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Kai Groen: Trading truck routes for veggie roots

What do you do with a university degree in English, History and Philosophy? “I drove truck,” Kai Groen shrugs and smiles. Years later, he is now rolling out Vegiscape, his market gardening and ‘edible landscaping’ business in Stratford and Perth County. The swing from truck routes to vegetable roots was more natural than it might sound. “I always gardened,” Kai says. “I grew up in inner city Chatham and after school I would go straight to the back garden to see how the beans and raspberries were growing. I even grew plants in my semi truck cab on long-haul trips.”

Kai created Vegiscape “around 2009” but got serious in 2015 and spent the 4-month winter researching bio-intensive farming, urban agriculture and edible landscape companies around the world, corresponding with them for advice and developing his business model.

Among the things he learned, farmers using organic bio-intensive techniques can: use a fraction of the water, fertilizer and energy; produce several times more food in half the space, or less; yield up to 4 harvests per year; and greatly increase soil fertility (vs. depleting).

Kai is in with both feet. He rented two acres from Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy at her sustainable farming project on the edge of Shakespeare. He dug 126 100-foot beds, each with a pair of 30-inch wide rows and an 18-inch foot path between. And he is extending his growing season with 8-foot tall fabric hoop houses made by Multi Shelter Solutions in Palmerston. He bought an Italian multi-purpose two-wheeled tractor, but that’s it for mechanization – everything else is done by hand.

Can you actually run a business on two acres? “Well, rent in this area is $300 per acre, I’m spending $5,000 on organic inputs, another $4,000 on seeds, and I’ve got 28,000 seedlings ready to plant,” he says. “So, cheap rent, low overhead, low risk and a huge profit margin – that works for me. Security is being able to work harder for what you want.”

Launching required some startup capital, though. So with a 40-page business plan, he secured funding from Perth Community Futures in two weeks and had a cheque in four. “They were easy to talk to, enthusiastic, and the process went really well.”

Kai also believes in collaboration. He uses the Local Community Food Centre’s greenhouse in exchange for revamping their own greenhouse program, plus a percentage of his seedlings. He’ll also have a vegetable stand in their Erie Street parking lot this summer on weekday afternoons, to catch homebound traffic. And he guarantees reasonable prices. “I can’t compete with grocery stores on mass-produced cooking onions, but for a specialized Italian salad onion, I can.” He also plans to collaborate on a food subscription program. “I’m finalizing arrangements with some other local producers. And it’s going to be different.”

Then there’s the urban side of his business, planting ‘living walls’, vegetable and herb gardens, and fruit trees for the Bruce Hotel, Monforte Dairy and Keystone Alley Café, starting community gardens and donation gardens, and helping homeowners plan, plant or maintain their own gardens. “If someone has a fruit tree, I’ll tend it and split the produce with them. If they’ve got pests, I’ll use organic means to remedy those,” Kai offers. “I want to be known as the guy to call to solve gardening problems. It will be a small part of the business, but it’s great for word of mouth.”

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