If your business model involves growing plants and gathering their seeds, Canada’s largest city might seem like an unlikely place to start.
But downtown Toronto was where Laura Watt turned her gardening hobby into a seed-selling small business.
While Ms. Watt, who owns Cubit’s., now has a farm east of the city, she didn’t buy it until she’d been in business for three years.
When she first got into the hobby, she tried planting a garden on the roof of a condo building. “I tried to grow in a bunch of places that were very hard to grow,” she says.
Growing fruits and vegetables has a strong appeal for Ms. Watt. “It’s deeply satisfying to grow you own food,” she says. “It really enriches your relationship with what you’re eating.”
Ms. Watt says she’s not quite sure why she decided to start saving seeds but that it happened soon after her vegetable garden became productive.
Tomatoes have a particular appeal for her, she says she started reading about different heirloom varieties on online forums and trading seeds with other gardeners in Toronto. “What’s available by seed is very different from what’s in the grocery store,” she says.
That was when she first started to dream about starting a business. “I had this idea of having a store focused on seed,” she says. “When it really came down to it, when I looked at what interested me, it was the seed.”
For a long time, that was just an idea. Then while pregnant with her first child Ms. Watt lost her job managing an art supplies store. That’s when she started selling seeds, focusing on online retail in order to have more flexibility and work from home.
For three years, as her growing business outgrew her backyard garden, she took over the yards of friends. “It was hard,” she says. That lasted until 2011 visit to a Prince Edward County farm owned by one of her husband’s co-workers. By the end of the weekend, she’d decided to buy a piece of it.
It turned out to be a challenging process. “We were a little naive about this,” she says. “Purchasing land is not like purchasing a house.”
Regulations designed to prevent the spread of subdivisions and things like the digging of a new well slowed things down.
She was able to start using the land before the deal closed in April 2014.
That wasn’t the only benefit of knowing the owners, at the last minute an investor pulled out of the deal. “If we had been strangers, that would have ended it,” she says.
With the farm, Ms. Watt is now “able to scale-up faster,” she says and has “a lot more quality control.”
Her next step is to build a greenhouse which will allow her to grow seeds for biennial plants (they take two years to develop) like carrots. Currently, she sells a limited variety of biennial seeds that she buys from another farm.
Tomatoes have remained the main driver of her business. Cubit’s now sells almost 100 varieties of tomato seeds. “There are people who are really into tomatoes, I’m not the only one,” she says. “People do want variety, they want something new.”
Spring can be a difficult time. Her children go to school in Toronto and her husband works at OCAD University, requiring frequent commutes. But ultimately, she says “it’s worth it,” she says. “My children get to go to a farm and run around in a field.”
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