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Young Urban Farmers co-founder Chris Wong with customer Sasha Cumming.
Young Urban Farmers co-founder Chris Wong with customer Sasha Cumming.

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Twenty-something entrepreneurs nurture 'hire-a-farmer' idea Add to ...

Some businesses are born of sheer entrepreneurial grit, determination and competitive drive. Others are driven by innovation, sometimes of the accidental kind.

In the case of the Young Urban Farmers, sowing the seeds of success has involved all of those elements - not to mention a healthy collection of actual vegetable seeds as founder Christopher Wong and his two partners seek to change the way urbanites eat, one backyard garden at a time.

The Toronto-based start-up was founded last year with a mission to not only turn a healthy profit, but to also encourage sustainable practices in households across the city.

"The three of us all had an entrepreneurial passion, we knew we wanted to run our own business and we were brainstorming different ideas," Mr. Wong, 24, recalls.

"We saw there was a real trend towards growing food locally and reducing the local environmental footprint. We thought there was an underserved market in terms of people looking to set up vegetable gardens but not knowing where to start."

Mr. Wong and his fellow Queen's University commerce graduates, Nancy Huynh and Jing Loh, invested about $5,000 of their own money and launched Young Urban Farmers in early 2009.

After engaging in door-to-door direct marketing and leveraging social networking tools such as Facebook to garner attention, the company began installing its pre-fabricated 1.2-metre square wooden garden boxes in clients' backyards across downtown Toronto. Using their own blend of soil, the company plants and manages the growth of whatever combination of fruits and vegetables a client desires - everything from tomatoes and strawberries, to carrots and lettuce.

Full-service packages start at about $695 per growing season; $295 for customers who prefer to manage and harvest their backyard garden themselves after the initial installation. Young Urban Farmers' cost to set up each garden box runs between $100 and $150 in materials.

The firm's greatest obstacle is to success comes with situating the raised garden boxes in key backyard locations that enjoy enough sunlight for consistent growth. It's the reason why the company also offers a free consultation to ensure every backyard microclimate is suitable for one of its gardens.

So how, exactly, do three commerce grads acquire the knowledge necessary to master outdoor gardening and ensure solid backyard harvests?

"Jing, Nancy and myself had all tended to our parents' gardens as children and we were able to draw on those skills," Mr. Wong explains. "We also went to local public libraries and garden centres to speak to experts and consult books on vegetable gardening and learn about the technical side of things like microclimates in Toronto, as well as plant-specific care."

Perhaps the most important resource, both as mentor and supplier, was Mr. Wong's aunt who operates a greenhouse in Newmarket, Ont., a source of many of Young Urban Farmers' seeds and transplants.

Mr. Wong says that in its first year, the company managed to break even and the founders are hoping to turn a profit this season - they managed to double their client list to more than 50 households for this year's growing season, stretching from May to October.

They've also expanded their product offering, selling 'Earth boxes' to clients hoping to grow fruits and vegetables on rooftops or balconies, a worm composter, as well as a shitake mushroom log that promises to yield several fungus harvests per summer.

Mr. Wong currently has granted one franchise in the Greater Toronto Area - he chose to forego a franchise fee for a 17-per-cent annual royalty to offer greater accessibility to other sustainability-minded entrepreneurs - and is actively seeking to add to that roster.

Franchisee Valentin Li says that it was Young Urban Farmers' sustainability model that was the biggest factor in his choice to sign on with the firm.

"For me, this represents a movement I want to be a part of," Mr. Li explains. "In terms of the business model, you have to think about it long-term. If someone wanted to join us in YUF to earn their fortune, I'd say it isn't really for them."

As part of that urban gardening movement, Mr. Wong also founded the non-profit organization Young Urban Farmers CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture). Volunteers offer some of their property so the group can plant one of its gardens, keep some of the ensuing harvest for themselves and donate the rest to neighbours - who pay a nominal fee for a weekly basket of fresh produce - with the rest of the backyard bounty donated to a local food bank.

Noelle Munaretto, a recent Ryerson University journalism graduate, heard about Young Urban Farmers' non-profit wing through Facebook and volunteered to manage their newsletter and workshops.

"Last summer I grew my own vegetable garden for the first time and I found it so rewarding," Ms. Munaretto says. "Being able to nourish myself and do something sustainable is such an easy thing to do."

She says the non-profit group's main focus is to reach out to younger generations through channels such as social media websites and educate them about the possibilities of urban agriculture, in the hope they might convince their parents that a backyard garden is not only good for the family grocery bill, but also the planet.

While Mr. Wong has no grand plan to put a garden in every backyard, on every roof or on every balcony in the country, he is considering expansion throughout Ontario and possibly to other Canadian cities through his franchise model.

But as he points out, his drive to improve on Young Urban Farmers' early success is driven as much by his passion for sustainability as it is profit.

"Many people realize it's not realistic to grow their own produce to support themselves, but there are opportunities to grow produce to supplement their diet and cut back on their weekly grocery store trips during the summer when their garden is reaching maturity," he says.

"Growing your own food isn't a new idea, but it's an idea that strikes a chord with a lot of people in my age group. They feel it's one thing they can do to be more self-reliant and to learn really valuable skills they take with them wherever they go."

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