A 30-minute drive from his home near High Park, Carl Leslie’s peppers are turning a deep, vibrant red. “Sweet bell pepper success!” he proclaims in a photo caption to his social media followers. “First time ever. A testament to a hot, hot summer.”
Leslie’s harvest—of peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, watermelon, squash, and some 30-odd other fruits and vegetables—is also testament to the success of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) near-urban agriculture projects that now span the GTA.
Since 2008, the TRCA has been partnering with agricultural organizations and private farmers to develop farm enterprises closer to the city. These farm initiatives offer farmers like Leslie, who live in or near urban centres, access to land, equipment, and mentorship needed to run a startup or family farm.
Leslie runs his half-acre plot on McVean farm, a 45-acre chunk of TRCA land in Brampton within Claireville Conservation Area. McVean, one of the TRCA’s four near-urban farms, is managed by Farm Start, which leases the land from the TRCA and rents out small plots to farmers. For some land-users, McVean is a pilot program—somewhere to dabble in farming before deciding whether to scale up and buy their own land. For some, it’s a place to grow food for their families and communities without moving out of the city. And for others, it’s simply a way to feel connected to the land.
“Whatever brings them here, it’s meaningful and fulfilling,” says Christie Young, executive director of Farm Start.
In its eight-year existence, McVean, located in a large newcomer community, has hosted 30 farmers from 17 different countries. Five of the farmers have gone on to buy their own farms, but Young notes that for most of the farmers at McVean, that’s not an option—nor is it the goal. “It’s too cost prohibitive to own the land. And for a lot of them,” she adds, “especially for new Canadians, moving to a really remote, rural part of Ontario is unimaginable.”
Instead, many McVean farmers are there to feel closer to the land, their new community, and at the same time, their roots. “In many cultures, there isn’t this separation between that wild space and myself,” says Young. “I remember times we’ve opened the farm to the community and there were people from all over the world who would come and they would start to cry. They had felt so disconnected from the land, and now they were seeing food from their homes, growing near their homes here. That is so deeply impactful.”
McVean is part of the 689 acres of TRCA-owned farmland, which the organization expropriated in the late 1950s following Hurricane Hazel. Flooding from the storm had devastated the GTA, spurring the conservation authority’s mandate to manage the watershed and protect the region’s green spaces. For decades, agriculture was considered an interim use for the lands—a placeholder until the TRCA renaturalized the areas, for example.
Around the mid-2000s, however, the conservation authority started taking a different approach to agriculture. “We recognized that once we lose good agricultural lands, it’s very hard to get that back,” says Sonia Dhir, a TRCA project manager. By 2008, the organization had developed a Sustainable Near-urban Agriculture Policy to conserve its agricultural land base, and encourage new partnerships that would support environmentally sound, local food production on TRCA lands.
It was around that time that the farm-to-table movement was gaining steam, not simply among urbanites jumping on the latest food trend, but with activists and policy-makers touting the health, economic, and social benefits of eating local.
According to the Metcalf Foundation, urban garden plots—which produce high-value vegetables as opposed to cash crops like corn, for example—are up to 15 times more productive than rural lands. Given their short production cycles, one square metre of urban farmland can garner 20 kilograms of food each year. In the GTA, where one in eight households regularly experience hunger, urban farms hold huge potential to help curb urban food insecurity.
For Leslie, supporting local food security is a key component of his farm business, the Crooked Cucumber. He runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where members sign up for weekly produce boxes throughout the growing season. A $2.25 donation is built into the membership fee each week, which goes towards buying fresh produce for a local food bank. “With 45 members (the number of shares I am offering in 2016), we will be able to donate $100 worth of amazing veggies each week to support food security right here in our neighbourhood,” says Leslie.
Initiatives like Leslie’s CSA have taken off in the last decade, with over 1,200 on-farm markets, roadside stalls, pick-your-own programs, and CSAs now active across Ontario. Still, funding for these programs is limited (the City of Toronto pledged less than $300,000 for urban agriculture in 2016), and organizations like the TRCA, which assists with costly infrastructure investments, are over-stretching to help new farmers have access to land, and communities have access to locally-grown food.
Meanwhile, farmers at McVean are enjoying one of their best harvests to date. “There’s so much amazing stuff happening,” says Young. “When you look at the land and think it used to just be farmed by a hay cropper—one farmer that would come in three times a year with his tractor—and now the farm is vibrant, active, and buzzing with growers from all over the world,” she says, “that’s what this place should be.”
Photos courtesy of FarmStart
This article is brought to you by Toronto and Region Conservation.