Annex Organics' Rooftop Farming Business
An average farmer might find this landscape desolate. Rows of industrial buildings and cracked concrete smother the land north of Toronto's old harbour, in the shadow of the Don Valley Parkway. But standing on one warehouse, Lauren Baker looks out over this grey wasteland and envisions it covered in green. "Every single rooftop here is available growing space," she says.
Baker is not an average farmer. She is part of Annex Organics, a farming business that grew organic tomatoes on a warehouse roof last summer. This year the roof will yield more than twice as much, with buyers already waiting for the harvest. High above the street, Annex Organics is pioneering a new frontier in agriculture. They are the first to farm Toronto's rooftops.
Jonathan Woods, 27, a master in zoology from the University of Toronto, began Annex Organics in 1995 with the dream of making agriculture feasible in the city. He was joined by Tracey Loverock, 28, a bachelor of environmental studies from U of T, and Baker, 26, a master of environmental studies from York. They found a useable rooftop on a warehouse owned by Field to Table, a food service on Eastern Ave. FoodShare Metro, a municipal agency, partially funded their first experimental crop there last year. The results were encouraging - they sold 230 kg of organic tomatoes to local restaurants and merchants.
It gave them the confidence to build a greenhouse there this winter, quit their day jobs, and plunge full-time into rooftop farming. And this season, their biggest source of income isn't the government. Most of their money now comes from food sales. "We'd like to transform this building into a model urban farm," says Baker. They are tracking the farm's income and expenses to prove the project can be self-sustaining. "This year we're trying to have the numbers on paper, so we can say, 'See? This is possible,'" says Baker.
It's part of their vision of a green city. If they can reap a profit growing crops on one rooftop, it should inspire imitators. And why not? According to them, it only makes sense. "The city is one of the best places for farming," says Woods. "All the land is still here. When a building goes up, the growing surface actually increases," he says, adding that when he walks downtown he imagines the sides of skyscrapers draped with strawberry plants.
Another advantage is the city's long growing season, "because the city gives off heat," says Woods. But rooftop farmers' biggest advantage is being close to their customers. "I can get on the TTC (Toronto's subway system) and take goods to buyers, so it's very fresh," says Woods. That helps them compete against rural food producers, whose products travel an average of 1500 miles before arriving at the supermarket. "We pick them (the tomatoes) in the morning and sell them in the same afternoon," says Baker.
Those advantages still aren't enough for rooftop farmers to compete directly against mass-produced food, so urban farmers must specialize. "For us to survive, we have to have products that are unusual and unique," said Baker. Annex Organics is growing 25 rare types of tomatoes and 10 varieties of hot peppers this season, along with various tomatillos and cape gooseberries. All of their produce is certified organic. "Restaurants and other high-end consumers are interested in that kind of product because it's not readily available," says Baker.
It sounds ideal. But even as Annex Organics sprouts this season's crop of tomatoes, experts debate whether what they're doing is actually possible. Susan Guppy, head of Dalhousie University's department of urban and rural planning, flatly disagrees with Woods' assessment that the city is one of the best places for farming. "Few rooftops are designed to be fully available as growing areas," says Guppy in an email. "Special construction is necessary if it were to be carried to its full extent," she says. "Against the favorable urban climate you must balance pollution, the difficulty of providing enough water on roof tops, and exposure to wind."
Guppy's concerns are echoed by Michael Levenston, executive director of City Farmer, a 20-year-old urban agriculture organization in Vancouver. "Flat rooftops do seem to offer wide open spaces for growing food, however many roofs are not constructed to hold heavy loads of people and soil," says Levenston in an email correspondence. "There is also a concern that roof membranes will be damaged and water will get into buildings," he says.
But the Annex Organics crew has heard those criticisms before, and designed solutions to those problems. "You just have to do your research before starting a rooftop garden," says Baker. The roof membrane at the Field to Table warehouse is preserved because there are wooden skids for people to walk on, and their innovative semi-hydroponic system (using soil planters inside troughs of water) doesn't hurt the roof surface and eliminates wind damage. Their produce has tested clean for pollutants. And our system only weighs 9 kilos per square foot," says Baker. "Which is much less than the building was designed to hold." In fact, the Ontario Building Code requires that all roofs hold at least that much weight.
But as Joe St. Lawrence pointed out when he studied the Field to Table site for his masters' thesis, the Building Code presents another hurdle for rooftop gardeners. The regulations say a railing "shall be provided around each roof to which access is provided for other than roof maintenance." In his thesis, St. Lawrence identifies the cost of installing such a railing as a drawback to a rooftop farm, but Annex Organics has ignored the regulation. "When you're doing something like this, you have to push the limits a bit," says Baker, adding that urban planners here aren't very progressive. "There's a whole kind of conservatism here in North America that you have to challenge."
Sean Cosgrove, an urban planner at the Toronto Food Policy Council, a sub-committee of the Toronto Board of Health, said the challenge facing Annex Organics isn't logistical, but rather a matter of competition. He says the railing regulation is a minor inconvenience compared to the threat from traditional farming. "Urban agriculture faces the entire supported macro economy. You're competing against mass commercial food systems," he says. By specializing in high-priced foods, "they have a chance, but they're on the frontier for sure.
"But frontiers get pushed back. Consumer tastes are changing, says Cecil Bradley, manager of policy and research at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "The market for organic products has been growing, and you can see why farmers operating from an urban base have an advantage in terms of getting their product to the consumer quickly."
Baker admits rooftop farming is ambitious. "I think people are pretty skeptical (about the project)," she says. "Maybe it can't be done. But I feel that it can be done and I am prepared to take the risk."
Just how much of a risk they're taking depends on buyers like Derek Brown, grocery manager at Karma Co-operative, a retail food supplier. He bought Annex Organics' tomatoes last year, and says he will again this season. For him, the rooftop produce competes well against similar products. "In comparison, they cost about the same as other organic tomatoes," he says. Not only is Annex Organics buoyed by positive reviews from customers, but they're also riding the wave of the urban agriculture movement, says Monica Kuhn, an architect at the Rooftop Gardening Resource Group. "Rooftop gardening is on the rise," she says. Although Annex Organics is the only rooftop farming group in Toronto right now, "land is at such a premium that they won't be the only ones for long," she says.
The Greater Toronto Area's sprawl consumes roughly 5,000 hectares per year, much of it farmland. In the long term, that might make urban agriculture a necessity as it already is in other countries, where cities are feeding themselves by growing food within the urban environment. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates over 100 million people worldwide get direct incomes from urban farming. Even that estimate is too low, says Jac Smit, founder of The Urban Agriculture Network, in Washington D.C. "The FAO is off by two or three times," he says in an email. "Our estimate is 200 million and more, probably 300 million (people who get incomes from urban farming)." Smit cites dozens of international examples of working urban agriculture. 72 per cent of all urban households in Russia raise food, he says, 68 percent in Tanzania. Berlin has over 80,000 urban farmers. In China the 14 largest cities produce 85 percent or more of their vegetables. The list goes on.
To some Toronto gardeners, those international examples are an inspiration. Mike Coburn, 32, grows tomatoes and other crops on his apartment rooftop in downtown Toronto. The terra cotta pots and plastic bins on the second and third storeys of his building produce "more tomatoes than we can eat," he says. He still has tomatoes left over from last season in his freezer. Besides having too much food, he says the only drawback to rooftop gardening is "washing off the accumulations of smog" from the produce. "But it's not as bad as pesticides," he says. Coburn thinks rooftop gardens are more common than you might guess. "If you were just walking by, you'd never know my garden was here," he says. "I think there's a lot of this going on that we don't see."
That lack of visibility might change if Annex Organics continues to be successful. "There are a lot of misconceptions about what can and can't be done on roofs," says Baker. "We're trying to break down some of those." She points at the beginnings of this summer's crop. "Anyone could do this."
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