An Interview with Melanie Golba

Sep 01, 2015

In 1996, Alvaro Venturelli and Melanie Golba came up with the wild idea of starting their own organic farm based on Community Shared Agriculture (CSA)–a system of growing and distributing organic produce that restores the link between the farmers and city dwellers. Along with Alvaro’s brother Rodrigo, Plan B Organic Farms was born in the spring of 1997. The name “Plan B” conveyed their intention of providing their community with an “alternative” food source to foods provided through “conventional agriculture.” Alexandra spoke with Melanie about how the farm was started, the importance of investing in local food, and how she hopes to provide for Ontario’s future.

Greenbeltfresh: Tell us how Plan B Organics was started.

Melanie Golba: I had finished my degree at McMaster I ran into this project by accident. Though I studied women’s’ studies and religions, I wasn’t interested in going into academics; I was looking for something more activist-based to do. In 1996, we worked with the Home Project, a Youth Service Canada project in Hamilton teaching youth about urban gardens. Alvaro Venturelli was a hiring manager at the time and hired me for a 20-week youth project, and that summer we started three community gardens in Hamilton. We also visited some of the real first organic farms in Southern Ontario and the Toronto food terminal, and got to meet some inspiring food activists. From that point, we were inspired to start our own farm.

That year we attended the American Community Gardening Association Conference (ACGA) in Montreal with a presentation about Community Supported Agriculture Farms (CSAs) in Massachusetts that were already doing CSA farming–but at the time there were only a handful operating here in Ontario. It was then that we decided to start our own farm using the CSA model. We felt it was a big need in Hamilton, because there were no organic farms working with the community.

In 1997 we rented a farm in Flamborough and we convinced 100 friends and family to help, printed up brochures, and an experienced CSA farmer mentored and trained us through the process. We did everything by hand without tractors. We had a walking rototiller and that first year we farmed about six acres and sold about 100 shares. It went really well. The following year, Alvaro’s family traded a rental property in Hamilton for the farm. We moved into our 50 acres of sandy and rocky soil in July 1998, and that’s how we ended up here. We’re on the northwest part of Hamilton, west Flamborough towards Cambridge. We’re in the Greenbelt.

Greenbeltfresh: When you first started was it harder than you imagined?

Melanie Golba: We had no real expectations [laughs]. The first year we didn’t really have much invested. We lived in a downtown Hamilton and drove up the farm, and at the beginning we didn’t have tractors or greenhouses. It was extremely challenging.

After 18 years, our biggest challenge is to make a living–not the farming. So after six years of trying to make a living off of our 20 weeks of summer harvest we began delivering food to our members in the winter months as well. We realized that if we had enough customers, we could do a year-round delivery service. We called the program our “winter shares.” We delivered local food through the winter but then we continually morphed that into our year-round organic delivery business which now includes imported organic produce and grocery items like eggs and spelt wraps.

The three of us–Alvaro, Rodrigo, and I–derive the entire income for our families from this business: a multi-farm CSA. It is a unique model, we have a network of suppliers Ontario Organic farmers who aren’t used to marketing or dealing with the urban consumer, and that’s something we excel at. They have a great organic product to offer, but because we’re going directly to our CSA members, we can offer the farmer a better price. We cut out the “middle man” by becoming the “middle man,” in a way.

The business has evolved. We are a farm as well as a food hub, and that’s not a model you see all that often. We bring in food from all around parts of Southern Ontario, we repackage it into our subscription CSA model box system, and then we ship those prepackaged boxes out to households. We are really bridging a gap between the producers and the consumers using our farm as a hub. And that’s a business model that we developed over time because it works and it solved a lot of different problems.

Greenbeltfresh: What would you say to other 24-year-olds that are thinking of starting the same type of businesses?

Melanie Golba: I would definitely say to focus as much on the business as on the farming–that’s what we definitely didn’t know to begin with. We thought we were going to grow great food because there wasn’t much local organic food around, and we assumed that it would be so great that we would stay in business. It has nothing to do with the business bottom line at all. It was three or four hard years of learning, and I think it took us until almost very recently for that reality. You learn how exact you have to be with your finances, record keeping, and planning. You can’t grow something just because you like it. You have to grow something that people want to eat; something that’s fun and different. Really focus on what your members want.

Greenbeltfresh: Why do you grow organic food?

Melanie Golba: Because of ecological concerns–that’s something I was always concerned with growing up. I was vegetarian through high school, so it was a natural fit for me. Food is also fun and yummy, and I was also trying to enact some political change. I think those were the two things together that made me realize that this was something I wanted to try.

Greenbeltfresh: How do you think organic farming contributes to the Greenbelt?

Melanie Golba: I think that organic farmers contribute in a lot of ways. I think our farms are havens in these agricultural areas. We have naturalized buffer strips all around the entire perimeter of our property. We have some naturalized acres, we’ve replanted native trees, and we really see a big difference in the diversity. It was conventional when we first moved here and all the wildlife and things that have come back, and since we’ve let some things grow, it’s unbelievable. It’s not just about what’s on your fork, it’s about everything that went down the drain to get that to your fork.

Greenbeltfresh: What reasons would you give for why the Greenbelt is advantageous for you?

Melanie Golba: Our farm location is advantageous because we’re located near a big population that makes it easier for customers, as well as access to markets or stores if we wanted to sell them. We also do education programs here, so being close to schools and things is great. We’ve taken part in a lot of Greenbelt Foundation events, and I think it’s really important to actually protect this Greenbelt. I think it’s important what the Greenbelt does, always promoting things you can get out and do in the green spaces that are so close to this giant population. There are a lot of people living around here, so it’s crucial that we have somewhere to go.

Greenbeltfresh: What would you say to people that think local organic grown produce is too expensive?

Melanie Golba: They should try growing it! [laughs] It’s not about that. This is not about a niche market where I can make more money. For us this is about building a resilient local food system where we start to rebuild what’s been lost since the 1950s or 1960s when imports started to replace everything that we used to grow here. If there was ever a crisis and our borders with the U.S. were closed, we would run out of food in a few days. Do we really want to be so dependent on that? Or do we want to try and have food that’s ours? Just think about all the jobs that can be created in local agriculture, and all the products that come in from other places that don’t need to.

Greenbeltfresh: What do you hope for the future of the farm?

Melanie Golba: We are right now building an on-farm kitchen with help from the Local Food Fund. We are going to try and reduce our food waste by preserving food that would otherwise be composted. We also want to create a space where we can increase our farm-to-school education program. In addition to providing a tour around the field, kids will harvest food from the field and then go into the farm kitchen to prepare and taste the food. We really want to focus on the next generation, having kids ourselves, so that’s our last piece of the puzzle here–to have our public-health approved kitchen. I think that’s really going to diversify our income stream and it’s going to make the farm business stronger. We’ll have preserved products, we’ll be able to charge for groups and classes and be able to have on-farm celebrations or provide catering. And hopefully we will integrate our children into the business, too. The more diverse our business is, the more places there are for the kids to fit in for the next generation.

Click here to visit Plan B Organic Farm.

– Alexandra Lucchesi

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