Photo: Haley Davies
If you have ever taken a stroll on the Galloping Goose trail down by Dockside Green in Vic West, you may have noticed a fenced-in garden in an otherwise empty lot. That’s TOPSOIL, Victoria’s first urban agriculture project. In 2015, founder Chris Hildreth started out with nothing but a big idea on a rooftop garden. Since then, this innovative startup has made some big waves in just a short period of time. Today, TOPSOIL supplies fresh produce to some of our favourite local restaurants and cafés, such as Caffe Fantastico, Fernwood Inn, Morning People, and many more. They also partner with non-profit organizations to help educate school children and community members on how to grow their own food.
Now that they are open for the season, we interviewed Ashley Whelan, TOPSOIL’s Director of Operations to learn what urban agriculture is all about. Read on to hear her perspective on why eating local food matters, and how you can get your hands on some delicious local greens at TOPSOIL’s on-site public market.
What does TOPSOIL sell at the public market throughout the season?
We are most widely recognized for our gourmet salad mix, but you can typically find kale, rainbow chard, arugula, a variety of herbs, and some root veggies like radishes and turnips here and there. We also bring in products from other local farms, like Lockwood Farm Eco-Eggs, Northstar Organic beets and carrots, and Glanford Greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, among many others. We are open to the public Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm.
Why should people aim to eat local produce?
There are quite a few reasons. Simply put, eating local, organic food tastes better, and is better for you and the environment. It also strengthens the local food economy that provides more opportunities for small scale farmers. The alternative options that are so readily available at the grocery store are typically dependent on burning fossil fuels for running large scale machinery, as well as processing, packaging, refrigerating, and transporting. Many of us often don’t consider where our food comes from or the process that is involved in getting it to the grocery store. At TOPSOIL, we have a unique opportunity to showcase local farms, connect people to their food sources and to the people who were directly involved in growing it.
What inspired you personally to get involved with TOPSOIL?
After completing my undergrad in urban planning with a focus on urban design, I realized that cities were lacking the ability to connect people to nature and its cycles. I believe this disconnect has led people to forget how natural systems operate, and thus has led to the overuse, waste, and exploitation of resources and people.
Shortly after moving to Victoria, I took the Organic Master Gardening course and started falling in love with growing food and learning about how plants interact with the soil. TOPSOIL felt like a tangible and sustainable solution to reconnect urbanites to their food, while providing food security, a carbon sink, and a beautiful oasis within the community.
What is TOPSOIL’s overall mission?
TOPSOIL’s mission is to increase and promote local food production. Our vision is to empower people and communities through education, production, and employment using TOPSOIL’s fully integrated modular farming system. We start by identifying vacant lots or spaces that can be utilized to grow food.
Our system uses geotextile fabric containers that can be suited to any size or shape, and can be entirely set up or removed within a day or two. This allows us to grow food pretty much anywhere, like rooftops, parking lots, and even above contaminated land. We also sell grow bags at our on-site market for those interested in growing their own food.
What has the community response been so far?
Victoria is really community-oriented which we are so grateful for. There is a strong commitment to supporting local businesses, and it’s amazing to see local businesses supporting each other, too.
We feel really good about the connections we have made. Many people tell us how much they miss our produce during the winter months once our market opens up in the spring. When we deliver our produce to restaurants, we often receive comments from kitchen staff or servers about how excited they are that our greens are back in season. It’s heartwarming to see the enthusiasm and genuine appreciation for seasonal food!
Does TOPSOIL grow organic produce?
We are not certified organic but we do embrace organic principles. We don’t spray our crops with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or anything like that. We strive to create a healthy soil food web by feeding and nurturing the soil with a variety of natural amendments and fertilizers, such as liquid kelp, mycorrhizal fungi and effective microorganisms. We use integrated pest management and deal with any issues as they come up by observing the plants and amending soil or removing any unhappy plants.
How does TOPSOIL support local communities?
We are partnered with Food Eco District (FED), a non-profit organization that focuses on increasing local food production and education. When the pandemic hit, we worked together with FED and the City of Victoria to supply over 500 families experiencing food insecurity with grow bags, soil, and seeds/plant starters so they could immediately start growing food. They are aiming to help another 500 families and communities this year.
We also work with School District 61 and LifeCycles to help them set up gardens in schoolyards so they can further educate students on growing, harvesting, and eating healthy food.
We also work with the Songhees Wellness Center. We help them maintain and harvest their rooftop garden so that they can share food with local community members. Check out our website for more information about these and other partnerships!
What’s next for TOPSOIL?
We are currently developing a farm-kit model and manual that encourages folks in other regions to adopt this quick and adaptive approach to growing food. Our goal is to make farming as simple and accessible as possible.
Whenever I visit concrete jungles like New York City or Toronto, I find myself dreaming about what these cities would be like if TOPSOIL’s modular system was implemented widely on rooftops and parking lots. This is my long-term vision for TOPSOIL. It might sound like a bit of a stretch, but it’s not impossible!
What is your favorite recipe using some of the produce that you grow on-site?
I developed a delicious vegan Caesar salad recipe that I love to make with our kale (or gourmet mixed greens). Get the recipe here
Address: 395 Harbour Rd., Victoria
On-site public market hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm
Photos courtesy of TOPSOIL.