The heart of the non-profit organization Santropol Roulant is its meals-on-wheels service that has served mobility-restricted individuals since 1995. Affectionately called “The Roulant”, it has engaged in many forms of outreach, all focused on promoting food security, social inclusion and community engagement.
In 2012, The Roulant added a huge new element to its programming, launching an organic farm operation to supply vegetables for its meals-on-wheels program.
Now, having added the farm, Santropol Roulant’s programming has reached a beautiful level of integration which fulfills the organization’s social mission and which supports the development of aspiring young farmers, generating sustainable returns on small plots of land. This article explores how they’ve made it happen.
“Angel investing,” or “slow money”.
Howard Reitman became familiar with Santropol Roulant when his children volunteered there during their high school years. A modest, down-to-earth partner at Senneville’s Ferme du Zéphyr since 2006, he might be uncomfortable being called an angel.
In the winter of 2011-2012, Howard proposed to sublease a portion of Ferme du Zéphyr to Santropol Roulant to supplement its urban agriculture program, then limited to container gardens at McGill University and a rooftop garden at the Roulant offices. He also offered to financially back the venture.
“This is an inspiring example of social finance at work,” said Brenda Plant, cofounder of Ethiquette.ca, a website devoted to sustainable, responsible and impact investment. “I think we’re going to see more creative financing solutions for local, sustainable agriculture, despite its multiple challenges, because more and more individuals are looking for meaningful investment opportunities that will have an impact.”
Howard’s backing allowed the farm project to get underway while Santropol wrote grant applications and waited for news. As it turned out, that year and in years following, the grant came through, and Howard’s financial guarantee was not needed.
The theme of that first year’s production was “Entre Grange et Gratte-Ciel (between barn and skyscraper): An Urban-Rural Farm Exchange.” The idea was to sensitize urbanites, especially youths, to farm culture and food production.
“I really want to inspire and mentor young farmers that would never be able to see this because they live in the city or they don’t have access,” Howard says. “Not only are we farming and promoting food security and all the wonderful programs, but we’re preserving farmland, we’re using private land as a model, and we’re empowering aspiring farmers, while funding the production from our vegetable sales.”
The private land used for the Santropol farm is leased from estate owner Liz Morgan, a win-win arrangement for everyone: Santropol is able to produce vegetables near the urban centre it serves, and the estate becomes eligible for a tax rebate because the land supports local agriculture.
“She’s great,” Howard says of Liz. “She’s down to earth. She’s into it. She volunteers here. She comes to the events.”
“And, she’s very happy to see that her land is being farmed and it’s being honoured,” says Clémence Briand, the farm’s co-manager. “It’s beautiful, it’s productive, it’s feeding people, it’s bringing people together.”
“I think that people more and more are doing it,” says Clémence, referring to the growing development of land bank programs across North America. “This is a fabulous way to link people who are seeking land to people who have land but that aren’t necessarily farming it, or for people who are looking for land and old farmers that are about to retire.”
Santropol’s peri-urban agricultural program grew consistently during the first four years, from two-thirds of an acre its first year, to 1.5 acres in year two, to 3.7 acres today. Meanwhile, the farm has consolidated its footprint. The Roulant’s vegetable production plots, once spread between the Morgan estate in Senneville and a McGill University property in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, are now all located on the Ferme Zéphyr property, except for a small field of garlic located a short distance away.
In the first year, grant funding eased financial pressure on the farm to produce. This, and the fact that Santropol’s existing urban agriculture program already supplied the vegetables needed for its baskets, gave the farm managers some breathing room.
“We didn’t really have very strong production goals,” Howard says. “We were seeing what was going to happen.” They grew tomatoes and root crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots—“stuff that grows better in the country,” Howard says, relative to Santropol’s container and rooftop farming plots in the city.
Despite having conservative goals, the farm’s yields more than doubled Santropol’s vegetable production in its first year of operation, generating more than 70% of the total harvest, far exceeding the output of the urban gardens.
As a result, Santropol decided to shift production for its weekly CSA basket program to the farm, which allowed the urban sites to focus more on education, advocacy, and a mini-basket program for its meals-on-wheels clients.
In 2013, the farm’s second year, production soared, from 6,722 kilograms the year prior to 28,750 kilograms in 2013. Farm revenue jumped from $10,132 to $96,233. The farm now has about 100 members who buy CSA baskets. The farm also has supplied vegetables to markets and restaurants.
“A lot of restaurants,” Clémence says.
“We got exhausted,” Howard says.
After that bumper second year, productivity came down; 2014 and 2015 harvests averaged 15,000 kilograms. An effort was made to focus energy on the CSA baskets, supplying vegetables to a subsidized market in Little Burgundy and The Roulant’s street market, in addition to achieving a goal of being self-financed.
“We’re trying to make the vegetable sales pay for the vegetable production,” Howard says. “And we’re pretty much there.”
“Our business model was originally based on bio-intensive market gardening, producing a lot on a small amount of space,” Clémence adds. “Technically, the farm should be viable, production-wise, able to make a profit and pay for its employees.”
When “not-for-profit” pays.
As a charitable organization with a mission to promote food security and food justice, Santropol’s farm program makes it possible to get high-quality, locally produced, organic produce into the hands of low-income individuals.
“Eighty percent of our CSA clients pay a premium,” Clémence says. “They pay a little bit extra on each basket, which is viewed as a donation to the organization, so they can get a tax receipt because we’re a charity.”
Santropol Roulant pools these donations and redistributes the funds through its various programs, such as a discounted veggie basket for low-income families or individuals.
“They can get a basket at 50% off,” Clémence said. “It’s the same quality, same freshness. You pick it up the same day as those people who are paying that premium. There’s no discrimination. It’s so great because people are super excited about being able to give a donation and see it clearly linked to something right away, it translates into one basket or one individual who has access to fresh organic produce.”
The donations are also redistributed through a 50% discount on veggies supplied to the Citizen’s Market in the Little Burgundy working-class neighbourhood, or through punch cards low-income patrons use to buy produce at The Roulant’s own street market. “They’ll pay $10 and receive $20 worth of vegetables at our market,” Clémence said.
The Roulant is currently exploring the possibility of submitting a new grant that would help make the subsidized baskets model available to other farmers.
“The organization’s mandate is breaking isolation through food and making good food as accessible as possible, and that’s one thing we’re capable of doing because we have this great link with an organization where funds are redistributed throughout the programs and we can allow ourselves to do this social mandate,” Clémence said. “We’re in a wonderful position to create these models and test them out and work with organizations who can then implement them again.”
The Roulant’s non-profit status and community service orientation make it eligible for government and foundation grants, as well as donations from private individuals, all of which help the bottom line. While the vegetables sales do cover the cost of production, the other income sources allow the Roulant farmers some luxuries.[/two_third]
“I think the special quality of Santropol Roulant is that it’s an urban organization, a food justice organization, that has a farm. That’s unique.”
“If the farm were completely separate, it would absolutely be able to fund itself,” Clémence said. “But because we’re an organization that has all these social mandates, maybe our budget isn’t as balanced as it would be on a normal farm.”
“Our farm is a showpiece,” Howard said, referring to the grant-funded mission of connecting city dwellers to agriculture. “We put a lot of time into making it beautiful, having no weeds—we had a different mandate, a lot of farms wouldn’t have the time to do that.”
Welcoming city folks out on the farm—no small task for the farm managers—has been an important focus. “There is a great need to show what farmers do,” Howard says, “for people to understand what the work is.”
During each of the last two growing seasons, about 300 youths came to the farm, as well as many other visitors and volunteers.
“One day at the farm, I was blown away by the diversity of volunteers that we had,” Clémence said. “We had an ex-diplomat, we had my friend with her baby niece, this retired baker who was in need of contribution to something because he wasn’t working anymore, a sixteen year old who had gardened with her grandmother and wanted to gain more experience, and two people who were in Montreal for the summer from Brazil. The people we deliver to with the meals-on-wheels program are gaining a service, but the people who volunteer here are also gaining so much.”
Volunteers might be corporate or community groups. The Roulant organized a farm day for its meals-on-wheels clients. Fundraising events are held there. And, once or twice a year, Santropol Roulant holds weekly staff meetings at the farm to connect the people who run the city-based programs with the work at the farm. “We meet under our tree,” Howard says, with a chuckle. “There’s no real dry area besides that tree. We have no buildings. That’s our conference room. Bringing the staff there, bringing the clients there, when I review it, it’s pretty awesome.”
Located in the western Montreal suburb of Senneville, The Roulant farm is accessible by public transport: one hour by commuter rail, followed by 20 minutes of cycling around the western tip of the island of Montreal. Bikes are kept locked up at the train station, ready and waiting for the farm’s staff and volunteers arriving from the city.
These bikes are supplied by The Roulant’s in-house bike shop, which manages the fleet used by volunteers for meals-on-wheels delivery.
The strength of collaboration.
One day last year, the farm harvested much more lettuce than could possibly be sold at the markets or used in the baskets and the Roulant kitchen. “There were probably 300 extra lettuces,” Clémence says. “The kitchen crew started calling contacts of different food organizations. Volunteers came, grabbed the lettuces and took them to other organizations. They were all distributed. That’s totally the strength of our organization. We’re so connected.”
Having a close relationship with McGill and proximity to other Montreal universities is also key. Local farmers also visit to exchange resources, co-purchase materials, cooperatively grow crops, and hone skills. Last year, for example, the Senneville farm brought together 12 farms to collectively build and share knowledge about root vegetable washers.
The farm has two-and-a-half farm managers (the half being Howard, who is unpaid) and two paid interns.
In 2016 the internship position offered at the farm will increase from two to five days per week, to provide interns “more space to explore and be creative,” Clémence says, adding that she looks forward to interns being able to contribute more to farm work.
And then there’s the work-share program, for which volunteers receive a basket of vegetables in exchange for their time. Last year, baskets were traded for beekeeping, seed saving, herb growing, newsletter writing and bread making. “There’s place for many projects,” Clémence says. “We think it’s a nice opportunity for people to have a platform to try things.”
“It took time to define the farm’s role in the overall organization (Santropol Roulant) and now I think more and more we’re finding that place, that balance of the benefits of the farm being within this organization, knowing the challenges and being able to cope with them,” Clémence says.
Like those working from the main Santropol Roulant office, the managers at the Senneville Farm have to handle human resources, operations, production, marketing, budgeting and accounting. It’s been a challenge to understand how the farm management fits within a larger organization that has all those same factors to consider. “We’ve figured out how to work together,” she says.
“The thing has a life of its own,” Howard says. “We’re just seeing how to combine the two worlds” of the farm and the urban-based non-profit organization.
Santropol’s social mandate attracts principled, enthusiastic and dynamic young people, who move on to new opportunities within a relatively short time; continuity of personnel is a challenge. “For a farm, you kind of have to know the lay of the land,” Howard says. “So far, we manage as long as we have someone for two to three years.”
Howard and Clémence are happy with the growth of the CSA basket program. A goal for the near future is to increase the number of subsidized baskets from about twenty to forty. They look forward to the potential for growth in other areas.
“Certain things have remained stable,” Clémence says. “The subsidized market in Little Burgundy has stayed the same. Our market sales haven’t increased that much. I’m aiming for them to increase this year…a little bit of marketing can definitely increase our sales.”
“We want to get more efficient and we want to build our infrastructure,” Howard said, for example, to be able to comfortably host visitors, such as schoolchildren. “We were receiving groups at the farm but we have no infrastructure,” Clémence says. “It was sometimes really difficult when it was raining or even for lunch. We don’t have a well there, so for water we were hauling things. We felt we weren’t contributing as much as we could in terms of education. Our hope is to develop an actual education program in the next few years.”
Where to focus will be another major challenge. The Roulant has many connections, a culture of creativity and experimentation, a combination of social and agricultural goals—which all create an almost daunting pool of resources and opportunities. It’s easy to get side-tracked or swamped.
“I think we’re totally overambitious, all of us,” Clémence says. “Knowing how to control the impulse to do too much is a challenge,” Howard agrees. In the meantime, the farm makes good use of the organization’s reputation, clientele, enthusiasm, energy and youth, helping Santropol Roulant to grow not only vegetables, but, in the words of a volunteer, “to grow good.”