How three Commies took to farming – downtown
With a mantra that “food and eating unite us all,” three recent business school graduates decided to do a little urban uniting of their own through gardening. The result is a business called Young Urban Farmers (YUF), founded in Toronto by friends Nancy Huynh, Com’08 (MA’11 in Geography expected), Chris Wong, Com’07, and Jing Loh, Com’07, in the spring of 2009.
The idea, according to all three, includes “sharing our passion for local organic produce by making gardening simple, fun, and rewarding for people across the GTA, and then Ontario and beyond.” And the method they’ve employed to do that is to do as much or as little gardening as their client wants. Under the slogan “Fresh food in your yard without the work,” they currently offer everything from a full-service option that includes planting, maintenance and harvesting for their clients, to consulting with homeowners regarding what vegetables will grow best in their backyard, front yard or condo balcony, and letting them do the gardening on their own. Every client - with or without a swath of land -- is also given a fruit and vegetable growing guide with tips on thinning, watering, pruning, and harvesting their crops.
With the locavore (or eat local) buzz continually getting louder, the three savvy business grads, who had already started careers in more conventional fields, saw a need to “promote local, organic produce and a healthy lifestyle.” The YUF stresses that clients follow organic gardening principles and not use any chemical pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, genetically modified seeds or transplants.
The partners all grew up helping their parents tend backyard fruit and vegetable patches; Chris Wong’s Aunt Debbie (their mentor) runs a commercial farm near Newmarket, ON. They also consulted with more experienced gardeners, studied the subject, and then, when they were ready to literally dig in, designed packages to suit urban-dwellers who long for home-grown edibles. With future franchising already in mind, they also arranged bulk-buying discounts for soil mixes, vegetable and herb seedlings, and supplies for building planters and “critter-guards.”
For Chris in particular, the entrepreneurship course he took during his last year at Goodes Hall with Professor Kelley Pakelen helped shape him as a future business owner. Jing credits the school’s get-involved culture and academic standards as motivators to “step outside of my own boundaries and comfort zone while balancing a hefty workload and taking on leadership roles to further my personal development.”
Today, clients range from young professionals, families wanting to teach children where food comes from, and those who simply don’t want to “do the heavy lifting and hard work of setting up a garden,” says Chris.
In the early marketing days, Nancy says “being Queen's alumni helped us get those very first sales when nobody knew about YUF, but trusted us as good people.” She also credits Queen’s Career Services, through which she secured an 18-month internship with IBM, with changing her perspective on careers. That internship opened her eyes to owning her own business: “If not for the folks at Queen's Career Services and IBM, I probably wouldn't be an entrepreneur right now.”
Besides the business aspect, the Young Urban Farmers see themselves as offering people access to a sustainable food source. This is crucial, according to Chris, because “it is really the synergy that comes from taking the perspective of food as an all-encompassing topic that addresses everything from health, social security, and economic development to cultural celebrations.”
“That's why I'm really excited,” he adds, “about the food strategy report recently adopted by Toronto Public Health and how it can help make Toronto a more food- secure place.” If these idealistic entrepreneurs have anything to do with it, YUF will be part of making that happen. They’ve already launched a non-profit arm designed to put fresh food into under-privileged neighborhoods.