“The film was a real smack in the face,” recalls Arlene. “It presents a bleak picture of the suburbs being cut off, with no cars on the road. The idea of everyone having to stop this ridiculous race to accumulate stuff and start over again by growing their own food was very stirring to me.”
The documentary compelled the Toronto-based couple to take action. In 2007, Arlene and Marc converted their tiny downtown backyard into a fully functional vegetable patch. The more time Arlene spent in the garden, the more she realized how happy and peaceful she felt there.
That first summer, their little garden yielded more than “a hundred pounds” of quality organic produce. Their enthusiasm was contagious. When asked to install a similar garden for a neighbour, the seed was planted, so to speak. The couple went on to form the Backyard Urban Farm Company (BUFCO), a landscape gardening service that builds, installs, plants, and maintains edible gardens for commercial and residential clients throughout the GTA. In the midst of a “doom and gloom” world climate, Arlene found a new reason to be optimistic and proactive.
“Farming captivated me on an emotional level, a spiritual level, and an intellectual level, and it continues to do so even today.” On drives up north, she would pass working farms and long to be in the fields, but with family commitments in the city, she knew her vision wasn’t practical. With the support of her community in Roncesvalles, Arlene has realized that dream in the middle of a bustling metropolis. BUFCO rents one neighbour’s garage to store tools and soil, another neighbour allowed Arlene and Marc to build a greenhouse in her yard in exchange for food. The homestead has now expanded to nourish eight families. “I don’t know a single person who has not experienced an incredible rush from growing. There is so much ‘wow’ in gardening. From the first seedling to finally tasting the incredible flavour.”
But the learning curve was steep. For a time Arlene juggled film and farming, knowing she would eventually need to make a choice. The scope of urban agriculture is vast. For two years, she interned on a farm where she learned the ins and outs of organic farming — everything from crop rotation and companion planting to soil health and weather patterns.
Today she divides her time between setting up and managing gardens for private clients, who appreciate the importance of growing their own food but don’t have the time to devote themselves to the task, and volunteering at the West Lodge Community Gardens in Parkdale. Aside from supporting communal gardens in low-income areas, BUFCO has created a series of “grow your own” workshops aimed at teaching kids, elderly, and individuals with special needs.
In many ways, Arlene says, farming is not that different from the film business. “We have a crew, we’re all freelancers, we have call sheets that tell everybody where they need to go during the day. They show up, load the truck, take it to locations, offload, work as a team, load back in. At the end of the day, we feel like we’ve really accomplished something: it could be making a movie, or it could be growing zucchini.”
Although Arlene describes working from home as “heaven,” the decision to trade film for gardening was not an easy one. Coming from a business where glitz and glamour are paramount, Arlene now felt messy and unkempt. “At the beginning, I felt a bit of shame. I’m not as polished as I once was… I had dropped all of the trappings, yet I was feeling a little out of place with my old life and my old friends. So I had to counsel myself not to let the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses take me away from what makes me happy.”
Then there’s the bottom line. Although Arlene and Marc are no longer earning “film money,” they have experienced a new kind of personal wealth and wellbeing. “I’m not buying lattes at $5 a pop or getting my nails and hair done. All of our values have shifted. Our spending is all about growing our homestead, feeding ourselves — quite literally — as opposed to the kind of spending we were doing before.”
Where Arlene once gave orders from the director’s chair, she is now hauling bags of soil and filling trucks. Over the years she has experienced plenty of ‘What the hell am I doing?’ moments, but by and large those doubts have passed. Nine years on, Arlene feels BUFCO is building a legacy.
Though her son, now 19, has his own relationship with gardening (growing fresh herbs for cooking and tending the seedlings in his room) he has no plans to carry on the family business. “He treasures the values of BUFCO and wants to make sure they don’t get lost as the company grows.” And that’s legacy enough for Arlene.