Commercial Urban Agriculture Might Soon Arrive In Your City, If Chris Hildreth Has His Way
VICTORIA – When Chris Hildreth began his academic pursuits at the University of Victoria, he had a plan. Working toward a minor in business and a double major in environmental studies and sociology, his goal was to lay the groundwork for a future sustainable business. In his second year, he was still attempting to pin down exactly what that business would be.
“When I started at UVic, I thought I would eventually go into alternative energy,” explains Chris. “I started to see in the first two years, particularly after taking environmental studies classes, that food was a repeated theme that was coming up in a lot of the issues we’d be talking about, be it political, environmental, health, social, economic, food was a common root problem.”
Chris soon directed his studies and future business plan into food. In particular, food systems.
“In my last two years at university I focused all of my business classes into developing my business plan, and all of my sociology and environmental studies classes on studying the industrial food system in North America post-World War II,” Chris elaborates. “For me, that was the real turning point in terms of our current, outdated food system, and how we’re eating today.”
Chris believes what became our norm; fast food, TV dinners, supermarket chains, chemical warfare companies turning to agriculture, fertilizers and pesticide production, while excellent at producing food in volume, has created a subpar food supply.
“The food from grocery stores travel huge distances to get to us. There are tons of CO2 emissions involved, as well as wasteful packaging,” Chris continues. “Produce is grown in monocultures, on hectares and hectares of land, needing massive amounts of chemical inputs to maintain. It’s very out of sight, out of mind; we don’t really care if our food is sprayed with pesticides because we don’t see it occurring. And that doesn’t even touch meat production.”
In short, Chris saw the systems he studied as having net negative consequences from start-to-finish. This pushed Chris to the questions that would launch his future business.
Can you create a food production business that scales, while also having positive benefits with every aspect of the system? Can it have minimal CO2 emissions, provide the highest quality, most fresh local produce to the community, with zero wasteful packaging and no synthetic fertilizers?
Could you do it all in the city?
Chris believed yes, on all fronts. Thus, the TOPSOIL concept took root, starting in Victoria.
“When we started, it was tough because I had no farming or gardening background,” Chris explains. “I was coming at this with some seed money, a business plan and blind ambition. The second hurdle, Victoria wasn’t even zoned for commercial urban agriculture to operate in city limits. I had to prove my business plan was even viable.”
Chris did this by starting a small, 400 square foot rooftop garden on a commercial building in 2015, and presenting it to Victoria’s city council members as a proof of concept. Four days after their visit, the city gave the greenlight to move forward, rezoning the entire city in the process to allow urban agriculture.
In 2016, the TOPSOIL at Dockside Green GrowSpace at 395 Harbour Road in Downtown Victoria was born, the first business of its kind to grace the city, starting with 10,000 square feet to grow their fresh produce. The completely modular setup was created to allow for simple movement and use on any surface, in any city, from rooftops to developed and undeveloped land.
While netting a location to grow their produce was a milestone first step, the second component of Chris’ business plan still needed to be proven; could it make money?
“The first year was good,” Chris notes. “We were supplying local restaurants with produce, using washable, reusable packaging, and an electric bike to transport our goods to them. The second year was our saving grace though.”
Utilizing the same amount of space a local farm had at its disposal, TOPSOIL grossed as much revenue in one year as the farm had in their tenth year. Chris knew he was onto something. He simply needed to refine the process, reduce costs, and systematize the entire business. He also wants to change what farming means to city-dwellers.
“People in cities often have preconceived notions about farming; I want them to relate to urban farming like they do microbreweries. I want that same energy around local food production. It just needs to be rebranded and properly marketed. Our farming isn’t what you think it is. We don’t fit traditional molds.”
Today, TOPSOIL has 20,000 square feet of space at Dockside Green, providing food access to thousands of members of the Victoria community. With the help of Director of Operations Ashley Whelan, Market Manager Jess Ash, and Production Assistants Brett Schulha and Quinn Scott, Chris has had the support needed to consider TOPSOIL’s future in BC and beyond, with a clear eye toward competing with the big food distributors. With the entire infrastructure for a 20,000 square foot TOPSOIL site able to fit into a twenty foot shipping container and sent to any city, the possibilities appear vast. Most recently, Chris has begun considering whether to pursue a franchise model, selling the farm as a kit, or simply expanding sites on his own and running them as an expanded business.
Whatever form TOPSOIL takes, he feels confident the business plan conceptualized in university, and refined over the years in Victoria, works. In 2020, punctuated by the global pandemic, Chris and team have managed their most profitable year yet. With another location in the works in Victoria and new potential sites elsewhere on the horizon, you might soon find a TOPSOIL in your neighborhood, and the fruit of their locally-grown labor on your plate.