From DIY to DIT (Do it Together): FarmCity Co-op

FarmCity Co-op

It’s strange to say that a farm with a cutesy name like Yummy Yards started from a place of arrogance, and yet it did.  I thought I could grow more, spend less and with a bit of sweat and saavy research skills, come out on top.  I started Yummy Yards to show myself that I could do it alone, and I’m leaving to learn how to do better collectively.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The official story is this:

I often tell people that the dream for Yummy Yards started on a beautiful sunny day, weeding a vegetable patch at Southlands Farm… indeed in many ways it did. However in reality, it was a culmination of so many experiences that gave me the love, heart and courage to embark on what has been an amazing journey to understand one of the most integral aspects of our life:  food. 

Growing up in a suburb of Toronto, I felt my immigrant background and dedication to community service made me worldly.  What a shock it was then, when sitting in class after class in university, it dawned on me that I in fact knew nothing about the processes required to sustain my life.  So I decided to start with food:  who are the people growing it, and globally, why are most choosing environmentally destructive methods to do it?  I soon found myself three years deep into a worldwide trek, visiting farms around the world, picking up inspirational stories and lessons from innovative farmers making huge impact (by making such minimal environmental impact!) on their little corner of the planet.

But I felt like there could be so much more.  For every awesome farm I visited, I’d meet communities of urbanites with not a clue about the innovation being demonstrated just a few kms away.  So what better than to bring the innovation into- literally- people’s backyards?  And so I did- by the end of my first season I was the ‘little farmer that could’, cycling to and from thirteen backyards and boulevards scattered across Vancouver.  Transplants, soil, wheelbarrows:  all packed-muled onto a converted bike trailer, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer from anyone.  I was living my dream… and here’s where the journey gets a little dirty.  Mangled in by-law restrictions, lacking land tenure (an inevitability when farming on land you don’t own), fueled by an unsustainable work ethic, idealism and insatiable desire to make this work, I found myself at the helm of a farm that was initially planted to grow community and yet felt rather isolating.  I had turned into a Jane of all trades:  farmer, marketer, carpenter, bike mechanic, book keeper (a particularly awful one), writer, photographer, landscaper… and thus eliminated any time and energy I could have spared to build community.

hands

In the end, it was community that saved me.  A group of us farmers came together, exhausted, and realized that we were all running ourselves into the ground.   Inadvertently we were becoming each other’s competition, when in reality we needed to be banding together to battle the bigger incoherent food system.  Cobbling together spare afternoons and evenings, we started a producer co-op to pool our resources, share knowledge and to strategize on how we could help each other in growing public awareness about the benefits, beauty and value of local, sustainable food production.

It’s taken three years of working on a co-op model that benefits farmer members and yet can stand on it’s own two feet as a legitimate business.  Three years of ten farmers sacrificing precious free time to haggle over financial strategies, decision making processes and quality control.  And now, as I look at our budget for the up coming season, I am inspired and dumbstruck at the work and trust that has gone into making this co-op come into it’s own.  Our gross sales were $7,500 in 2012, $75,000 in 2013 and we are projecting to triple that in 2014.

It’s this type of collaboration and the potential that this model can bring to farming communities around the world that is inspiring my next journey.  I leave in a few weeks to study small-scale agricultural co-operatives in Japan, a country where the option to industrialize was limited by it’s geography.

Emi at market

I’m passing on the torch of Yummy Yards after three years of toil, humbled by my experience and ever more determined in my conviction that small farms hold the seeds to the future. The two women taking over the farm are passionate, intelligent and in addition to taking the farm to new heights, will also learn lessons of their own.  I’m excited to hear about their journey.  Looking down at my hands right now, they are no longer covered in cuts and stained brown, but I know that won’t last very long.  There’s a mysterious bug that gets under your fingernails when you start farming, and no amount of scrubbing will ever wash away the love of sunrises, the camaraderie one feels amongst those with soil encrusted boots and an affinity for stirrup hoes.  My start in farming may have been to show myself how I could do it alone, but I am so glad to have found that I could do it infinitely better and more enjoyably with others.

We founded our co-op in 2011 under the name Vancouver City Farms, it then evolved to City Farms Co-op.  We’ve now settled on FarmCity Co-op!  You can keep abreast on all our adventures at http://www.farmcity.coop. FarmCity Co-op was made possible through the support of Vancity, BCCA, the Co-operators and a lot of patience, laughter and hard work by 10 hard working farmers!

I will be posting updates about my lessons from Japan through my twitter:  @YummyYardsEmi.

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