Story by Amy Dillon
Photography by Brittany Balser of BB Collective
“Natural,” I respond as he continues up the front steps of Little Brick Cafe, big plastic tub full of shoots and sprouts in hand, knowingly pausing in the good angles.
Ryan is in the midst of his weekly delivery run. His business, Reclaim Urban Farm grows a range of micro greens and vegetables in Edmonton, Alberta on reclaimed urban land like vacant lots and supplies households and restaurants in the city with fresh local produce. Today is busy. Delivery day means racing from one end of the city to another, his beat up truck piled high with boxes of crisp freshly picked greens of all kinds.
He gives me a run through of this weeks offering. Crisp pea shoots, leafy micro dill, sweet yellow popcorn shoots, peppery mustard shoots and colourful beet shoots. I spy what look like mini lily pads in a knotted plastic bag. “Nasturtium,” Ryan informs me. The leaf is bright green and has a hot peppery flavour. Everything in front of me was harvested a mere three hours before and the freshness beams through both their taste and appearance. It’s easy to see why the city is clamoring for these little guys. They’re equally beautiful and delicious. Perfect for adorning dishes with beauty and intrigue.
Business officially started for Reclaim in 2013 but it was a meeting of like minds years before that got the initial ball rolling. Ryan and Cathryn Sprague crossed paths during their masters studies at the University of Alberta. Both were focusing on food policy and saw their business idea as a way to directly impact local food systems.
Fast forward a few years and the two tend five separate grow spaces in the Edmonton metro area, sell produce through the hugely popular SPUD Delivers and have been featured in most mainstream media outlets in Edmonton.
“Our very first year, before we’d even started planting, we had an article written about us in Metro. From that we ended up getting on the front page of the Edmonton Journal. We were blown away,” Ryan recalls.
It’s clear the pair had found themselves filling a gap in the market. But a drive for profit isn’t the sense I get from either Cathryn or Ryan. Their focus is on community and education. “If there’s local farmers people can come visit them, they can see what their doing, they can talk to them, versus when it’s more of a commodity. When it comes from California there’s a disconnect that’s both physical and [mental],” Ryan explains.
From the beginning Reclaim got a warm reception from the Edmonton food community. The explosion of farm to table and locally focused menus in the city meant that the budding business was a welcome addition to the burgeoning food scene. For such a modest operation – Ryan and Cathy are the only two employees – Reclaim supplies an impressive number of popular restaurants in Edmonton including vegan eatery Noorish, Little Brick Café and slick cocktail bar North 53.
Luckily for me – maybe not so much Ryan and Cathy- this meant I got to see the harvest first hand. With temperatures still on the cool side, the operation is limited to their indoor grow space in the SPUD Delivers factory.
I’m welcomed at the door by a SPUD employee who, unsurprised by my statement of intent points me in the direction of Reclaim’s corner of the warehouse. Ryan and Cathy are already well into their harvest. Cathy’s petite frame is holed up in a corner under the aluminum staircase surrounded by empty storage tubs. She busily cuts various types of micro greens from their flat growth trays and sets them aside for Ryan to wash. While she works, we talk about the growth of urban farming and the growing interest in local agriculture projects. “It’s great how interested young people are getting in urban farming and it’s really sparking their interest in farming in general. If you look at the average age of farmers its probably around 60 so we need more young people to get involved. So I think urban agriculture can be that step towards introducing people to it and getting the conversation going.”
While the interest is there, Cathy adds that many formalities stood in the way of their venture. When she and Ryan were getting Reclaim off the ground, they found that much of what they intended to do was technically illegal according to the City of Edmonton. “When we first wanted to do an urban farm it wasn’t technically in the zone bylaws. A lot of cities like Vancouver were only just starting to recognize (urban agriculture) as well. I think the city realized they were a little behind so they worked with us to catch up.”
The city’s enthusiasm is encouraging but for Reclaim, sluggish bureaucracy still holds them back. As things get busier and the business looks to lay some more permanent roots (pun intended) they are at the mercy of a very slow moving policy machine. Currently Ryan and Cathy only hold temporary leases on their numerous outdoor grow spaces. That means they are constantly on the hunt for new land to grow their goods. But with new land comes soil testing, irrigation set up and building relationships with the owners and neighbours. These are issues they hope to mitigate by acquiring themselves some public land on which to set up shop permanently. “Anywhere there’s a green space that’s under used, we figure why not use it for an urban farm. Use it for food for the community. I think that’s a way the city could show their support for urban agriculture,” says Cathy. This prompts me to ponder where such a ‘green space’ exists in Edmonton – a city that does not boast bountiful green land havens. It is home to North America’s largest urban park land, the North Saskatchewan River Valley which is probably the reason why, when touring downtown Edmonton, you don’t lay your eyes on many lush green parks or recreational areas the way you might in other urban centers. It hasn’t really been needed.
Ryan adds, “[the city] hasn’t been proactive in any form with getting public land access to people working with food. They have a lot on their plate but at the same time they could be doing a little better. Development focuses almost entirely on building new structures rather than on food systems.”
He has a point. Anyone living in Edmonton can see the focus is on the big, shiny and new. Mostly buildings like the new hockey arena that is one of the many initiatives meant to drag the city into relevance. The sky hosts a booming population of construction cranes that work day and night building much needed additions to the aging skyline. So, clearly urban agriculture doesn’t fall very high on the list of City Hall’s priorities. But hope for such projects is far from lost. Community gardens continue to pop up every summer with the help of neighbourhood support and work from community leagues. The aforementioned restaurant boom that makes up a large portion of Edmonton’s cultural scene means demand won’t waiver. For now, the game is patience and persistence. Thankfully visionaries like Ryan and Cathy have begun to pave the way.
Amy Dillon studied journalism in her home town of Melbourne, Australia before making the move to the Great White North. She now calls Edmonton home and loves immersing herself in local food culture. And by immersing, she means eating.