“I turn fish poop into farm food”: Farming in Toronto’s concrete jungle (or Farming in Toronto’s ‘concrete jungle’)
Twenty-five-year-old Brandon Hebor grew up in Toronto, gaining a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and Geography from McMaster University. He then launched his own urban farming business, Ripple Farms, and completed a graduate certificate in Green Business Management at Seneca College.
Like many Canadians, my great-grandparents immigrated to Canada, and became farmers out of necessity: if they hadn’t grown their own food, they’d have struggled to make a living. But my family has seen agriculture fall by the wayside over the generations. I grew up in the concrete jungle of Toronto, where I was one of the only people I knew growing plants in my backyard. I’ve had that passion ever since I was an eight year old planting my first seed, so it’s great that I’ve been able to turn it into a viable business.
I graduated in 2015, and started studying for a certification in sustainable business, despite not being quite sure of my next steps. A fellow student, Steven Bourne, and I were discussing becoming sustainability consultants when I showed him a picture of this cool home agricultural set-up I’d been experimenting with. The next time we met, he produced a business plan and said “let’s give it a go!” Having someone else there was the push I needed to take a leap of faith into agriculture.
Our venture, Ripple Farms, operates out of Canada's first urban farming unit. We can grow a range of plants and produce, but our mission goes beyond this – we want to educate and engage urban populations with where their food comes from, and encourage people to think locally when it comes to food production and food security. Part of our resource efficiency comes from using aquaponics. In layman’s terms, we turn fish feces into farm food. Operating in 160 square feet of space, we’re able to produce food equivalent to one-quarter acre’s worth of land. I’m in charge of bio operations, and Steven is in charge of the social enterprise business.
We have a big focus on education. We’ve spoken to about 500 school children about how aquaponics ties into ecology and biology. We take a very hands-on approach to education, showing the students simple water tests, showing them our gadgets, letting them seed plants and taste herbs. Then in the advanced classes we talk more technically, about things like bacteria and biological functionality.
When we started the business, we were basically two young guys with a picture and a dream. Traditional investors thought we were too much of a risk, so instead, we rounded up family and friends as investors, and then ploughed in our own savings. Self-funding the business has meant that every dollar counts; we have to make a lot of smart purchasing decisions. We’re both 100 percent invested in the project, spending an average of 80-85 hours a week on it. I basically have no life outside the farm, but it doesn’t feel like work at all. I’m living the idiom, ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!’
Greater Toronto is the fastest-growing area in Canada, with youth flocking to the city from rural areas. When I caught wind of the Youth Ag-Summit, I was particularly keen to meet delegates from places like New Zealand and Australia, which have a very upbeat, young farming culture. It’ll be interesting to meet people from agrarian societies who are already doing a great job in motivating youth. The gap is getting people to look at farming as a viable career, instead of automatically striving for a more corporate job.
I look at our booming population and think: if development continues to sprawl across arable land, how are we going to feed all these people? How do we bridge the gap between a growing urban population consuming food, and a shrinking rural population producing it? Ontario imports $20 billion dollars of food a year – how much of that could be produced locally instead? (The answer: over half.) And crucially, how will climate change affect everything? It’ll be interesting to see what might happen as these issues come to the fore.