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Vacant land at Dockside Green being used to grow food

Urban farmer Chris Hildreth is setting out 2,400 pots on vacant land at Dockside Green to supply three nearby restaurants with a range of freshly picked produce in the coming months.
Chris Hildreth, CEO of Topsoil, and Ally Dewji, development manager at Dockside Green, among rows of planters.

Urban farmer Chris Hildreth is setting out 2,400 pots on vacant land at Dockside Green to supply three nearby restaurants with a range of freshly picked produce in the coming months.

He’ll be planting soon, hoping to begin delivering food late next month and carry on through to winter. “My focus is cities and I think that cities need to become more sustainable,” Hildreth, CEO of Topsoil, said Friday.

He is tapping into society’s growing support for local sustainable agriculture, urban gardening, food security and concern about the environment and what people are eating.

That much is evident as consumers embrace the so-called 100-Mile Diet, the City of Victoria’s decision to back urban gardening and the popularity of farmers’ markets.

Near the downtown, Mason Street City Farm has been cultivated for more than 20 years, with much of its production going to restaurants. As well, the Food Eco District has been developed on Fort Common downtown, with goals including lining restaurants up with local ingredients.

Every year, hundreds of kilograms of honey are harvested from hives on downtown hotel properties.

Hildreth, 28, a University of Victoria graduate, used about $8,000 in winnings from student business competitions to launch a 50-pot pilot project on the rooftop of 1001 Blanshard St. between June and October last year.

Results surpassed expectations in that project, said Hildreth, adding he produced 10 times more than what he had projected.

At Dockside Green, on the vacant lot now dubbed GrowSpace, arugula, kale, basil, peppers, tomatoes, mustard greens, rosemary and mixed lettuce will be planted in breathable geotextile pots. Overhead sprinklers will deliver water. Fabric will cover rows to keep plants warm and avoid wind and bugs.

Fiamo Italian Kitchen chef James Avila was so pleased with Topsoil’s produce last year that he has renewed orders this year. Topsoil has also added Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub and Canoe Brewpub to the customer list.

Produce will be delivered on foot or by bicycle to customers. Boxes will be cleaned and reused.

Ali Ryan, executive chef at Spinnakers, already deals with up to 20 local farmers through the year and will be using Topsoil to provide additional produce.

Canoe executive chef Gabe Milne said: “[Topsoil] aligns perfectly with our brand. We are a green restaurant.”

Hildreth did not make a profit in the pilot project, but expects to this year. “Once it was successful, I knew that I could scale it to a size and make it financially viable for me.”

This year, he’s striving for 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of produce. By year three, Hildreth is targeting production of 100,000 pounds in the city.

Dockside Green owner Vancity credit union provided Hildreth with a micro-loan and the site, which has zoning for a future commercial building.

Ally Dewji, Dockside Green’s development manager, said the ownership is fully supportive. “Because we all thrive on a viable, local food system, providing a platform for Chris and what he is doing with urban agriculture in Victoria is important to us.”

The produce will not be certified organic, but no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides will be used, Hildreth said.

Having food production on Harbour Road “allows people to know exactly who, how and where their food is being produced. I would love Victoria to come down and really certify our production from their senses because they can see it, they can taste it, they can smell it,” he said.

Soil comes from reFUSE Resource Recovery, a local organics recycling operation.

“My goal is to really take over as many vacant areas as we can in the city, produce as much food as possible only a couple of blocks away from the restaurants we are supplying,” Hildreth said.