Skip to main content

Reap what they sow

Commerce grads turned Young Urban Farmers
Shelley Pleiter
Chris Wong and helper Sasha Cumming

Their non-profit initiative brings home-grown produce to less privileged neighbourhoods.

There’s a solution for urbanites who long for a home-grown crop of tomatoes but are too busy or horticulturally challenged to grow their own. A Toronto-based company, Young Urban Farmers, comes to the rescue with vegetables and herbs they plant, tend and nurture so clients can honestly say, “These tomatoes? Why yes, they’re from our own garden.” No need to be overly specific on exactly who did the planting, watering, weeding and harvesting.

The company is the brainchild of three recent Commerce grads with green thumbs, an interest in food, and an entrepreneurial bent. Chris Wong (2007), Nancy Huynh (2008) and Jing Loh (2007) launched Young Urban Farmers in the summer of 2009.All share a common love of gardening, having helped tend their parents’ backyard gardens during their childhoods.

The seeds of their venture may have been sown in fourth year, when Chris was inspired by Professor Kelley Porter’s class on entrepreneurship. He’d had some business experience already, having run a successful painting business as a summer job after his first year. “I’d always been interested in entrepreneurship, but I didn’t know when I was a student that it was something I’d actually get into as a career,” Chris explains.

The three friends took divergent paths after graduation, but stayed in touch. Chris travelled for a year, spending time in Asia on various work experience assignments. Nancy completed an 18-month internship with IBM, while Jing joined George Weston Ltd., working in commodities risk management. When hanging out one day after Chris’s return from his travels, the three realized that they all shared a passion for two things: starting their own business, and gardening. “It was Nancy who came up with the original concept, and then it just morphed from there,” Chris recalls.

Their slogan says it all: “Fresh food in your yard without the work.”

They started small in 2009, with Chris and Nancy working on the venture full-time, along with one employee, while Jing contributed in his spare time. They did their research, pooled their savings and set about setting up shop. They chose a company name – Young Urban Farmers – that says it all, and a similarly appropriate slogan: “Fresh food in your yard without the work.” Jing did the majority of the paperwork required to incorporate the company. “To other aspiring entrepreneurs who are thinking of starting their own business, it’s not as complicated as you might think,” he advises. “It does take a great idea, but it also takes just getting out there, putting the word out and taking action on your idea.”

That’s just what the trio did when they commandeered a workshop in Chris’s parents’ backyard, purchased seeds and materials to build planters and “critter guards” to keep pesky wildlife at bay. The next step was getting the word out through direct mailings and good, old-fashioned, door-to-door salesmanship. In their first summer, 24 customers in midtown Toronto chose either the full service of a planted and regularly maintained garden, or the basic set-up of a four-by-four planter they would tend themselves.

Their customers varied from earnest foodies, determined to fully nurture their gardens, to the time-challenged whose contributions consisted of snipping off a tomato here or pulling a carrot there. Another somewhat unexpected clientele was families who used the opportunity to teach their children where food comes from before it arrives on the grocery store’s shelves.

“I think it’s really important for kids to see how you can create food without pesticides and chemicals,” says Bob Hillhouse (Arts’85), one of the company’s satisfied customers. “It takes more work sometimes, but you can definitely taste the difference. Tasting one of our home-grown tomatoes versus store-bought is like comparing a cellophane-wrapped sandwich loaf to the best baguette you can get.”

As their second growing season approaches, the management team has undergone some changes. Jing left George Weston Ltd. to join Chris full-time in the business, while Nancy contributes while juggling her studies in Queen’s MA program in Geography.

The company has also unveiled some ambitious plans. It’s offering franchises to interested entrepreneurs to expand their territory beyond the North Toronto/Lawrence Park region of the city where they currently operate. In exchange for a fee, franchisees would have access to building materials, soil mixes, and herb and vegetable seedlings bought in bulk for better prices. They would also receive marketing support, training and advice from the company’s founders to help franchisees make a success of their respective businesses.

Even though they’re still in start-up mode, the company’s founders have made a commitment to give back to the community. They recently launched a non-profit arm – Young Farmers CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) – to bring home-grown produce to those in less privileged and at-risk neighbourhoods. They offer to plant a garden and share a portion of the produce with the property owner while selling the surplus to local subscribers on a cost-recovery basis.

“We believe strongly that home-grown food is the healthiest alternative. It’s not just for trendy types in high income neighbourhoods. It’s even more important for people on limited incomes to reap the benefits that come from fresh and nutritious food,” Nancy explains.

Some repeat customers have already signed up for the coming summer. Says Lucie Trepanier, “We had an amazing crop last year. The one plant of cherry tomatoes produced close to 1,000 fruits! We also really enjoyed the interaction with neighbours and all the curiosity it generated. One of the real joys was when little kids visited and helped collect and eat the harvest.”

For those with a patch of lawn to spare and an interest in home-grown, healthy food, Young Urban Farmers are at your service in Toronto, with dreams of spreading their message farther afield.

For mor information visit: YUF Young Urban Farmers

In this issue
Features Inside Smith
Profiles Editor's Note Dean's Message Parting Shot