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Dartmouth's Urban Farmers 

A Dartmouth couple brings "local agriculture" to a whole new level.

Jean Snow says she gets her best rest between 5am and 9am. She hits her sleep stride when most farmers are getting up.

"But we're urban farmers," says the 53-year-old. "So it works perfectly."

Snow and her husband Bob Kropla, their two teenagers and their five-year-old golden retriever, Sam, live east of Prince Albert Road near Maynard Lake---"Old Dartmouth, but not old old Dartmouth." Plain street. Plain house. Plain, gas-powered-mowing neighbours. He's a pilot; she runs a home-based business.

When they moved in seven years ago, Snow asked Kropla what he thought about some vegetable gardening in the front yard.

Mmmmmmnope.

"I never had a pristine lawn," says Kropla. "But I always thought of myself as a pristine-lawn guy." He shrugs. "I've seen the light."

Go around the back and you'll see it, too. But you'll have to look closely. Snow and Kropla's Lake City Farm---they sell Saturdays at the Dartmouth Farmers' Market five minutes away, to neighbours and friends from the door, occasionally to Agricola Street's Local Source Market and to Cubano's, near Dartmouth High---is a small plot that takes up the lion's share of their backyard. You can't see Lake City Farm on Google Maps satellite images. And that's the point: Snow and Kropla are SPIN farmers.

"It's an acronym for small plot intensive farming," Kropla says. The term was coined by a traditional big-acreage market gardener outside Saskatoon, who moved to the city and envisioned a different kind of green in the piecemeal expanses of urban lawns.

He got agreements from neighbours to farm sections of their lawns. "They found that by having a whole bunch of little crops scattered all around the city---it might add up to an acre or two acres---it worked."

Snow and Kropla's entree into this world was half procrastination---they had bought a "whole bunch" of dirt to landscape the scrubby backyard last year and didn't get around to it---and half inspiration. Snow read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and found a link on Kingsolver's website to the Saskatoon SPIN farmer.

"Once we decided to go ahead, we just came out one day and dug it all up," she says.

They planted radish (long gone), beets (only one more week) and an array of greens.

Kropla moseys, as if in a trance, onto the farmland while Snow shows off the greens. "When you see a weed, you can't help but go grab it," she says, gesturing to her stooping, distracted husband.

"So there's baby chard, arugula, this row is baby beets---they're red beets, beautiful---and then there's romaine. And that black bucket is cress...careful! Careful! That's arugula..."

"This? Are you sure?"

"I'm positive."

"Oh. You're right. It's escaping."

They sell bags of salad mix and larger bags of spinach or rainbow chard for $3 a bag, or mix-and-match at two for $5. Zucchini's priced separately---a bed against the fence and another almost hidden under the back deck sprout a ton. And that's all the space there is. For now.

The SPIN farm plan for these two is to look for other yards to tend. "Three or four or five of these," says Snow.

They'd like to find space in the neighbourhood, but they'd be willing to go as far as Halifax for a few close-together plots. Facebook's helping them get the word out:the Ecology Action Centre, too. In the spring Snow called the food action committee's Marla MacLeod.

"It's a really innovative use of urban land," MacLeod says. "We often think of urban spaces as places to grow grass and quite frankly grass is not...um...particularly exciting. It uses a lot of fertilizer. A lot of it is not suited to this climate. You have to mow it all the time." From the background someone yells, "Grass is a drag!"

Snow and Kropla, between the backyard farm and the abundant front yard perennials jutting like poorly practised gymnastsat passers-by, haven't got much grass leftto reclaim.

"Hmmm. Where else we can go?" Snow says to Kropla, to me, to the bucket of cress. "Maybe vertical with beans."

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