Sunday, February 12, 2012

Social enterprise entrepreneur and neophyte farmer

Back in the 1970s, a group called the Boston Urban Gardeners approached the city of Boston's Redevelopment Authority with a proposal to buy small parcels of city land that were unsuitable for development. The goal was to package these together into an urban agricultural land trust -- preserving their use for food production.

At about the same time, the New Alchemy Institute was demonstrating the efficacy of intensive organic agricultural techniques on their 12-acre research site on Cape Cod.

Looks like a synthesis of these two strategies may be taking root (pun shamelessly intended) in British Columbia thanks to a visionary social entrepreneur. (GW)

Agricultural entrepreneur sees future in micro-farms

Cultivating small unused parcels of land could lead to intensive food production

By Randy Shore
February 11, 2012

Nicole Huska is more than a neophyte farmer; she's a brand.

Huska is breaking ground on a two-acre micro-farm on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, a region northwest of Vancouver, what she hopes is the first of dozens of tiny, profitable biointensive organic farms dotted all over the region on unused parcels of land and forgotten fields.

"This is going to be the proof-of-concept farm," said Huska, wearing a ball cap with her Nicole's Farm logo. "The goal is to produce sustainable fruits and vegetables and sell them to local grocery stores, and once we've developed viable business relationships we are looking to expand the model."

Her common-law partner, Adam Hammond, is clearing forest and moving earth with heavy equipment on their four-acre parcel north of Sechelt. She hopes to have half an acre of spinach in the ground within weeks, crops that will find a place in local grocery stores.

That accomplished, Huska will begin to clone her operation.

She is soliciting underutilized one-acre plots of land through her website, promising landowners the substantial tax benefit of farmland status and a share of the profit from the sale of produce. A recent article in the community newspaper has started a buzz locally among people who have land lying fallow.

"Drive along the highway and you can see all kinds of unused pieces of land," she said. "Ideally the landowner doesn't have to invest anything; we put in the infrastructure and help do the paperwork (to change the land's property tax status)."

Less a farmer, more a social enterprise entrepreneur, Huska plans to hire and train farmers for each new farm, complete with the systems knowledge required to grow, harvest, package and deliver fruits and vegetables ready for store shelves and direct buyers.

Bob Hoy, who owns an IGA grocery store in Gibsons, about two hours by car and ferry from Vancouver, is keen to give Nicole's Farm a chance, even after some local suppliers faltered last year.

"We've carried produce from local people that supply us sporadically," said Hoy. "But anything local that comes out sells like crazy."

I f Huska can produce highquality spinach consistently, Hoy is ready to put in on store shelves.

To finance the Nicole's Farm prototype, Huska has created a pitch video and business plan on the social enterprise fundraising website Indie GoGo (www. to try to raise some of her estimated $50,000 start-up costs.

Huska has also approached the non-profit agriculture business accelerator BioEnterprise to help her organize a venture capital campaign to grow Nicole's Farm into a land-management company - if she can prove her revenue projections.

The model farm is meant to act as a regional hub for collection, distribution and shipping of produce from the satellite farms. Huska - who bills herself chief executive of Nicole's Farm - believes her model is scalable, with hub farms anchoring networks of small farms in any size community, and portable, easy to transplant anywhere in the world. Each one-acre farm could produce two full-time "living wage" jobs, said Huska.

Huska plans to grow vegetables on her farm - and her clone farms if and when they materialize - using organic principles, borrowing heavily from the increasingly popular permaculture and Small Plot Intensive farming methods. Both systems emphasize human-scale production and sustainable farming.

Once the excavation is complete, Huska hopes to disturb her soil as little as possible, as the slope of her land creates the risk of erosion. Hoping to leave no potential advantage untapped, Huska is planning to install bat houses to attract the natural insect predators and has cut a deal with a local beekeeper to bring two honeybee hives to the property. Bee pollination dramatically increases the yield of many vegetables and fruits.


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