startup shack (1) interview with Jason Hirsch

In the same areas of the city where a century ago the “Earlscourt shackers” built flimsy cabins and launched themselves into business as market gardeners, Jason Hirsch last summer introduced a food production and marketing business that unconsciously echoed the pioneering spirit of his historical neighbours. Hear about urban homesteading then and now this Saturday at market square’s startup shack.

Christie Street, looking north toward Davenport Road. - 1919

Where did the idea for the Neighbourhood Farm come from?

It was the idea of creating a sense of community and ecological connectivity from the density. Instead of spreading wildly all at once we wanted to do it gradually as we picked up customers. We wanted to connect more people through making it visible in the day to day. Seeing your farmer down the street with the tools in the trailer in the back…

Jason Hirsch - Market Cart

So there’s a performance aspect to this.

Absolutely but the performance is authentic because it’s the experience of daily living.

So would you use the word activism or demonstration instead? Because I suppose performance suggests something that it isn’t part of daily life.

I think we were trying to break down the fourth wall, because we were in neighbour’s backyards we weren’t just doing this in front of people—the people we were growing with were very much implicated.

The Neighbourhood Farm backyard w. bird feeder

What’s the fourth wall?

It’s a theatre term for breaking the separation between actors and audience. When an actor addresses the audience directly like a Shakespearean chorus for example, or interacts with the audience—that’s called breaking the fourth wall and it makes the audience a part of the act.

By delivering to the same houses that we were growing from and keeping it so tight so that it was like cycling energy in a tight space, people would start to recognize—‘that’s where my food comes from.’  We recognized that a strong part of the appeal of the local food movement, which has grown in proportion beyond any other activist issue and reached into the mainstream, was that people wanted to connect their food and the growing process with their daily lives. We wanted to bring that closer for people who felt themselves culturally alienated from it. We wanted this to be of the people in this area.

I was really drawing from the wisdom of the farmers, the resurrection of a small farm wisdom–the farmer who wants to know all of the little nooks and crannies of the farm because that’s how to really be involved, really manage an integrated system. I wanted to run a business the same way. I wanted it to be tightly coordinated enough that I could feel all the parts and the parts could all feel each other.

The Neighbourhood Farm

And for the same reason we put a lot of effort in connecting with community organizations. We did a big outreach in the beginning through starting a partnership with the Moksha yoga studio and they had us grow food on their roof.  We were working with two schools in the neighbourhood Dovercourt and Regal Road—we wanted people to hear of us through “school yard chatter”. We were also talking about internship partnerships with the Dovercourt Boys and Girls Club; also there was the Naturapath in the area… We found that the sense that we were building a neighbourhood based economy made people feel implicated in our project.

The Neighbourhood Farm carrots & Jason

There’s a strong sense in the local economy movement that we ought to be reconstructing our economy starting from food because that’s our prime, our basic need. For example the mega quarry campaign’s slogan, “Food and Water First” means that food and water are the things we actually need, that the quality of those local resources should be put before the monetary value of the land. The philosophy in the local economy movement is that we need to preserve what is close to home at all costs. The economy that we have now in which we have banks that are” too big to fail” and yet there’s no problem in tearing up land and polluting soil—that’s not a good basis for life, for economics.

The Neighbourhood Farm first day in the cityThe Neighbourhood Farm tilled soil + spadeThe Neighbourhood Farm back yard plantings

How does The Stop Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns figure in the growing of that local economy?

The market becomes the public meeting space.

As I was going door to door and meeting people and talking to them about how they got their food most often I would get a really warm reception when I mentioned that I was starting a neighbourhood-based food project. Most often, those people were shopping at No Frills. And I began to have a hunch that the Wychwood market was a too far-away space for some people. It was almost as if they weren’t ready for that level of community engagement. But I took a lot of care when I was building this concept to make sure that I wasn’t competing with the market.  I saw myself as launching a “from-it.” It was from farmers’ markets that I understood what needed to extend into the community.

The Neighbourhood Farm picnic table w. veggies & girl

I sort of saw myself as graduating people into the market.  I thought that if I brought them into this system I could close a sort of cultural distance. If the market was too far from them, or they couldn’t see themselves there I could thread it into their lifestyles.

The Neighbourhood Farm radishes

So when you talk about a cultural gap, can you describe that a bit further?

Oftentimes the local food movement sells itself through a kind of glowing-skin-wellness that doesn’t feel applicable to everyone. And the appeal of vegetables as sexy imagery–I think you have to have had a certain dietary sensibility to find that really exciting. If I wanted to try to reach the next segment, I realized I had to take a different kind of communication. I think Wychwood does a great job at what it does but I came across a lot of people who were seeing it as a boutique-style social space. They might shop there on the way to the cottage but it wasn’t a weekly habit–that was the switch I wanted to make.


You wanted to weave it into people’s daily lives.

And their daily routines… So I was making the argument that the grocery store has outlived its purpose. There was no longer any reason to go to the grocery store beyond the convenience, so we were trying to match that as well. I could look at a driveway up here in Regal Heights and see a BMW and I would say, “you’re investing in quality in your car, why would you not invest in quality in your food?” It was a very straight-forward common sense approach. And then the sort of fairy dust stuff community and ecology was filtering in around the sides but it wasn’t the main appeal.

The Neighbourhood Farm Jason + 2

I experienced working behind the market stand at Wychwood and at Sick Kids Farmers markets. There were a lot of people who could feel the beneficial community space of the market but they just don’t see themselves in it. I haven’t thought this through yet, …but it seems to me that there’s a difference between a functional public space which Wychwood certainly is and a space that is a mainline economic space which I think Wychwood is for a segment of the population, but not for everyone, the way that markets are mainline economic space in France, commonly.

You’re saying that Wychwood farmers’ market is more like a park than like a grocery store?

 I think so and I think that’s OK in the terms of its evolution. I don’t think that by itself the farmers’ market it can change our economy. What I was trying to do was bring right into the neighbourhood the sense that we can be serving each other.

There’s a sense of equality or horizontality at the market between vendor and customer. There’s a sense that the farmer is on your level, which you don’t get in the corporate experience. And, I wanted to thread that horizontality through the neighbourhood to say, “this is your farmer and your food is coming from your neighbour.”

In this neighbourhood most people don’t know each other. They all leave and travel to work and come back home at the end of the day. Their economic relations are so vertical that it’s impossible to use them as a way to get to know the community. I wanted to build community by inverting the corporate model to prove that our basic needs should be met where we are and through what we can be for one another.

I would say sometimes, “A quietly radical thing may start to happen the first time you see your farmer biking down the street. Or you hear your kid’s classmate has the farm you get your food from right in their backyard. And you realize we can do more things for each other we don’t need to out-source them to far-away experts.” I’m really interested in the community building potential of doing our daily activities together.

Were people receptive to what you were offering in terms of its cultural value when you were a market vendor?

 At the market it was really about the food. Once we were at the market that rich horizontal community thing kind of dropped out.

 Market shoppers saw you as one more locally-grown food vendor.

 Yes, and that was fine.

This mental map (below)  reflects how I designed The Neighbourhood Farm inspired by Wendell Berry’s essay “Solving for Pattern.” I set out a suite of problems that seemed disconnected but orbited around an idea that I was coming to. I then drew in how this problem was becoming this solution. I started with a semi-circle shape for all of the problems. So there was “un-used city land” “bad distribution networks for food” “bad farming practices” (depletion and  pollution of soil and water) and “bad food” poor taste and low nutritional value, as well there was the reality that “farmers don’t like marketing”. So my idea was that if we set up a concept and a market system we’ll be able to get a lot of farmers growing on a lot of land really quickly. And within a month we had a team of ten.

The Neighbourhood Farm Google customer map

Where did they come from?

They’re crawling all over the place. Farmers are like termites in this culture and there’s no land, there’s nothing for them to chew on. There are not a lot of expertly trained but there are a lot of moderately trained farmers, people who can grow vastly better food that you can get at a supermarket.

Could you describe a typical farmer of this type?

They have B.A.s they’re pretty intelligent and they’re in their twenties. They’ve gone off and said, “I want to farm.” And then, there’s no way to carry it forward. And then they come back; they’re all urban.

So I thought, If we can put together a team and go out all together to try to look for land and if we can provide a centralizing hub it will probably attract a lot of people quickly. And I see from Erica’s example that it’s possible to find land this way.

So I’m going around the circle.—Farmer’s don’t like marketing; Young farmers without land (in general a dearth of good work for young  people). “Disconnect from the community” is a longstanding social problem in this part of the world. And “Disconnect from Nature.”

Jason Hirsch mental map

So here’s all the problems I’ve been circling around. And I thought, well, How can I fix all of them with one concept.  We have farmers and they don’t like marketing so we’ll take the farmers and create shared marketing and sales and this un-used land problem, we live way too low-density in the city and people are spending all this money for lawn care—it’s wasted so we team that up with the un-used land. So we get a team of farmers using a shared marketing approach in a backyard format and now we address all of these three problems as well because we have these people who are trained in organic farming and they’re going to be producing good food with good practices on a small scale distribution to the backyard format. So the fourth element would be organic farming and then you come here this is the piece that we really added—doing the neighbourhood scale and that’s able to address the disconnect from Nature and from community and bring everything really tight and you’re able to bring things to a much broader segment of the population. We were hoping we would be growing and becoming more dense and more woven into the fabric of the community and our name would be on people’s lips. And it was at the beginning we were really generating a buzz and it comes from the synergy of that density. We were hoping that our word of mouth, we weren’t aiming to get an article in the Toronto Star or anything we wanted chatter in the schoolyard, that was the neighbourhood synergy we were going for and that kind of thing was starting to happen.

And then… I had a business partner, we built this whole concept together. I learned a hard marketing lesson. At a certain point our tech stuff kind of blew up and I needed to very quickly learn how to build a website. I did it… but I wasn’t doing anything else for about a month. I was hoping that the buzz would stay, go dormant but stay alive and then we could take our big e-mail list that we had built and go to people and say we’re ready to go in a week and the orders would come in… but they just didn’t. The buzz had died. I learned so well how much you have to keep up the drum beat. It was also that it was something really new. We were specifically reaching out to people who hadn’t done this before and we were asking them to make a pretty big change in how they get their food.

We weren’t intending on using farmer’s markets at all. But I quickly realized I had all this food to sell and no one to sell it to. I have a tremendous appreciation and gratitude for Cookie because she let us into market when I was stuck. We managed to sell out every week but I would have been in a touch spot without the Sick Kids farmers market.

The Neighbourhood Farm sidewalk produce