A Movable Urban Farm


Sustainable and Profitable Small-Scale City Farming

      
by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
June 17, 2018

On a vacant gravel building site in the heart of Victoria, Topsoil, a movable urban farm, shows what innovation can do. Looking out at the empty rooftops one day in 2013, Chris Hildreth, founder of Topsoil Innovative Urban Agriculture, had an inspiration. Could a small-scale farm on a city rooftop or unused lot be sustainable and profitable? (Article continues below video.)

Video: A Movable Urban Farm

New farmers today face significant obstacles. Whether urban or rural, new growers struggle with the exorbitant cost of farmland. On temporary leased land, a farmer can lose years of inputs to soil and infrastructure if the landlord declines to renew a lease. Then, there’s the food distribution system which cuts out small-scale farmers in favour of industrial operations that can supply large quantities of produce on tight schedules.

Hildreth realized, to make an urban farm profitable, it would need to be lean, ingenious and adaptable. In practical terms, this would mean having negligible costs for land, low overhead with little infrastructure, a guaranteed market for produce, and the flexibility to grow and move to a new site whenever needed.

To be profitable, the urban farm would need low overhead, negligible costs for land, a guaranteed market, and the flexibility to grow and move to a new site whenever needed.

Partnering for Land

Topsoil Innovative Urban Agriculture is all of those things. After an initial pilot on a city rooftop, which although successful, didn’t provide sufficient business potential, Hildreth secured space on a vacant gravel lot at Dockside Green, near Victoria’s upper harbour.

The space will eventually host a commercial building, but at present Topsoil’s more than 15,000 square-feet of grow bags full of fresh herbs and vegetables occupy the site. Topsoil urban farm provides a neighbourhood focus for residents and bikers on the adjacent Galloping Goose Trail. It also brings social credit to the Dockside Green development, which in turn partners with Hildreth by providing a portion of their undeveloped site.

Urban Farming with Fabric Grow Bags

Basil thrives in grow bags at Topsoil Urban Farm in Victoria, BC. A movable urban farm.

Fabric grow bags provide easily transportable containers for crops at Topsoil urban farm in Victoria.

To make the farm transportable and maintain a low overhead, Topsoil uses fabric grow bags. For Hildreth, the grow bags solve a number of challenges. They’re light-weight, modular, and easily adaptable to urban spaces such as parking lots, gravel pits, or rooftops. They also fold up compactly for storage at the end of a season.

Hildreth settled on 15-gallon bags as the optimum size for urban farming (large enough for planting, but not too heavy). Set in long rows, the fabric containers can work with timed irrigation or overhead watering.

Containers allow a city farm to bypass many of the rigours of traditional land farming. By using grow bags filled with compost made from local food waste, Topsoil dispenses with the need for heavy farm equipment to till the soil.

“The food waste from the restaurants we supply gets picked up, turned into high-quality compost, and we use that compost to grow that food back for that same restaurant,” said Hildreth.

Plant Starts for Faster Produce

The farm grows most of its vegetables from plant starts. Lacking a greenhouse (in order to minimize farm infrastructure and bypass city permit requirements), Hildreth buys ready-to-plant vegetable starts from a local nursery. This shortens the growth time and keeps a steady supply of produce ready for harvest.

Topsoil starts off the season with his grow bags folded down halfway to minimize the need for soil. The first set of starts do nicely in about 15 cm (six inches) of compost. Then as the season progresses, Hildreth rolls up the sides of the bags and tops them up with new compost for the later crops.

Partnering with Restaurants—Growing What the Chefs Want

Chris Hildreth looks out over rows of crops in fabric grow bags at Topsoil urban farm in Victoria. A movable urban farm.

Chris Hildreth looks out over grow bags of basil, lettuce and kale he produces for local restaurants.

Topsoil sells its produce to local restaurants within walking or biking distance of the farm.

“Everything is presold before the season starts,” says Hildreth, who found that preselling eliminates sales calls and provides a fixed income stream.

“What we’re doing here is giving restaurants their own farm,” he said. “We asked the chefs what they liked and what they wanted more of” and came up with a list of crops. This worked out well because the produce the chefs wanted tended to be some of the more lucrative crops for a farm to grow. For Topsoil, these include lettuce mix, arugula, basil, mint, cucumbers, summer squash, kale, chard and turnips.

Five Minute Transport on Foot or by Bike

For deliveries, Topsoil uses an electric bicycle with a trailer, or walks the harvest directly to the chefs. The farm delivers everything in boxes it can wash and reuse.

“All of the produce is produced within five minutes of the restaurants we supply,” said Hildreth. “You look at the industrial food system. The distribution system is massive—it’s so long. We harvest, we weigh it, we bike it into the restaurant fridge. It couldn’t be any shorter than that.”

A Transportable and Sustainable Urban Farm

A 56 foot metal shipping container at Topsoil urban farm. At the end of the season the grow bags can be folded and stored in this small space. A movable urban farm.

The farm can be packed into a storage container to move to a new site.

Hildreth started Topsoil Innovative Urban Agriculture with the idea of creating a “socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and profitable urban farm.” Add to that a farm with low overhead, partnerships with chefs and land developers, and the flexibility to move to a new site whenever needed.

At the end of the season, Hildreth can sell his used soil to local farmers, collapse his geotextile grow bags, and pack up the entire farm in a 56-foot shipping container, ready to move to a new site.

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Profitable and Ecological Small-Scale FarmingProfitable and Ecological Small-Scale Farming

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