For those who aspire to farm in the big city, the terrain is rough and strewn with obstacles. But urban agriculture can also be a viable business for hardworking souls, such as Aaron Quesnel, with an in-demand product–microgreens used by some of Vancouver’s top chefs–and a good story to share
It’s March. It’s raining. And 30-year-old Aaron Quesnel is powering down the Adanac bikeway on a one-speed that is, quite obviously, older than he is. On either side of his bike rack, he’s carrying monster panniers that are each big enough to hold the tower from a late-’90s personal computer, and he has a third such saddlebag thrown over his back, bandolero-style. Riding up from behind, I’m thinking about the weight, expecting his wheels to collapse the minute he hits the train tracks at Glen Drive. But he bounces on smoothly. The panniers are all empty, and even when full, they weren’t that heavy: Quesnel had been delivering microgreens to chi-chi restaurants in downtown Vancouver. Now he’s headed back to the warehouse from which he’s trying to build a reputation as the next big thing in urban agriculture.
Quesnel is the founder and president of Sky Harvest, which is the optimistic-sounding name of a business that, in May 2013, started selling produce generated in a 13-square-metre indoor farm, located in an unlovely and under-used storefront building on Powell Street in East Vancouver. Quesnel and a skeleton staff plant, grow, harvest and deliver microgreens, the “nutrient-dense, visually appealing and flavourful” early shoots from a host of salad-friendly vegetables. Sky Harvest currently offers 13 varieties, including arugula, kale, radish, sorrel, cilantro, sunflower and peas. They harvest most crops after only a week, when they’re past the point of being “sprouts” but not yet “baby greens.”
Sky Harvest produce is crunchy, delightful and catnip to high-end chefs who love the flavour blast and the delicate texture. That means that the micro-product is also not cheap. For example, a 65-gram clamshell container of Sky Harvest’s blend of “spicy mustard and purple cabbage,” which you can order online from Spud.ca, costs $6.79. Pack three big panniers full of this stuff and it’s more than worth the ride around town.
That said, Quesnel is reticent to talk much about total sales numbers—in part, he says, because “I don’t want to sound discouraging,” and in part because he’s competing both with other small local producers and with big commercial suppliers trucking produce from California in a business atmosphere that is hopeful, but unforgiving. He allows that Sky Harvest has roughly doubled its output from last year, selling more in the first quarter of 2014 than in all three operating quarters of 2013. But he’s nowhere near to recovering a total investment to date of more than $50,000 (in materials, rent and unpaid time for himself and a former partner). And he’s clear about this: the $1,000 a month that he’s paying himself is “obviously… not sustainable,” especially given that, even after subsidizing the first six months of operations with another job, he’s had to tap his relatives and a line of credit to get the operation off the ground.
“I obviously want a successful and sustainable business, [but] passion for changing the food system and creating a more livable city is the reason why I am willing to make financial sacrifices for the first year or so,” he says.
And that, in the niche world of urban agriculture, is the bottom line. Mark Holland, an urban planner and co-author of Agricultural Urbanism: Handbook for Building Sustainable Food Systems in 21st Century Cities, says that, in the current context, the whole romantic notion of relying upon urban agriculture to create food security is completely impractical in most Canadian cities. Even if you had the infrastructure, you don’t have the market: urban agriculturalists can’t compete on price with the industrial machine that delivers refrigerator trucks full of California vegetables quickly and directly to the warehouses of Safeway, Costco and Save-On-Foods.
Holland, who is now the vice-president of development for New Monaco, a healthy community project in Peachland, says that to compete in today’s market, the urban farmer has to have a product that is “high value and high story.” Urban consumers out for an expensive dinner are searching for meaning as well as nutrition, he says, “and meaning comes from stories. You can charge a buck more for a salad that comes with a story.”