Aaron Quesnel | BCBusiness
Aaron Quesnel delivers fresh greens year-round to restaurants throughout Vancouver.
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.”
Image: Nik West
Aaron Quesnel grows 13 varieties of salad
ingredients in his 13-square meter operation
on Powell Street.
Aaron Quesnel, the son of two schoolteachers, came to urban agriculture in a somewhat circuitous search for sustainability. A geography grad from his hometown university, Guelph, he had first wandered off to Korea to teach English for a year and then to Vancouver to work on environmental policy questions for the sustainability-based consulting group Globe Advisors. His curiosity piqued, he then went to Sweden, to the Blenkinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, to do a Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability. There, he wrote a thesis on this very topic: Solutions from Above: Using Rooftop Agriculture to Move Cities Towards Sustainability.
But when Quesnel returned to Canada, he ran into two problems. The first, notwithstanding his thesis work: he still had a lack of topical knowledge. For example, when I asked if he started Sky Harvest with strength in agriculture or in business, he said, “A bit of neither.” He was a recreational gardener, but no botanist. And for business training, he wound up taking an entry-level course at the local YMCA: something called Youth Mean Business—a great primer, but no Harvard MBA.
The second problem was one of timing. Despite his thesis-based ambition to launch a rooftop garden in Vancouver, he was stepping into a difficult market—especially as there were already rumours that the would-be rooftop gardeners at Alterrus Systems were getting ready to consign their subsidiary, Local Garden Vancouver, into bankruptcy. Local Garden had been working to launch a commercial garden on the roof of an underused parkade at 535 Richards Street. With all manner of cheerleading from “Greenest City” Mayor Gregor Robertson, Alterrus/Local Garden had promised 70,000 kilos a year of pesticide-free vegetables and herbs for the local restaurant and grocery market. It sounded fabulous: revenue for EasyPark, jobs for people downtown and food for the city. But when the company’s failure became public in January of this year—the bankruptcy trustee reported that, together, Alterrus and Local Garden had liabilities of $5.2 million, no useful assets and no revenue—the whole project wound down, instantly.
Of course, the problem could also be that Local Garden didn’t get the quality of advice that turned Quesnel indoors. During a six-month period that he actually planned and designed rooftop garden options, he says he had good input—and serious investor interest—from a large group of advisers, and they all said the same thing: “If you can start small, do it.”
“Finally,” he says, “I took their advice.” He began by picking a product on which he could build a market and a reputation: microgreens. Then he tracked down space in a warehouse vacated by a failed local organic-food distributor and he spent weeks just cleaning it up to a standard that would impress the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He cadged materials to enclose a second-storey area that would be his central growing space. He bought lights, plumbed water and tested 25 different soil blends to find something that was affordable and, to the greatest extent possible, local and sustainable. (This turns out to be a problem: peat can be sourced locally, but is not sustainable. Ground coconut husk, which is sustainable, is not local. Quesnel went with the husk.)
Image: Nik West
Chris Thoreau (right) and an employee
take a breather outside the converted
cargo container that is home to Vancouver
Food Pedalers Cooperative.
All the while, Quesnel was experimenting with crops, trying to figure out what would grow most easily—and sell most successfully. Despite his lack of botanical bona fides, he says the growing part “is not rocket science, but [it] requires lots of tweaking.” Even indoors, where you have greater control, there are still so many variables: heat, moisture, ventilation and optimal distance between the lamps and the crops. And every plant variety likes things slightly different than every other.
The use of the word “crop” is interesting, as well. For most people, it invokes images of long rows of green vegetables bursting out of the rich earth. If you’re from the prairies, you might envision vast fields of wheat or canola, waving in the wind. But Quesnel plants Sky Harvest crops in shallow plastic containers, which he stacks, two deep, on a series of shelves. The double-decking saves space and works surprisingly well, with next week’s crop germinating in the dark while this week’s is reaching for the light. (Even this can be a problem, Quesnel says. The “sunflower sprouts are so mighty that they can actually lift up the other tray and knock it to the floor.”) When it comes time to harvest, Quesnel takes the sprouted vegetables, cuts fingerfulls carefully with a sharp knife and weighs them on a scale of such delicacy that you’d be more likely to expect it in a pharmacy than a produce section.
Then, it’s downstairs to the “distribution centre,” no more than a chilly hallway where Quesnel packs the paniers on his sadly retro bike and plans the delivery. This—the delivery schedule—is a critical part of the Quesnel plan. He doesn’t plant anything that he hasn’t already sold: everything is grown to order. “That way, I can be absolutely sure that stuff is ready when we need it.” Everything Sky Harvest sells is also harvested the day of delivery, so the crop is dead fresh but not past due. “If sunflowers grow an extra day, they get bitter,” Quesnel says.
Riding about from one nice restaurant to the next, it’s clear that chefs appreciate this kind of attention. “I love his stuff,” says Chris Bisaro, head chef at Yaletown’s Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar. Contrary to popular belief, Bisaro says, chefs don’t spend their days browsing the vegetable markets for fresh surprises. They prep, and they rely on their suppliers to deliver quality goods in a timely way. Of course, not all vegetables are created equal—nor are all suppliers as attentive as Quesnel. There are staples like potatoes and carrots—produce that is low margin and low maintenance but requires too much time and space to be grown in a Sky Harvest-style garden. Bisaro says that his staple supplier checks in with a fresh sheet, “oh, like, every three months.” Quesnel, on the other hand, is there in person every week, promoting new choices from his same-day specialty list (this week it’s Swiss chard) and taking feedback on things like the exact length of stems on the microgreen radish.
Chefs also appreciate the freshness of the product and the care Quesnel takes in packaging. On this particular day, Pino Posteraro, head chef and owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill, has cancelled his whole order, perversely, because Sky Harvest’s output is too fresh and lasts too long. Posteraro had closed the restaurant the previous week for a winter break, returning to find all of the previous week’s order sitting in the fridge in perfect shape. “Look at this,” he says, as his assistants pass one container after another out of the fridge. “It’s perfect. I’m not going to throw this away.”
Posteraro hastens to note that he has a reputation among Vancouver suppliers as “a tough son of a gun.” By way of illustration, he tells of a would-be microgreen competitor who had dropped off a large sample, 70 per cent of which Posteraro sent back. “The supplier phoned and said, ‘What are you doing sending this back? It’s a sample. It’s free!’” To which Posteraro says he responded, “I don’t care, it doesn’t meet my standard. I don’t want it here.”
Image: Nik West
For business training, Quesnel took an
entry-level course at the local YMCA
For now, Quesnel is focused on the restaurant market, though he’s hoping to expand his presence with Spud.ca, through which he now sells about 25 per cent of his total output. But the leap in scale is complicated. It’s one thing to grow-to-order for a handful of top chefs; it’s quite something else to start loading grocery store shelves at a wholesale level.
That’s also a huge issue for grocery stores, says Dave Wilson, the produce operations manager for Vancouver grocer Choices Markets. As much as Choices wants to stock local produce, it’s hard for microproducers to deliver enough quantity to make it practical, even for smaller and committed stores. That said, Choices buys all that it can—directly when possible, or indirectly through small, local wholesalers like Discovery Organics—but it can add cost and complication that’s difficult to recover from shoppers comparing prices at Save-On or Superstore. The key, Wilson says, is to bring in high-value products, like garlic—or microgreens.
That’s a message that’s gotten around. In fact, Sky Harvest is a newcomer to a market that was already being served, in a similar way, by the Vancouver Food Pedalers Cooperative, which Chris Thoreau founded six years ago. Thoreau also specializes in microgreens and currently supports himself, two full-time partners and two part-time employees on the output they generate in a 40-foot shipping container that’s also located in East Vancouver. Peter van Stolk, CEO of Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (Spud.ca), the online grocer that delivers local and organic products to customers in six cities within North America, says this scale is typical. Spud delivers special order fresh and organic vegetables (and pretty much everything else on the grocery list) to clients from Pemberton to Hope. And of its 150 to 200 suppliers, van Stolk says “40 to 50 are über small and über local.” Quesnel also insists that there is lots of market share to go around, noting that a much larger amount of product is still being trucked in from California—or even just from up the valley. For people who truly want to support local agriculture—with a superlight carbon footprint—Sky Harvest and the Food Pedalers are there to compete.
Peter Ladner, former Vancouver city councillor and author of the book Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities, says this is the way of the future—“maybe not the microgreen producer in his basement, but there is a lot of local potential just beyond the niche.” Ladner identifies two reasons for hope. First, there’s an appetite from shoppers to buy local and pay more for it, he says, pointing to Save-On-Foods’ ad campaign promoting the chain as the biggest buyer—and seller—of B.C. produce. “I was on a panel with [Loblaws executive chair] Galen Weston,” continues Ladner, “and he said that when they can put a local sticker on produce, sales of that item immediately go up 40 per cent.”
The second factor, notwithstanding Mark Holland’s reservations, is food security, Ladner says. We are not currently paying for many of the externalized costs of food that is grown a long way away and transported a great distance. We also ship billions of dollars and thousands of jobs out of the country whenever we overlook local potential in favour of imported food. Looking at the potential of a further bump in energy prices or a continuing drought in California, those conditions could change, suddenly—and dramatically in the favour of businesses like Sky Harvest.
Aaron Quesnel will be ready. He’s already working with a team of UBC engineering students on a plan to extend the second-storey floor space at the warehouse, expanding his growing room five-fold (he was planning to at least double it by this summer). Quesnel was also, in late April, in the process of adding two more part-timers to his staff list (bringing the total to three part-time employees, as well as himself). And he’s constantly working to expand the range of products. It’s all part of the starting-small strategy: you have to be bold about building on your success.
But as you watch Quesnel, riding down the street in a helmet that costs more than his bicycle, you can tell that he has a firm and conservative set of priorities. “When I did my thesis (in 2011), there were no rooftop greenhouses anywhere. Now there’s the Lufa Farms greenhouses in Montreal and several in New York. It’s coming.”