11 Must-Know Urban Farming Lessons with Paul Hughes, Founder of Grow Calgary

Paul Hughes is the founder of GrowCalgary.ca, an 11-acre, 9,000

volunteer non-for profit urban farm in Calgary, CA

with the goal of producing over 10 million food items from their farm in 2017.

Even more impressively, all of the crops will go to feed disadvantaged citizens in the local community.

We caught up with Paul to discuss compassionate farming, the intersection of urban civil policy and farming, and even discussed less common urban farming topics, like what "rat root" is.


Sections Covered: 

Introduction: What is Grow Calgary? 

1. How to get people involved in urban farming
2. The "Mow to Grow" Urban Farming Model
3. How to farm on public urban land
4. How to think about different growing mediums
5. A specific and easy growing system set up
6. How to start seeds simply and cheaply
7. An example on how to start seeds cheaply
8. Germination Rate of Second Hand Seeds
9. Effect of Herbicides and Pesticides on Plant Growth
10. Best Crops to Start with as an Urban Farming Beginner
11. Rapid Fire Urban Farming Questions


Introduction: What is Grow Calgary? 

UV: Could you talk about what Grow Calgary is, what its mission is, how it started, the backstory?

Paul: Grow Calgary is an urban farm, a community urban farm, here on crown land, in Canada that means public land, and under the responsibility of our provincial government, we lease 11 acres of land.

It costs us 30 dollars per acre per year, we have 9,000 volunteers, and we donate every single food item that we produce to social agencies that have food access programs. 

Grow Calgary has over 9,000 volunteers and operates 11 acres of urban farms.
Paul with Canadian President Justin Trudeau

UV: Would you classify this as a CSA? You have this entire operation with all of these volunteers, working on the government land, how do you classify this project? 

Paul: If the C in CSA is compassionate, then yes. Because we are not a commercial food system, we are a compassionate food system, we are compassionate agriculture, no one in our operation gets paid, and people come out and grow food for vulnerable citizens in our province.

That was our motivation, to disconnect from the commercial food system and to use public land to grow food for the public. 

UV: Did you start (Grow Calgary) or what's kind of the backstory and the history?

Paul: I started Grow Calgary, my son and I, started it, and he was, at the time, 8 years old, and I wanted to demonstrate to him through my personal food activism that there were ways to respond to challenges in our food system.

I wanted to demonstrate what food justice and food access is all about for his dad, and how we might respond to this challenge. 

UV: Is your personal background in food activism?

Paul: My background is purely activism, my father was a food activist, and he was the kind of guy who picked up hitch hikers back in the day in the 60s and 70s and that's where I come from.

He was (also) a union man in a mining community in northern Canada, he had a big heart, and he instilled in me that there are ways to act, and the most important thing is to care and connect our passion and our compassion to action. 

image courtesy Grow Calgary

How to get people involved in urban farming

UV: You started this whole project and it's obviously pretty big now. What do you think is the most important thing you've (learned) since starting this project as far as the aspect of getting people involved in urban farming?

Paul: That's a really tough thing to ask an any (urban farmer), but i'll take on the challenge,I'd have to say the most important thing is planting that first seed, it demonstrates symbolically that "this can happen".

With that is the effort required to plant that first seed and make it happen. It took me 5 years to get into that land (that Grow Calgary uses today).

Battling and engaging and fighting and everything else where you need to go at as far as dealing with bureaucrats and politicians, our challenges in Canada dealing with my jurisdiction are no different than anyone dealing with any other jurisdiction.

So, it took me a long time to figure out the land and plant that first seed. But that was so important - to never give up, to keep persistent, so that was the most important thing.


The "Mow to Grow" Urban Farming Model

UV: Can you talk about the "Mow to grow" program, and why other beginner urban farmers may be interested in your model? 

 There's a lot of different ways to doing it, this is the grow Calgary approach,  but we encourage all people to look at land, which is presently unused and unloved, we call it "unloved land", and to try to acquire that land, through a lease, and to start growing on that land.

We have an actual program called "mow to grow", because if that land is in the public realm, it is probably being serviced or maintained in some way, and the way that we do it in North America is we mow it.

So we encourage jurisdictions, and this is any jurisdiction in North America: if they're mowing land, if they're mowing grass, then they're spending money on that maintenance, and we need to try to transition from a mowing culture to a growing culture.

Because there are tractors and there are employees and there are resources being thrown at mowing and so for us to have that, gets us thinking, we need to start looking at growing on that land, and that is truly sustainable, that is truly resilient, and if it's done for food access purposes, then that is truly compassionate.

Economic Impact of Mow-to-Grow for cities

The economic argument that we're giving to tax payers is, I don't care if you're living in Chicago, or Calgary, or Chattanooga, you're going to need to present an economic argument as well (in addition to the food access argument), we often, as activists (just) think, well this is just a great idea. People should just go for it, do it, because good ideas die every day.

But there IS such a strong economic argument, and the tax payers can ultimately save money (with Mow to Grow style programs) because 1) were using the space wisely and reusing the maintenance costs and 2) it's not a new tax, it's a reallocation of funds, which have significant benefits, mowing has no significant benefit.

So (urban grown) food, for food access purposes, has massive impact, especially for the health care system, so a small transition of (cumulatively) 10 or 20 or 30 acres can have millions of dollars of benefit by providing those (urban grown) crops to vulnerable individuals that are living in poverty and have challenges around accessing proper nutrition.


How to farm on public urban land

UV: You're talking about this issue of public land and the political aspect of (using) it, how do you view the type of zoning needed for (commercial urban farming) projects and how it's technically illegal to just start growing something and say start selling it?

In most places it's illegal to grow something and just give it away if you don't have the proper zoning and the proper approval, so how do you think about that process for someone who is just starting out (with urban farming)?

Paul: Land use, zoning, by-laws, legislation, those types of things unfortunately  take up way too much time, and have taken up about 80% of my time, when at the end of the day what we really only want to do is grow food.

It's something that right now, in a lot of jurisdictions that are not as progressive as others, that may not be a Portland or a Seattle or maybe even a Chicago or a Detroit, you're maybe going to have to spend a little bit of time talking to your local politicians, bureaucrats, getting a good snapshot of the lay of the land, when it comes to by laws and zoning and land use. 

Within that context that's part of our job as activists, and early adapters is that we're going to have to break some ground for those that follow behind us, and there is a lot of really good powerful land use zoning out there as it is that you could use to share with these individuals (local politicians),

You can organize a little bit, you can say "hey, why don't we adopt some of this progressive land use zoning", say like (zoning friendly to urban farming introduced) in Seattle in 2010, and get things going with things like that, unfortunately in this day and age it's a little bit political in some of these jurisdictions, but it's something that we're doing to have to try to address. 

Then, within that, look at what you can do or can get away with, based on what exists at the moment (in your city) and do that, and again symbolically,

Just planting that seed is so important to get going because proof of concept is critical it's something that you need to have your prototype to show people that it's actually happening,

There's nothing like a citizen that actually starts to break ground and does the best they can, and shows that it can happen, and demonstrates that they're willing to put their effort into something, that is incredibly powerful and maybe the most powerful statement.

There's also media, there's social media, there's traditional media, there's the mainstream media or what we like to call the "lamestream" media but sometimes they're not lame sometimes they're incredibly powerful, what you're doing is incredibly powerful, providing that story, being innovative, being creative.

These types of things aren't just going to happen, in some cases the local legislators are savvy enough to change and have created the conditions so that (urban farming on public land) can happen, and there are some jurisdictions where they're not there yet but at lead you have your work cut out for you and it's work and it's really really important to proceed on that expeditiously. 


How to think about different growing mediums: 

UV: what's your perspective, for someone who's just starting out, how do you view the (types of growing options) as far as growing goes?

When you do your first research into this (urban farming), I know I this is how it was for me, you see conventional growing outdoors, or growing in a greenhouse or hydroponic or aquaponic, how do you view the process of picking a (style) to start?

Does it depend on how much room you have or how much space you have or what you're trying to grow or how do you view that choice?

Paul: All of those are really applicable, so first of all (you need to ask) are you compassionate or are you commercial?

You need to decide if you're growing compassionately vs growing commercially (because then) you identify spaces you can find where people will let you grow, based on your local ordinances,

If you're looking at a longer term strategy where you want to work with local officials then find out where you can do this and maybe there's some private land owners who will let you access their land, there's SPIN farming, small plot intensive, there's public land all over the place in the public realm,


A specific and easy growing system set up

Paul: I get people who come over, I've got some starters (plants) going right now, and my friends come over, and some of them are just amazed, because I've just got an old yogurt container and I've got some seeds (growing) in it. I've got hundreds and hundreds of these, an old pop tray, or beer tray (box), I don't know what you call them down in the states, but it's that cardboard and you put a little bit of plastic on it, throw some dirt in there put in a bunch of seeds and all the sudden I've got a start and early germination.

And everybody's like "Whoa, that's amazing!". The overall process, the whole thing (costs) like 5 cents maybe.

UV: So it's a beer case box with plastic? 

Paul: Yeah it's the box where the beer cans come in and the pop cans come in, we have those little trays right? They're 12" by 18" or something like that

UV: And is it plastic wrap or what kind of plastic is it? 

Paul:  Well it's just a garbage bag or any kind of plastic bag, you cut it out and put a little tape on there and you're good to go, it costs nothing, you can go in and buy a formal tray for $2.50 (seed starting tray), but this is a way of doing it (also), I personally believe in re-purposing, upcycling, and gleaning, I'm a big gleaner, I don't have a lot of money, and I like being innovative and creative.

Everything doesn't have to be flashy and edifice and "I subscribe to vernacular" approaches to things, so it's as simple a that, and I think it's important to future young people, especially the teachers out there that are listening right now, and anybody who's in a club or organization, it doesn't have to be flashy, it's more important to start and get it going than it is to have all the ducks in a row and things like that.

There's two types of people out there, there's people who will plan to the nth degree, and then there's people who will just dive right in, and they're goin',

I'd rather dive right in let's get it goin'! It's really important to our young children, to our kids to our youth to demonstrate these types of things and you know, they're (also) demonstrating to us,

I learn a lot from kids as well, they're the ones coming to us and they're the ones that are growing in a digital, hyper-connected environment, and they're pretty quick learners, they're update is massive. So, what we used to struggle with, they have no problem with it, it comes almost second hand.


How to start seeds simply and cheaply

UV: One other question based off the super easy growing system you just described with the beer boxes, does it matter what kind of soil you put in there? Or are you using just potting soil from the hardware store? Does it even matter or? What I'm getting at is, if somebody wanted to listen to this and or read the article version and actually do it I want to make sure there's enough detail.

Paul: Absolutely, now I'm not the horticulture society, I don't grow in straight rows, a lot of people in horticulture would consider me to be a heretic, and "don't listen to that guy he's crazy",

that's fine, and I am a little bit crazy, but you can get very very precise with it, you can go and buy a bag of potting soil, you can go out and get some nicer soil, sow things together, the purists out there would go buy your proper equipment,

but do a little research, take five minutes to look at some types of soil, if you go out in the public realm and you go out and find an area and go "Ok, here's some soil", if something's already growing in it, there's a great chance that that soil's going to be OK (for growing other things).

You don't need a lot of soil to get your "starts" going (seedlings), it all depends, this year we're going to try to grow 10 million food items (at Grow Calgary), well we're going to need A LOT of soil. But if you're going to be growing say, 100 vegetables, well you don't need as much soil (selectivity),

It's not that critical, and you will see the results of what you're doing in 5-7 days, so if things are not germinating, it could be your seeds or it could be your soil, it could be how much water, you gotta keep things wet, and it could be your exposure to sunlight.

So just grab some seeds, I bought some popcorn seeds, they're a GMO free heirloom popcorn seed, and I put them in the soil and they grew! I got about 1,000 seeds for 8$, that kind of thing, there's a lot of different hacks out there.


An example on starting seeds cheaply:

UV: What does the plant look like for that (popcorn)? 

Paul: Well they're just corn seeds, I just grabbed it and threw it in, I can send you a picture of it, it was really funny I just did it on a whim,

and all the sudden it started growing and you can go into your grocery store and you can grab some seeds and they will grow, and you can get bulk stuff from seed companies,

and there's all kinds of things you can do to save money, or you can go out and buy the formal seed packs if you have some money and you want to grow lettuce or some kale or some chard or sweet potatoes,

they're not that expensive these days (the seeds), a lot of times the seed companies will not keep their seeds on the shelf for more than a year, and so that stuff is taken off the shelf and kicked down and you can get that for 10 cents on the dollar,

and even get it donated especially if your compassionate and doing it non for profit approach, you can get a lot of that for super cheap.


Germination Rate of Second Hand Seeds

UV: And if they're older all that means is they will germinate at a less successful rate? Is that the only downside? 

Paul: You nailed it they suggest instead of getting 95% (germination rate) you might get 70%, we've had really good luck with (those types) of seeds, we get really really high germination rates with them, and it costs us next to nothing, and a lot of it gets donated to us, we've had over 2 million seeds donated to us, so they grow, and then we're starting to save our own seed, which is so simple it's not even funny, this year,

I think all of our tomatoes will be from tomatoes we grew last year, that didn't quite make the cut that we processed (for seeds), and we're going to grow our own tomatoes, and again, there's all kinds of youTube videos on how to save seed, and we're growing compassionately so we're not a scientific farm or anything like that,

we're not commercial or anything like that where you have to have a certain type of product style, when we go into the drop in and women's emergency center (with the crops), we give them tomatoes,

there's 10 different types of tomatoes in there, and as long as they're clean and healthy and not damaged, then they can use them, for spaghetti sauce or whatever they are making, so they don't go "we have to have a certain type of product",

it just needs to be healthy and clean, and we grow everything organically, there's no herbicides, pesticides, or chemicals.


Effect of herbicides and pesticides on plant growth? 

UV: How do you think that changes your success for growing? With the lack of use of herbicides and pesticides, how significant is the disadvantage of growing, if there is any? 

Paul: For the record, I'm not seeing any disadvantage whatsoever, we soil 'em in, we do hav eto other things, you don't just sit there and put on muscle (as an analogy), you don't just drink your protein with your milkshake in it and put muscle on, you've got to go and work out a little bit too, so we don't use the herbicides,

we don't use the pesticides, we don't use chemical fertilizers, but we do do soil management, we do have organic pest management, so there are little things that we do, we monitor our crops we keep an eye on things,

we mulch like crazy, and there's all kinds of little things that you can do but I've not seen a demonstrable difference in yield, and also, because we make decisions based on 4 bottom lines: people, plant, profit, and principles, we're hitting all of those, so our soil is healthy, we've got earthworms, we've got bees,

those are the (outdoor) farm laborers, the earthworms and the bees, and they're doing the heavy lifting in the organic agricultural system, and every year, our soil is more and more and more fertile, and we have less and less and less impact on the environment.

UV: Is that because of the mulching or what do you attribute that to? 

Paul: Well, it's because we compost like crazy, we have our whole compost system, we're the largest non-for profit composting system in Canada, we're putting all that compost into the soil, so we're getting more fertile soil,

we're giving the plants the nutrients they need to grow and build, and also the composting aligned with the mulching assists with growth, besides that there's proper nutrition and access to moisture, and those types of things, so it all contributes there's so many types of things.

Mother nature is probably one of the bigger factors as well, so if mother nature is not cooperating and we're having a poor growing season then we have a poor growing season.

But even when we have very very challenging growing seasons, we still grow a whole bunch of food, because as hard as we try, mother nature just has a way of persevering, so plant your seed, and get out of the way.


Best Crops to Start with as a urban farming beginner? 

UV: So you mentioned the lettuce and chard and kale, which crops do you think are the lowest maintenance and easiest to grow? I know people have said to me that the lowest maintenance are often some of the smaller shorter life cycle crops, the loose leaf lettuce type stuff, do you think that's spot on or how do you think about that? 

Paul: So we've grown about 30 different types of veggies and we've got it down to about 10 that're doing really well in our particular environment and growing zone, you know, potatoes are really simple, I find carrots really simple, kale is really really simple, chard is simple, radish is simple, onions are crazy easy, if you're on top of it,

On top of your urban garden, if you spend a little bit of time and invest some time, your return on investment is huge, we always say at Grow Calgary, "we're not launching a space shuttle", but there is a time investment you don't just put a seed in the ground and then it just kind of happens, so while we say,

"Put the seeds in the ground and get out of the way", mother nature needs to do its thing, you assist the process where you can, so there's a lot of different things that you can do, and that's just trial and error for some people, and researching, and finding out what the best techniques are, and examining your growing climate and the conditions that you have access to.

So there's a lot of different things, and it's really been quite a journey, it's been an amazing journey at Grow Calgary, and the premise, the most fulfilling rewarding thing that I've ever done in my life. I didn't know I really wanted, needed to be a farmer until I was almost 50 years old.


Rapid Fire Questions

UV: So in closing, we'll do some raid fire questions, super-short answer questions.

You mentioned you lease your land for 30$ an acre, (for those interested in similar NFP projects to Grow Calgary), where does that fall on the spectrum of acreage pricing in an urban environment? 

Paul: That's almost free, we live in a city where an acre of land is worth, depending on where it is, a couple million dollars, that's almost free, 30$ dollars / acre / year is pretty much free. That's a cup of coffee per month, so we're really lucky. I hope there are a couple jurisdictions where if you're growing compassionately and connect and do your research, hopefully you can connect and also access land for fairly cheap, you don't own the land, but often you can access, but that's still dirt cheap.

What's your favorite fruit or vegetable? 

Paul: My favorite fruit, definitely, an apple, banana close second, and veggies, I'm a big fan of the potato, I'm really starting to like kale a lot, and nothing like a fresh carrott right out of the ground, with some dirt still on it. And snap peas!

UV: In Canada what's a produce item that's much more popular than it is in the US or other areas? 

Paul: The Maple Potato.

UV: The Maple Potato? 

Paul: I'm just kidding, but we love our maple, in Canada I don't know If I'd be able to say we I know Canadians we love our potatoes for sure, McCain Potatoes are huge we grow potatoes in Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, all over the place, but I guess potatoes are huge in the rest of the world, so I don't know to answer that one, I think that veggies across the table are pretty popular because the mosaic that we have in Canada, we have so many different nationalities here and its such a mix of nationalities that I don't know if there's a Canadian "thing", we do have something caled rat root but I won't get into that.

UV:  Rat Root? 

Paul: Rat Root yeah it's an aboriginal thing but its a sliver of our population. Blueberries also. We have so many because of the boreal forest (across Canada), they grow naturally, you could fill a million Olympic swimming pools with all the blueberries that we grow.

UV: Is that an actual statistic? 

Paul: Well the Canadian Boreal forest other than the Russian Boreal forest, Canada's is the second largest in the world and it's massive, like the size of the continental USA, the Boreal forest is huge. We call it the Canadian Shield. It's the Amazon of the north, and parts of Alaska have that as well.

UV: If somebody wanted to read a book about urban farming, do you have any suggested books or resources for uban farming beginners? 

Paul: I would have to say, I know that I'm chickening out on this one, but I would have to say Google, I mean it's right there for us, you can watch videos of other people doing planting things, spend an afternoon and after 2 hours you'll know how to prep your soil you'll know how to do everything, there's all kinds of interesting books out there, and again, because we have that tool, I never had that tool when I was younger, there was no such thing as the internet, so, use that, it is so powerful.

There is everything you'll ever want to know about anything. We'll be harvesting at the farm, and somebody will go "Hey What's that? " and will take a picture and share it on social media and somebody will respond and say oh that's this, and that's why you've got to do," or look it up on Google and there it is and there's a YouTube video and 5 minutes later we're doing that thing right on the spot, we triage, so many things using Google and YouTube and sorry to chicken out on an actual book.

And definitely social media, on Twitter there's a hashtag #urbanag there's #garden, there's #food, there's #farm, #farm365, #foodaccess, we have a huge massive community of people, and also our ethnic community and our elders, and our seniors, a lot of them grew up in a culture where they were growing food and they need to be invited t share their epertise, so each of us is a book , and each of us bring something to the table, and a lot of us are just waiting for that inviation, they don't r ead minds, so go to a seniors home or reach out to the ethnic community locally and see if there's people that want to comout and help out.

UV: If people want to find out about Grow Calgary what do they do? Is there a way people can help even if they're not from Calgary? If they're living in Australia or something.

Paul: If you're living in Australia or Chicago and want to help us, then plant a digital seed. PLant a digital seed by liking us on soial media, and sharing with your friends.


UV: Thanks Paul, I appreciate it! 

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