At 5:30 a.m. on market day, Kelowna, B.C. farmer Curtis Stone is busy loading two custom-made trailers with 10 bins of salad greens and radishes. He adds two small totes, three folding tables and a canopy tent packed into a duffle bag.
After strapping it all down, the 31-year-old hops on his longtail cargo bike and pulls the trailers into the empty street by his downtown home to begin the five-kilometre trek to the farmers' market.
Mr. Stone describes himself as a "pedal-powered urban farmer." Now in his second year, he works three-quarters of an acre spread between six plots located in other people's backyards. "With the land that I'm running now, I could feed about 120 families," he said.
A former musician who had not even gardened before starting his business, Mr. Stone is quickly emerging as a leader in the growing urban agriculture movement known as SPIN (small-plot intensive) farming. This past winter, he delivered paid workshops in California and B.C., sharing his techniques with other would-be urban farmers. He recently accepted a gig to do the same next year in India.
Convinced that the era of cheap, abundant oil is coming to a close, Mr. Stone uses mostly hand tools when tending to his fields and relies on his bicycle for most of his transportation needs, be it hauling a 360-kilogram rototiller or making deliveries to one of the six restaurants he supplies with local produce. Mr. Stone figures he pedalled about 6,000 kilometres last year.
"There's some days where I'm doing some serious schlepping, no doubt about that," he said. "But really, at the end of the day I'm always thinking, man, do I feel alive."
Mr. Stone has a committed following among the regulars who frequent Kelowna farmers' market. Starting about 15 minutes before the market's official 8 a.m. opening, he entertains a steady stream of customers who stop by to pick up his wares and have a quick chat.
Among them is Anna Warwick Sears, who heads up the Okanagan Basin Water Board. In addition to making regular purchases at the market, she is one of 14 participants in his new community-supported agriculture program.
For a $575 upfront fee, each participant gets a bin of food every week for 23 weeks, its contents varying with the season. The idea is to provide the farmer with a guaranteed income and the customer with a guaranteed supply of fresh, local food.
"It's not about cost savings or anything like that, it's about being more connected to the farm and supporting a new model. It's interesting and fun and it's also building community," said Ms. Warwick Sears of why she chose to sign up. "It's kind of a youthful, energetic, positive new way of looking at things and I want to support that."
While conventional farmers often struggle to break even, Mr. Stone said he turned a small profit within six months of starting his operation. He compensates the owners of the land he uses with bins of food rather than cash, and his other overhead costs are minimal. He cleared approximately $16,000 in his first growing season and hopes to increase that to more than $50,000 this year.
"In any other system of agriculture, profits are totally diluted through all the machinery, mortgage and lease payments that you have, plus all your transportation costs," he said, before acknowledging there are limits to SPIN farming's money-making potential. "I don't really think anybody is going to make millions … but all I'm interested in doing is just making a decent living."
It's a way of making a living that allows him to live his convictions. "Gas prices are going to be so high soon that it's going to be too expensive to grow food outside the city," he said. "I consider this a transitional business … transitioning to a post-carbon society."
Special to The Globe and Mail