industry wastes a lot of food too. There have been initiatives such as Second Harvest that are helping to stop this. But we can help as consumers by not demanding perfect looking apples or bananas or lettuce at the store.


5. How do you think the mentality consumers have towards food can be shifted so we value our food more and waste less?

We need public education along the lines of what happened during the Second World War. There were posters disseminated everywhere saying “Waste Not Want Not!” encouraging people to do their part for the war effort by not wasting their food. My grandmother still chanted this to me decades later. It worked! We should all be doing our part for the climate change and food effort today.

6. Can you discuss some of the critiques or flaws of the local food movement and how these could be addressed?

Local food isn’t good enough for the future. We need sustainable food first. So local must always be paired with sustainable. That needs to be our priority if we want to have a food system that is resilient enough to cope with climate change.


7. Do you have any comments on motherhood as a locavore / urban agriculturalist?

I wouldn’t call myself an urban agriculturalist because the raccoons have won and I can’t grow much here in my garden. However, as a mother who feeds her family mostly local and sustainable food, I feel that I am introducing my kids to healthy eating. We don’t eat processed foods so they are learning to cook from scratch. They are learning to enjoy all sorts of flavours and are learning a healthy lifestyle.


8. How are Canada’s family farmers meeting the challenges inherent in today’s food system?

Organic family farms selling in local foodsheds are providing people the choice to eat locally and sustainably. They are helping to foster a food democracy where we have real control over what we eat. We must support them so they can continue to do this!


9. Which farming innovations have inspired you the most in your travels?

I’m most inspired by the amazing way sustainable food systems help small farmers in the developing world not only to increase their yields but also help them to improve their lives. When farmers sell directly to the consumer, through co-ops and alternative markets, they are able to cut out the middle man, empower themselves and make more money. The benefits go far beyond food. And that’s the magic of food! We’ve seen this same idea applied to urban agriculture in inner city North America. Good food heals so many social ills.


10. Since the term “locavore” was designated word of the year in 2007, what progress has been made in the growth of the locavore movement, and how do you envision the movement developing in the future?

The movement must pair local with sustainable. The two must become inextricably linked. Sustainable is the key to building a food system that can feed our children tomorrow, under the pressures of a growing population and climate change.

Best Of The Web: Moustache Farming

Movember! Okay ladies, if you are anything like me you were totally creeped out by the thought of your significant other participating in this cause. I have to say, I begged my husband to lose his, as I felt he looked like he should be lurking in a back alley.

However, after watching this video I have to admit my heart  grew a little fonder of the old duster.  This is truly not only a great story about a great cause, but it also highlights some really great points that can help you with your business or organization.  Find out how four men started the beloved Movember movement and made one small idea turn into a big deal that changed the lives of many.

I know many of my cattle friends have been growing mustache crop this last month, I would love you all to share yours with us.  Share on our Facebook Page or on Twitter by using the tag #moustachefarming #farmon

The Real Dirt on Soil

Soil has an image problem most likely propagated by her black sheep cousin, dirt.

Dirt is to be gotten rid of, unwanted, unclean, disposable. Soil is anything but. She is
rich and alive, teeming with organisms she is fruitful and forgiving, why then have we treated her like dirt?

We use Soil as a shroud. If it can be buried we’ll use Soil to hide it – landfills, fields, meadows and backyards become graveyards for our garbage, mistakes and poisons… out of site, out of mind, “problem solved”.

We view Soil as an unlimited commodity, “common as dirt” to be taken for granted.

This notion perpetuates the myth that Soil is capable of doing all that we ask, regardless of capacity or the impact of our actions.   Unfortunately, the more our relationship with Soil is viewed through this lens, the further we are to understanding Soil’s true value and importance in everything we do and enjoy.

All life is dependent on Soil and every day we loose more of this invaluable resource.  According to a 2006 Cornell University study, Soil depletion is 10 to 40 times faster than her ability to replenish, with more than 10 million hectares (37,000 sq. miles) destroyed each year.   Yet the need for food and other products continues to soar.  In terms of yearly productivity loss the economic impact in the United States alone is estimated at approximately $37.6 billion. Soil loss also affects health, air and water quality, and how infectious disease organisms are transmitted to people.

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Soil and nutrient loss is not new to farmers and gardeners.  Since WWII the response to
the problem has been the commoditization of agriculture.  Science has taken over much of what nature intended to be Soils’ responsibility for growing food, thereby reducing Soils’ role to that of a ‘medium’ or container to hold plants, fertilizers, water and herbicides.  Unfortunately this direction has further undermined our understanding of Soils’ role, not just in growing our food, but in nature’s community for the invaluable service she contributes to various ecosystems.  Long-term consequences will soon come to light in terms of our ability to adapt and compete in a climate changing, highly regulated world marketplace.

As one who is a generation off the farm, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings in
understanding the life of Soil – the importance and complexities of her relationships.  In a lot of ways, I’m discovering Soil is much like me.  She has her own birth and like a child she changes over time and develops into a mature body.  Soil breathes and consumes
organic materials.  More importantly, she seeks, conducts and thrives on intimate relationships with other entities – specifically air, water and other vital organisms including humans.

Given our collective and recent history with Soil, ‘exploitation’ might be a better descriptor of our relationship with Soil.  There are a growing number of folks worldwide advocating an image makeover for Soil to raise awareness of her failing health and the consequences on food production and the health and well-being of our communities. Australia must think so with the recent appointment of their former Governor General as Soil Ambassador.  Perhaps our world is ready for a cultural and economic paradigm shift that includes Soil as a valued member.

 

FarmOn Books You Must Read in 2012

While our staff is at odds with each other on the way they like to read a good book, it doesn’t change the fact that these books are our absolute favourites! Whether you like to power up your e-reader, download the audio version onto your ipod or do it the old fashion way and flip the pages, these books are sure to be a good read!

 

“Love at Work” by Brady G. Wilson

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Most of us keep our “feelings” to ourselves, and we keep our private life separate from our work life.  In family business and with just about any farm operation, this is almost impossible. Love is a powerful force that can transform how we work with others, bring the best out of ourselves and create amazing results. This book is an insightful and practical guide to bringing that force into your work and all areas of your life.  For me, it changed the way I see my job, my team mates, and myself, for good.

“Oxford Guide to Plain English” by Martin Cutts

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Learn how to cut the fluff from your writing. Effective communication requires writing that is direct and to the point, and this book will teach you the steps to acquiring these skills. Learning to write in “Plain English” could mean the difference between gaining a business opportunity or losing out on one. So if you think your writing skills could be improved to communicate more clearly, look no further than this book. I used the book to help me write more effectively at law school and was pleased with the results.

“Encyclopedia of Country Living:  An Old Fashioned Reciepe Book” by Carla Emery

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My first copy of this book was her self-published editiion which I received when I was about 12 years old.   I poured over the pages in it to the point where I actually wore them out (all 800 + of them !).   Although I am now using my second copy of the book,  that first edition still warms my heart as it is full of old black and white family farm photos which
always made me long to be a true “homesteader”. From Clara I learned so many things, how to garden, raise chickens, make soap and bake bread. I couldn’t live without this book !  Along with being my “go to” book for all kinds of resources is a wonderful read  as
you hear all the tales from Clara and her readers.

“It’s Your Business: 183 Essential Tips that Will Transform Your Small Business” by JJ Ramberg

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This book is both practical and to the point.  It will pay for itself in no time.  I love how it gets right to the point!  Great business resource.
Link photo courtesey of QQ Li

 

Disease in Cattle: Bovine Respiratory Disease (Pneumonia)

For many purebred producers and 4-H beef club members, the fall season marks a new chain of livestock shows. When taking our cattle off the farm and traveling to different shows the risk for health problems like bovine respiratory disease is often increased. In this video from Stock Show Confidential we get some veterinary advice on what causes bovine respiratory disease (BRD – also known as pneumonia) and how we can best prevent it in our show cattle.

 

More complete details on BRD (bovine respiratory disease) otherwise referred to as “pneumonia” in cattle can be at Beef Research