Grad reaps satisfying rewards with gardening startup
By Clay Evans
After graduating as Puksta Scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2011 with degrees in economics and environmental studies, Bryant Mason was ready to put the program’s ethic of citizen engagement and positive change into action.
So he moved to Boston and took a job with the Sustainable Endowments Institute on a project to help universities manage their investments in a socially responsible way.
“I loved the mission, and I thought the work was interesting,” Mason says. “But I kept being called back to Colorado.”
While in school, Mason worked on local food and sustainability issues. He helped found CU Going Local, which promotes sustainable local food. During his time as president, the organization built urban gardens around Boulder and established education and outreach programs.
So just four months after heading east, Mason had returned to his home state, “drawn by my passion for gardening and sustainable food.” In January 2012 he launched The Urban Farm Company of Colorado, a startup designed to help people along the northern Front Range create and sustain food-producing gardens.
“The goal of the company is to make it as simple as possible for people to grow fresh, healthy food right in their own back yard,” says Mason, who also was a member of CU’s 2010 and 2011 national champion triathlon teams.
Mason says he’s talked to hundreds of people who want to raise their own fresh food, but they encounter three main obstacles: time, knowledge and confidence. His company provides all three.
Urban Farm visits the yards of would-be farmers, zeroing in on the best location for a garden based on available sunlight and soil analysis. Workers then till the soil, build raised beds and load them with nutrient- and microbe-rich soils developed by Mason. Clients also can opt for add-ons such as drip irrigation systems, pest protection or frames for cold-weather gardening.
Then the company creates a “menu” of crops and does the initial planting.
“We’re creating ‘turnkey’ gardens,” Mason says.
But the company doesn’t disappear after planting. It sends weekly emails with tips and reminders and advice is just a phone call or email away.
“We help you figure out exactly what you need to do so you have to spend only about two minutes a day working in the garden,” Mason says.
The idea caught fire quickly. In its inaugural year, the company put in 40 gardens in Fort Collins. In 2013, Mason moved his headquarters to Boulder, hired a handful of employees, bought three trucks and established some 150 gardens from Denver to Fort Collins.
“We were profitable, but I didn’t pay myself much,” he says. “I put the capital back into the business.”
But Urban Farm is much more than a business for Mason.
“Bryant’s vision is one of de-centralized agriculture, one where families and businesses grow their own food, one where we green our cityscape—rooftops, medians, yards—not with turf but food,” writes Erica Gagne Glaze in her blog, Farming Fort Collins.
The company also has been working with The GrowHaus, a Denver-based urban farm and education center dedicated to bringing healthy food into low-income “food deserts.” GrowHaus promotes Mason’s company, which in turn gives 10 percent of referred sales back to the nonprofit.
“It’s a very cool idea he has,” says GrowHaus executive director Coby Gould, who graduated from CU-Boulder in 2008 with a degree in philosophy. “He’s passionate about gardening, but also the social piece.”
Bryant has been raising outside capital with an eye toward franchising the model to “empower people to grow their own food” beyond Colorado.
“I’ve always approached it from a very social and environmental perspective. I’m growing the business not to make a lot of profit but to make a lot of impact,” he says. “If you want to make a lot of money, go to New York and be a banker. I wanted to be outside and have my hands in the soil, so this startup is perfect.”