Eating Local

Growing your own food will help you understand how you are what you eat. If you aren’t into farming, however, you could at least eat the products of those around you who are. Here’s why.

One of only two city-operated community gardens, the Dundas Community Garden site edges onto the wilds of the Royal Botanical Gardens’ property, sharing space with nesting snapping turtles. And deer. It seems that the pesky deer are up to the task of clearing even the hardiest jerry-rigged fence, free to lop off the choicest bits, beans being a particular attraction.

We’re the new gardeners on the block, though most of the green thumbs here have been refining their arts over a number of years. What strikes the newcomer is the way they’ve engineered immaculate defences against blossom-browsing deer, the meticulously staked- out orange plastic fencing serving, too, as the margins for a seasonal battle against myriad green invaders, unwanted plants otherwise known as weeds.

We payed $25 to rent our plot of land measuring six by nine metres, made a trip to Flamborough to buy seeds and a few tomato plants, and with some initial advice from a friend with years in the community garden trenches, we’re digging and sowing. The sun beats down. Tomatoes, lettuce, peas, squash, zucchini, beans, cucumber and potatoes find homes. 

We’re the only ones using a raised bed technique, which worries my seven- year-old. “I want to plant rows, like this,” she points earnestly, indicating our neighbour’s neat lines of pepper plants. The difference makes me a bit nervous too; being new and novel in the ancient art of farming may be pushing boundaries. Our idiosyncratic approach to planting becomes a public thing here-we’re standing naked in the field, so to speak.

A neigbouring gardener strolls over to say hi and kindly offers us a tray of leeks for planting. While we talk, he gaze takes in our garden. I note a flicker of concern cross his face.

“You’ve got potatoes,” he comments, in a tone that feels like he might have said “you have warts.”

“Yes, but not too many,” I quickly point out, feeling a slight pang of guilt. Another gardener had already mentioned the bias against potatoes that exists at the site; a bias, not against potatoes per se, but the dreaded yellow and black striped Colorado Potato Beetle.

Survival pits species against species, gardener against gardener. I can’t help thinking that if our crops fail, there will be murmurs, averted glances. And somewhere in the depths of my consciousness, a grain of a survival instinct stirs-suppose we didn’t have groceries waiting on the shelves? What if we had to feed ourselves?

“And while middle-class citizens, and workmen infested with middle-class ideas admire their own rhetoric in the ‘Talking Shops,’ and ‘practical people’ are engaged in endless discussions on forms of government, we, the ‘Utopian dreamers’-we shall have to consider the question of daily bread.” -Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread.

A few kilometers away under a late June sky, members of the “Hamilton Eat Local Project” are stooped or crawling, hand picking the last remaining crop of strawberries at an organic farm. The desire to engage the local farm economy in a hands-on way is reaping early-and juicy-rewards, but the fleeting strawberry season almost slipped by unnoticed.

Part of the learning curve is reconnecting with seasonal growth patterns, “having a clue about what’s growing,” as Eat Local Project Coordinator Julie Fleming puts it. While supermarkets keep shelves stocked with crops out of season by importing from all regions of the globe, eating local means paying more attention to timing, and things like “choosing strawberries grown in Waterdown rather than the U.S. imports,” suggests Fleming. And it means good eating.

As landscape architect and author Michael Hough suggests, “The problems that confront rural areas are urban based. Rural occupations, such as fruit growing and dairy farming, which were once common in cities, are largely a thing of the past. As cities grow larger, the vast majority of people have ceased to have any knowledge of rural values and skills.”

Eat Local aims to address this issue. Their first meeting is, fittingly, an outdoor potluck set in the pastoral tranquility of Churchill park. With the growing season well underway, the handful of participants sitting in a circle must grapple with what initially presents itself as a bewildering array of ideas, from arranging fruit-picking parties, and subsequent canning and preserving workshops, to recipe sharing, mapping a list of local producers, creating neighbourhood community gardens, organizing a forest food foraging outing.

Or the Urban Fruit Tree project that would make productive use of the inventory of 233 fruit trees in west end neighbourhoods, a scheme that would divide the fruit among the tree’s owner, the fruit pickers, and local food banks, a dynamic modelled on a successful project in Victoria, B.C.

“We want to build awareness and sensitivity to the idea that people in cities need to start growing more of their own food, to re-sensitize ourselves to what it means to feed ourselves,” explains Fleming.

It is hoped that awareness will build goodwill between city and farm, providing more local market opportunities for area farmers, while also supplying a secure local food source in an otherwise unstable international economy. More than planting seeds in soil, the seeds for a mental and cultural shift need to be nurtured locally.

“Our Father’s Farm,” a 21-acre organic pick-your-own on Highway 5, beside Christie Conservation Area, is a find for the Eat Locally group. As strawberry season gives way to raspberries-and with corn, carrots, beets, romaine lettuce, peas, onions, and 12 acres of organic hay growing in the field-owner Candy Goud muses about the nature of the business.

“There’s not a lot of interest (in pick-your- own). Strawberries, yes, but it seems that the older generation was into picking; now it seems the same awareness isn’t there.” Candy and her husband John also run a horse- riding business at the farm, and are the largest North American supplier of apricot kernels, a health-food specialty item rich in vitamin B17.

Diversifying is essential to the small farm’s survival. “We really want to get word out that we’re here,” says Candy of their six year-old farm. A few independent food stores like Goodness Me, the Horn of Plenty and Picones’ in Dundas carry their produce. Goud, who grew up in Edmonton, finds comfort in the farming lifestyle; John grew up working on a commercial farm. His father helped them buy the farm, but the farm’s name carries double meaning, a reference also to the couple’s Christian beliefs. Her religious conviction co-exists naturally with her organic approach to growing food, she explains.

“It makes so much sense to grow and eat food that you know is not going to kill you,” asserts Goud.
. . .
Behind a store on King Street in Dundas, an almost covert exchange takes place. A truck pulls into the gravel driveway and quickly unloads boxes of fresh organic vegetables. Others, call them shareholders, pull up, some on bicycles pulling small trailers, some on foot carrying cloth bags slung over shoulders, some in cars, to load up with the weekly supply from their Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) producer. Each box contains a share of vegetables sorted by the farmers. This local economy, as opposed to the corporate global one, is a low key affair, but intimate: the producers and buyers likely know each other by name.

There are a few CSAs in the area, but with eight years behind the plough, Plan B Organic Farms is one of the foremost. As a growth industry, CSAs are proving that big farms are not the only way to make a decent living. By opting out of the larger economy that requires massive farms producing one specific crop, Plan B grows a wide array of food for 300 families, plus weekly markets on their 50-acre property.

A minimum of a dozen, mostly young local people, live and work alongside Plan B founders-or, as Rodrigo Venturelli smilingly refers to himself, “a Plan B serf.”

Feeding the local market with fresh produce is a weekly affair, both with the delivery of CSA food “shares” at local depots, and a fledgling Saturday organic market at Westdale’s St. Cuthberts Church.

“It’s a community centre,” Venturelli says of the market, “right now it’s more a veggie stall than a market, but it is ethical (in its emphasis).” Local food production is a core value, one that needs to have roots with the young in the community, says Venturelli. The market as a living centre is germinal to that educative process.
“Why do people support local organic? For their children,” Venturelli offers. ” It’s important to learn how to do agriculture, to know how a community feeds itself, while thinking about tomorrow,”

Working the farm is also about the ethical and economic bottom line: “People get to work, here (on the farm); we’re working all the time, but people are working with smiles on their faces.”

“You can escape, be aloof to the madness (of the dominant culture), or you can create your own work. Local means we can support each other and reach a better standard of living.”

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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