By Patrick Meagher
OTTAWA — Matthew Mason-Phillips is the first urban farmer I’ve met and I’m not sure traditional farmers would call him a farmer. He’s more of an urban horticulturalist.
Sure, he grows crops. He grows a variety of edible greens, half of them herbs. Most of his crops take two weeks from seed to harvest. When he is at market, he can harvest his four-inch tall garlic chives in front of customers with a pair of scissors. He doesn’t grow them outside and doesn’t live on a farm. He plants and harvests in a 3,200 sq. ft. rental space in a warehouse, surrounded by a parking lot in the middle of the City of Ottawa.
A lot of people grow micro-greens, he said. “The way we are doing it is somewhat novel.” He grows his greens in plastic containers about the size you might use for holding dirty dishes and he grows each container in slots one-above-another, separated by horticulture-grade fluorescent lighting, and piles them 10 containers tall. “For each square foot of floor space, we get 10 ft. of growing space.”
Mason-Phillips grew up in Dunrobin, studied international development and ended up working as a stone mason. Then he met Madeleine Maltby, from Madoc, who studied environmental restoration and had been doing farm internships. She had already spent a year researching before coming up with a business plan to become a farm but still live in the city. He loved her idea. They joined forces and launched Backyard Edibles four years ago.
He looked at me as if to say, “Now you’re going to think this is crazy.” They owned no land and weren’t planning on renting any. Maltby first went knocking door-to-door in west-end Ottawa, asking residents to allow her to plant a garden in their backyards. The two entrepreneurs would do all the work and the homeowner would get to keep some of the produce. They started with four gardens.
I did think it was crazy but was delighted by their chutzpah. Not their idea, he confessed. It’s called SPIN (small pot intensive) farming and was sparked by a bright-light in Vancouver.
The bulk of their work is now indoors. They sell at two Ottawa farmers markets but that’s only one-third of their business, delivering twice a week to 15 retail stores and to chefs at 12 Ottawa restaurants. “It was full-time from the word go,“ he said. “The jump from year one to year two was striking. We more than doubled (sales) the next year.”
He was selling $5 sandwich-sized containers of mixed greens at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park farmers market the day I dropped by. He was selling a container of greens every three minutes. At that pace, he would gross $100 per hour.
They are not alone in this business. Mason-Phillips figures there are about five people in Ottawa growing indoor micro-greens full-time.
Backyard Edibles now has about 30 varieties and is constantly seeking new varieties to keep buyers interested. They specialize in green mixes. Their herb mix includes four types of basil, marigold seedlings, edible flowers and possibly more vegetables or herbs. Another mix includes sunflowers, sweet pea shoots and radishes.
The pace is crazy, he said, adding that you learn a lot about life running your own business. “Plenty of stress, but very fulfilling.”