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)
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!
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