Women in Agriculture: Meet Vanessa Hanel

Locally-grown food is closer to home than you think. Vanessa Hanel, owner and operator of Micro YYC, has been providing microgreens to local grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets all through the help of urban farming.

Specializing in microgreens, Micro YYC is a large-scale indoor urban farm located and operated right in the heart of Calgary. But it was only a couple years back that Hanel was growing microgreens right in her basement.

At first, Hanel only grew microgreens for the winter season with plans to move onto small plot intensive farming. “It just made sense to start with [microgreens] in the winter. I could easily put up a couple shelves in my basement,” says Hanel

Though as the weather started warming up and springtime arrived, Hanel continued to tend to her indoor garden. “I was so busy doing that [and] I did not have time to go back outside,” says Hanel. Hanel ran her urban farm in her basement for another two and a half years. Once her customer base grew, she moved her microgreens operations to a commercial space.

Microgreens and sprouts are different in how they are grown and how they are harvested. “I like to compare them to sprouts because most people know what sprouts are … but microgreens are actually a little bit different,” says Hanel.

When cotyledon leaves appear, microgreens are ready for harvest. They are cut at the stem and are detached from its roots. Sprouts, on the other hand, are germinated seeds which consists of the seed root and stem. “They’re very similar, but that’s usually where I start if someone has no idea what micro greens are. Similar to sprouts, just grown a bit differently,” Hanel adds.

Hanel’s upbringing was far from the usual farming lifestyle—she grew up in the city and lived mostly in apartments. It wasn’t until she started attending the University of Lethbridge that agriculture started playing an active role in her life. She caught wind of a committee supporting the formation of a campus garden, joined, and eventually ended up on the board of directors.

Starting with a small plot set up in the campus garden, Hanel became more curious with the world of agriculture. She started thinking about local food, where it came from and how our food is grown. With a Bachelor of Management and Masters of Science in Management, Hanel wasn’t keen on following the traditional business careers paths.

“I was also focused on social responsibility, so I was trying not to go down a corporate path. But I didn’t really know what that was when I was still in school,” says Hanel.

After some time with Organic Alberta followed by an internship on a nearby rural farm, Hanel’s interest in agriculture and farming eventually lead her to start Micro YYC.

“I just love gardening. I still do and I didn’t think that it would become part of what I do day in, day out. But here we are,” says Hanel.

From its humble start in Hanel’s basement to a full-scale urban farming operation, Micro YYC would not have flourished today without the help of community members.

Micro YYC is even part of a larger cooperative called YYC Growers and Distributors which connects both rural and urban farmers in Calgary and its surrounding area. Additionally, the cooperative also provides locally-grown produce through Harvest Box, a year-round program following a community supported agriculture model.

“Without my community, I wouldn’t have my business,” Hanel says.

With collaboration between farmers, grocery store partners, restaurant chefs and even consumers, it builds a robust foundation for a local food system.

“It creates a more resilient system because people are helping each other out. People are looking out for one another.”

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