Fresh City Farms is a for-profit social enterprise that operates market gardens in Toronto, providing pathways to farming for young people.
Fresh City Farms is a direct farm-to-table for-profit social enterprise that operates bio-intensive market gardens at Downsview Park, on the outskirts of Toronto, and sells direct to households. It sells vegetable bags to 850 local residents, sourcing about half the produce directly from the 4 acres under cultivation at Downsview Park. A key and innovative feature of its business model is the opportunities it provides for cohorts of young and new farmers, allowing them to work as interns on the farm, on a barter arrangement. This reduces barriers to enter agriculture for young people and addresses a critical need for future food security and food system resilience: finding ways to enable young people to enter agriculture.
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Size and population development
2011: 5,573,000; 1990: 3,807,000; 2025: 6,682,000; 2010-2015: +1,48% / year
very high percentage of foreigners. high cultural and ethnic diversity.
economic and finance hub
Main industries / business
finance, information technology, and film industry
Mayor and City Council elected for a four-year term
six districts (Old Toronto, East York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, Nrth York, York) and 140 neighbourhoods
Background and objectives
Founder Ran Goel was originally a New York-based lawyer, but always knew that he ‘wanted to do something more human rights related, or from a general public interest perspective’. He incorporated Fresh City Farms in 2010, and the first growing season was 2011. It operates on a six-acre site that was a former military aircraft military base, and is now a public park, property of the Canadian Federal Government. Two acres are decent soil under nearly full cultivation, and the remaining four consist of poor soil that will take some time to improve.
To empower all to make conscious food choices.
We create and perfect new ways to connect food makers and eaters.
We teach, we challenge, we encourage.
We believe in the intimate connection between people, land and food.
We value artisanal skills and quality production.
We believe our purchases should reflect our values.
We conduct ourselves with integrity and embrace diversity.
We are innovative and entrepreneurial.
We believe that change is possible. Seriously.
Fresh City Farms operates an innovative model to support young people to enter urban farming, which Ran explained:
"The land here is divided into two…Half of it’s farmed by us as a company, Fresh City; and the other half is farmed by member farmers. There are 15 member farmers, and they each have their own plot of land, ranging from 2,000 to 7,000 square feet. We work on a barter basis with those farmers, who are people with some experience, maybe a year or so. We make the land available to them and provide them with some space in the greenhouse to germinate seeds and seedlings. We do some workshops in the spring. The barter is that they provide us with half a days’ labour a week, to help us with weeding and so forth.
We also operate a more traditional internship program, under which people commit to come out here and volunteer one day a week for four weeks. Most of them continue beyond that period. We’ve had dozens of those interns over the years, there’s a strong interest here in urban farming."
The business model is delivery of organic vegetable bags:
"So we deliver to 1500 homes around Toronto, as an organic bag delivery service, about two-thirds to people’s homes, and one-third to pick-up hubs. It’s not a CSA because there’s no sharing of risk, which is the heart of the CSA model. We guarantee the produce in every box. We have an aquaponics greenhouse, and we have storage crops from local farms, and some imports, so we supply year-round; and our customers can buy week by week."
Financing and resources
Fresh City Farms generates its own revenue through sales, which take the form of directly marketed vegetable boxes to local customers.
The average order is $28 for a regular veggie bag, and $37 for a large bag, plus $3 - $4 for delivery. The business does an average of 850 deliveries per week, around $30,000 in weekly sales, with a dip in the summer because of the farmers markets and because customers go on vacation. In winter, when the weather turns cold, people like home deliveries.
Even though the business is reaching a certain scale in terms of sales, Ran feels they have some distance to travel:
We crossed $1 mn in sales last year, 2013. That seemed like a big milestone. But it’s not where we need to be. We need to be in the $5 mn - $10 mn bracket, because there’s a baseline overhead that you need to cover. Even though we have access to land at below commercial rates, we’re selling to the warehouse at wholesale prices. From the customer’s perspective, we’re no different to any other organic delivery service. Our prices have to be competitive; otherwise our customers will just go elsewhere.
Results and impacts
Fresh City Farms has demonstrated that it is possible to operate an intensive market garden in a peri-urban context, achieve a certain level of scale, train several cohorts of young farmers and sustain the business over a number of years. A key achievement has been to provide a space where dozens of young people from Toronto and surrounding areas can access land and gain experience in the growing and marketing of vegetables. Fresh City Farms has received considerable media attention, thus supporting the broader movement for urban agriculture in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada.
Barriers and challenges
A key constraint is the viability of urban farming, due to international competitive pressures, says Ran:
"Early on I realised that soil-based urban farming by itself cannot be viable. Our costs of production are going to be higher, certainly than Mexico and California, and even compared to small rural or peri-urban farms here in Ontario. They have more land, cheaper access to land, and access to cheaper labour than we do in the city. So the idea here is to use this enterprise as a platform, not only to grow food, but to engage people around food, and to sell a range of other products."
Hence the strategy to diversify in order to reach viability:
"That’s our angle on how to make urban farming work, make it viable. We do events here, we do workshops, tours. We get a lot of media attention. We want to build a loyal customer base, around this concept. Because with the production by itself, you can’t compete. Maybe if you’re selling to a very specialized niche customer base, like high-end restaurants; or to the 1 in 200 people who will pay more for city farmed and organic produce, but that’s a very limited market."
Another constraint is reaching a certain scale of operation to attain viability, as explained above. Further, there is no long-term security of tenure, which constitutes a risk to the enterprise's long-term viability.
Lessons learned and transferability
Ran Goel explains a couple of lessons learned in the operation of Fresh City Farms over the past 4 years:
"We realised that we needed to do two things. First, we needed to obtain a higher value per order, in order to make the delivery infrastructure economically viable. Secondly, customers were asking for more products, because they have to go to the grocery store to obtain those. So we want to become something like on online wholefoods store, offering dry food goods in bulk, flours, oils, lentils and so on. The theory is that we’re already making the delivery, so the extra produce won’t cost us much more in transport. And it allows a lot of people to close the loop, because there aren’t that many outlets for local and organic produce in Toronto."
The Fresh City Farms model is highly transferable, to any city with remaining farmland on its peri-urban fringes. Its barter arrangements with the interns reduces the barriers to entry for young people into farming (cost of land), and provides them with invaluable experience and opportunity.