DARTMOUTH, N.S. – Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, Jean Snow would hardly have seen herself becoming a leading urban market gardener in Eastern Canada in later years. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
“I had no agricultural background,” says Jean, now 56. “My Dad (Milton) always wanted to be a farmer so he went to the University of Illinois to study agriculture. But land was too expensive so he just ended up tinkering around with an orchard, a barn and a garden.
“My mom (Dorothy) was also a perennial gardener. But I never did any of that kind of stuff with them; in fact I kind of resented it. It’s funny to look back now after all these years because I think they would say it was really neat to see what I am doing now.”
Married to a full time airline pilot Bob Kropla from Winnipeg, they moved to other parts of Canada before settling in Nova Scotia a few years ago. The two became urban farmers back in 2008 after she read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and found a link on Kingsolver's website to the Saskatoon SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farmer.
She found one of the biggest challenges for urban farmers was the lack of space. Jean overcame that obstacle by embracing the SPIN methods that includes strategic planning in these city gardens.
“That’s when it all came together,” Jean says. “We showed up the farmers’ market that summer with our food and we were on our way. We had our own garden, and then in the second year we added two more backyards, another two the next and that made five in total. I don’t know the exact total of acreage or feet….perhaps one to two acres.
“Each year we start doing something new. The second year it was CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The first it was largely sales at the farmers market and we dealt with restaurants and a green grocer. It is amazing just how much food we can grow. Initially we had bought a refrigerator for storage on our side deck but we outgrew that right away.”
She says CSA is a unique way of farming that ties meaningful relationships between the farmer, the consumer, and the land. By investing in the farm at the beginning of the season, members accept some of the risks inherent to farming like flood, drought or crop failure but are still able to enjoy the incredible bounty of a successful harvest.
Getting involved with Rebecca (Becky) Sooksom, who coordinates a variety of innovative THINKFARM projects in Nova Scotia, Jean has quickly gained a reputation for the family’s enterprise – called Lake City Farm – right in the city of Dartmouth. Along the way she has attracted the attention of several media outlets including local newspapers and CBC-TV.
“Becky has been great but we didn’t get to know her until we were a few years into this,” Jean explains. “We did all of us with our own money, nothing from outside sources. I was a bit naïve at first, thinking this would be something that both the city and province would like.
“I registered with the province and have become more politically active on issues like the need to change zoning bylaws. I also registered with the department of agriculture as a farmer but it seems nobody really knows what to do with me. Zoning is not really set up for urban farming and I want to change that. Right how I am categorized only as a home business.”
Last year the project expanded, with the addition of another service called Your Garden Harvest. Through that, she makes her gardening expertise available to homeowners who may not want to do the work or have enough time to get involved themselves. For this she charges a start-up and maintenance fee.
Jean and an apprentice take care of the customer’s garden from creation to harvest. Offering a wide range of vegetables and herbs, her program provides options to fit different needs and budgets.
“On our property, we grow an awful lot of vegetables like carrots, potatoes, baby chard, baby beets, arugula, tomatoes, cress, romaine lettuce and more, as well as a little fruit,” continues Jean, a former teacher with a degree in education. “Last year we got into pumpkins but our specialty for the market is our greens.
“We revaluate every year because it is hard to make a living and is very labour intensive. You need the help of people quite often. Bob is a full time pilot and not always around but he has built a lot of great infrastructures for the business, like the side deck which became our post harvest area, a walk-in-cooler and a compost system.”
They sell their produce Saturdays at the Dartmouth Farmers' Market, often to their neighbours and friends from the door, to Agricola Street's Local Source Market and Cubano’s Market.
Jean says important elements that make up a successful urban farm enterprise include proper soil, sharing of information with volunteers and a genuine love of the work.
“If I were to offer any advice to those considering going into this I would say don’t go into debt because there different ways of doing things inexpensively,” she adds. “Do your homework. When I was living in Illinois, I never saw myself doing anything like this but I love it.
“Our children Elise and Elliot are grown up, studying at university but I don’t see either one of them showing an interest. That sounds a bit like me when I growing up in Chicago. All I know is that Bob and I really enjoy what we’re doing and what’s being produced. We have really embraced the concept of urban farming.”