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Urban Farming: Spoke & Spade

farming
A lof of food packed in to what would normally be a non-productive lawn. Photo by Maude Farrugia
farming
Simeon harvesting his crops. Photo by Maude Farrugia
plants
Lettuces looking gorgeous. Photo by Simeon Hanscamp

Simeon Hanscamp finished his university degree and was searching for meaningful work. He took a short business course, worked on a market garden, studied online with Curtis Stone (the urban farmer, not the celebrity chef), watched a bit of YouTube, and decided he would have a crack at setting up an urban farm.

‘Opportunity comes from initiative,’ says Simeon. His business Spoke & Spade in Melbourne’s urban north-east was born from compromise; balancing his partner’s desire to travel, finances and family. Simeon runs his business across three sites in Heidelberg, Ivanhoe and Heidelberg West. He lives in one, and on the other two he exchanges vegetables and water bill money for free use of the land.

Simeon’s Olympic Village-era clinker brick house sits along a quiet crescent of almost identical homes, the difference being Simeon has squeezed his signature 7.5 metre market garden beds into every inch of his home’s former lawn.

His model is closely based on market gardening guru Curtis Stone’s, adjusted for our southern climate. Simeon sees that it fits with the permaculture ethos of least effort for most gain. ‘Don’t recreate a system if it already works. Where that system doesn’t work in our climate, I make my own,’ he says.

After only spending about 70 days working on farms around the world, Simeon admits he jumped in the deep end setting up Spoke & Spade. This has had its risks as well as advantages. The crops at Spoke & Spade have been in the ground less than a year, but Simeon feels connected to agricultural traditions that have been going on much longer. He sees our unprecedented accessibility to agricultural systems around the world via internet connectivity as key to making his farm work, and that leveraging this knowledge (gained over thousands of years) is critical.

To start Spoke & Spade, Simeon used Google Maps on satellite mode to trawl Melbourne’s suburbs, looking for pockets with the most unkempt lawns and cheapest rents. He then tested soils for contaminants and checked with landlords before entering into agreements.

Simeon uses Curtis Stone’s five point crop value rating system (see boxed text) to decide what he grows, and is trying to reduce the number of crops he grows each year. While permaculture asks us to ‘use and value diversity’, there is plenty of diversity among the hundred beds Simeon manages across his three sites, as well as a diversity of tasks to keep this urban farmer on his toes. ‘Sometimes idealism stops us from getting a yield,’ says Simeon, who feels like his straight-lined beds might not appeal to every permie.

farming
Photo by Simeon Hanscamp
vegetables
Photo by Simeon Hanscamp
vegetables
Photo by Simeon Hanscamp

Clockwise from top: Mixed plantings of flowers and vegies; Free plums thrown in with this order for zucchinis; Colourful harvest on his farmers’ market stall; Bok choy ready for market.

vegetables
Photo by Simeon Hanscamp

Growing turns out to be the easiest part of Simeon’s job, while sales are the hardest part. Simeon suggests that aspiring urban farmers work out where crops are going before sowing seeds, and pick a sales model that suits their personality. Simeon opted for a bicycle-powered Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system, where he compiles vegie boxes which are either picked up or delivered via bike to about 60 families each week. But he says this wouldn’t suit everyone.

The CSA model means compromising on his five point system sometimes to ensure there’s a desirable range of produce in each box. For foodies, selling directly to local cafes could be another model, and farmers’ markets may be perfect for extroverts who crave social interactions with beings more articulate than their radishes!

On the topic of human interactions, one lesson Simeon has found helpful is managing expectations with key stakeholders involved (i.e. volunteers, customers, landlords). Simeon sometimes uses written agreements to quickly establish a clear healthy relationship, which is important, especially where business and livelihood are at stake.

But despite all of this, Simeon doesn’t see himself running Spoke & Spade forever. The business simply grew out of his desire to demonstrate an Australian model of Curtis Stone’s system. ‘There are lots of urban farms in Australia, but most of them work as social enterprises or community gardens,’ says Simeon. ‘I think that it’s right to earn a living from doing this and I wanted to show that it’s possible to make it your day job.’

And day job it is, as Simeon works tirelessly growing, packing and selling his beautiful veg. However he’s happy to consider other options in the future. ‘I’m open to handing this business over or helping others to replicate it, and I’m interested in learning about larger systems too, perhaps overseas,’ he says.

Simeon is keen to inspire others to take on the role of urban farmer. ‘This job is so much more practical than uni,’ he says. ‘I took out less of a loan for this business than I did for my degree!’

FIVE POINT CROP VALUE RATING FOR THE URBAN FARMER:

  • high yield
  • high price point
  • long and multiple harvests
  • quick turnaround
  • market demand

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