The following feature appeared in Peace Arch News’ Indulge magazine, published March 26.
Jordan Mara couldn’t sleep.
This wasn’t anything new for the Semiahmoo Peninsula man who, back in 2013, had been become accustomed to tossing and turning all night, his mind racing as he watched the clock tick until the wee hours of the morning.
A few weeks earlier, he had split up with his girlfriend, and he found himself “just completely riddled with anxiety” about it.
“I was just in one of the worst head-spaces of my life. I couldn’t sleep, I was absent-minded and disengaged at work and I was just completely disconnecting myself from any social setting I found myself in,” he said.
“I didn’t really know how to deal with my anxiety in a healthy way.”
Leave it to his mom, Joan, to offer a solution that worked.
Mara, who lived in Vancouver at the time, had spent that particular sleepless night at his parents’ house in South Surrey, and found his mom in the kitchen the next morning.
“I went downstairs to make coffee and my mom asked me how I slept. I told her that I hadn’t slept at all, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t we head out into the garden and work on a little project today,’” he explained.
The two of them went out into the yard – next to the popular Spirit Garden, which was created out of a neighbouring vacant lot by Joan and her husband, Jon – and that’s when it happened.
“As soon as I started moving some rocks around, and started bringing some soil over, that was the first time that I felt the clamps of anxiety on my neck and chest loosen,” Mara said.
“I felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time in who knows how long.”
And though he didn’t realize it at the time, the seeds for his next career move – not to mention improved mental health – were sown.
“I remember it being a very visceral experience. I remember thinking it was interesting, so I kind of made a mental note that maybe gardening was going to be in my life in the future,” he said.
“I didn’t really know what that would look like or mean, I just knew that I had a really positive first experience with it.”
Fast forward to 2021 and the former White Rock Christian Academy basketball and track star – he competed at the University of Arizona as a middle-distance runner – is living in Squamish, where he owns and operates Mind & Soil, a less-than-a-year-old soil business that also promotes the mental-health benefits of gardening.
For some, starting a business in the middle of a global pandemic would seem daunting, even foolish, but Mara – who comes from a family of entrepreneurs and has a sales background himself – was undeterred by the challenges, and excited to have finally found an endeavour that he says “sets my soul on fire.”
Mara’s enterprise is based out of his garage, which he emptied and converted into what he calls his “soil warehouse.” The space houses his worm farm, in which thousands of worms feast on food scraps and other organic waste to create “worm castings” – fertilizer that he then mixes with soil, packages up and sells.
The demand has grown exponentially from what started as nothing more than a hobby and content for Mara’s personal Instagram account. Though still in its infancy, there is plenty of room to grow.
“I don’t want to give off the impression that it’s something that’s growing completely out of control – it’s going to take a lot of energy and time to make this a thriving business,” he said. “You need to move a lot of $22 bags of soil to make even $1,000 in revenue, but it’s going better than I could’ve ever dreamed.”
Getting from Point A to Point B – in this case, going from anxious insomniac to successful worm farmer – wasn’t a straight line.
Far from it, in fact.
After that initial ‘Aha! moment’ in his parent’s garden, Mara returned to his apartment and his career, working his way through the sales and technology world. Then, in 2016, he jumped at the opportunity to transfer to a new position within his company – in Sydney, Australia.
Australia, he quickly discovered, did not have any sort of composting program.
“All the kitchen scraps just went to the landfill, and I hated that – it’s terribly unsustainable. So I started researching what the best way would be to compost at home, in an apartment, and that’s where I found out about worm farms,” he explained.
“At first I thought, ‘What on earth is this?’ but I figured I’d give it a whirl.”
He went out and picked up a farm enclosure and 1,000 worms, and started tossing in his food scraps. A week later, he had an abundance of castings, which he mixed back into the soil of his apartment-patio garden.
“So you’re telling me that I can take a tomato from my garden, eat 90 per cent of it, and take the other 10 per cent and pop it into my worm farm, and then have them plow through it and then pump out the most amazing, natural fertilizer of all time, that I can then use back in my garden? That’s incredible,” he said.
“I just got so fascinated by it.”
After a while in Australia, Mara quit his job and started his own sales consulting business, which afforded him flexibility and the chance to work from anywhere – from Brooklyn to Bali – but it still wasn’t fulfilling, he said.
The new company took on a few iterations over a three-year span while Mara tried to find a route to personal and professional satisfaction.
“It was a journey, and I had to go down these different entrepreneurial paths. From the outside looking in, it could’ve looked like three years stumbling around and looking a bit lost, with people probably wondering what the heck I was doing, but internally… it helped me figure out what I wanted to be doing with my time and energy.”
Before ultimately closing up his consulting business, Mara would spent his Fridays – which he kept clear of work appointments – learning about mental-health improvement, specifically nature-based therapy and the positive effects of gardening.
For fun, he started filming his backyard projects – from the creation of a large, hot-compost pile to a vegetable garden – and posting them on Instagram. He called the series “Soil Saturday” and viewers dug it immediately.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is the most fun I’ve had in so, so, so long, and people really seemed to be enjoying it and getting some value from it,” he explained.
His hobby blossomed into Mind & Soil last summer. The first month or so, he personally delivered soil to his customers – even if they were as far away and the Okanagan – before finally adjusting to more convenient shipping methods.
“I didn’t care where you lived, I just wanted to get it into people’s hands,” he said. “But things have gotten (bigger) since then. I wouldn’t be sleeping if I was still doing that.”
Eventually, he hopes to expand the company beyond his garage, and one day envisions a multi-acre property that would not only house the worms and soil, but would include space for outdoor gardening workshops – perhaps even weekend-long retreats that would allow people to spend a few days in a slower-paced environment.
The demand is there, Mara thinks – pointing to the turnout at recent Gardening 101-type Zoom sessions he’s held for his new customers; called ‘Happy Hours’ some sessions have been virtually attended by more than 800 people.
“There’s a lot to learn, and that doesn’t always make it a relaxing, rejuvenating activity. Anytime you try something new, it’s stressful and can be overwhelming,” he said.
“What we want to do is take as much of that off the plate of the first-time gardener as we can, so they can feel confident and comfortable in their own garden, so they can tap into those mental-health benefits as quickly as possible.”
Mara said more people have likely gravitated to gardening over the last 12 months, as they search for ways to deal with “the angst and uncertainty of the pandemic” much the same way he was searching for a solution to his own mental-health struggles years ago.
Reflecting back on that period, Mara is reminded of a prediction that his mom once made while visiting him in Australia.
“My mom is a fairly intuitive, spiritual, intelligent woman and she saw me explaining to them how the worm farm worked. She saw the fascination I had with it, and she said right there, ‘Jordan, I have a feeling there’s going to be something big for you with all this.’ It’s kind of cool to think about that now.”
And while his mom may have planted in him an idea of what was to come, Mara admits he had moments along the way where he wasn’t so sure himself.
“Twenty-two-year-old Jordan would definitely be having a laugh if you went back and told him what 32-year-old Jordan would be doing,” he said.
“A lot of my friends that I worked with in the sales world are like, ‘You know, if you told me five years ago that you were going to have moved from working in enterprise sales to becoming a worm farmer, I wouldn’t have seen that one coming.’
“But having arrived at Mind & Soil, I just feel such a level of clarity now – I know it’s what I want to do.”