These days it’s not only farmers, food activists and chefs that are advocating for local food production. Everyday consumers are asking for local produce on their plates. For Ontario’s growing number of newcomers, this could mean okra, bitter melon, and yard long beans alongside the now ubiquitous crops of previous immigrant communities like potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce. While backyard and community gardeners have long been representative of Ontario’s changing demographics, commercial farms are starting to catch on too. Through funding to Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and the World Crops Project, The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation has been supporting Greenbelt farmers in their transition to some of these new, diverse crops.
Recently, as part of a tour coordinated through the Diasporic Foodways Conference held at U of T, I helped facilitate a tour to both a farm and garden in hopes of exploring the evolving intersection of local food and the newcomer communities that have settled in and around Ontario’s Greenbelt.
Our first stop was McVean Farm on the outer edge of Brampton. Nestled between subdivisions and sprawling distribution centres, this unlikely tract of land exists thanks to its longstanding proprietors, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). They now lease the 45 acres of land to FarmStart, a Guelph-based organization that is helping new farmers at the outset of their career. FarmStart subleases small plots of land to farmers up to a maximum of 6 years, and their land base ranges from ¼ acre (for those brand new to farming) to 2-3 acres for the more experienced.
Given McVean Farm’s suburban location, it has attracted would-be farmers whose own cultural backgrounds are reflective of the diverse communities residing around the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Manmeet Singh was a farmer in Pakistan where he practiced growing techniques typical of the Green Revolution. Now in Canada, he’s become a committed organic farmer. The Healthy Choice Farm, his two acre plot at McVean, boasts lettuce mix, carrots, herbs, zucchini and peas to name a few. About half of McVean’s growers are like Manmeet and have previous agricultural experience in homelands far away. While FarmStart, a former Greenbelt Foundation grantee, supports all new farmers, their participants are increasingly newcomers to Canada who farmed back home and want to continue doing so here.
Margaret Zondo and Rodney Garnes, a couple in their fourth year at McVean, both came here from other countries and were keen to grow crops from their homelands when they started Southern Horizons Farm. Margaret, from Zimbabwe, and her partner Rodney, from Barbados, are growing things like African vine spinach, callaloo, and okra alongside farmers’ market staples like kale and cherry tomatoes. With support from Vineland Research and Innovation Centre’s Greenbelt-funded world crops program, they’ve even trialed crops that are less familiar to them like Indian striped eggplant, Chinese red hot peppers, and Mexican tomatillos with great success.
There are over a dozen farmers growing at McVean this season each with their own unique approach and story. Some of McVean’s farmers are hoping to sell to their own South Asian or Caribbean communities through CSA programs or ethnic grocery stores while others are targeting the vibrant farmers’ market scenes across the Golden Horseshow and the adjacent Greenbelt. With the diverse desires and taste buds of Ontario’s eaters to spark demand, there’s no limit to where this can go – and with organizations like FarmStart helping to ease the transition for new farmers, it looks like our local food menus are getting a lot more interesting.
Global Roots Garden at The Stop
Of course, despite a growing number of farmers commercializing world crops there are still plenty of reasons to grow these crops at home or in community gardens. The Stop Community Food Centre’s Global Roots garden is providing the grounds for some gardeners to do just that.
Our next and final stop on the tour, the Global Roots Garden is a series of small plots housed in what was once an old TTC streetcar repair barn now part of what is known as Artscape Wychwood Barns. Barn 5, without walls or a roof overhead, made for a perfect food-growing locale, so The Stop – now a pillar in the Barns’ revitalization – installed the infrastructure and, through a partnership with CultureLink, invited a diverse group of gardeners to grow food in regionally themed plots.
A stroll through Barn 5 is a veritable world tour, with plots for Somali, South Asian, Chinese, and Tibetan gardeners boasting an array of familiar – and many less familiar – veggies, some of which were donated by the Greenbelt Foundation through the World Crops Project back in the spring. The tangled vines of bitter gourd and fuzzy melon make great hideouts it seems, while clumps of quick growing fenugreek sprout up for easy clipping.
Sara Udow, who completed her Masters thesis on the garden and helps coordinate the Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network, tells our group about how community gardens are everyday spaces infused with diverse narratives about food and community. Udow points out that gardens can serve as a unique starting point for exploring questions pertaining to multiethnic cities’ shifting cultural and edible landscapes.
As part of her Masters, Udow created the Global Roots Oral History Project last year where she recorded participants’ stories as a way to capture various incarnations of how place, community, and food intersect. Some stories reflect their personal relationships with plants and gardening, while others are old folktales recollected from the gardeners' countries of origins. The recorded stories can be listened to on the website or over the phone, wherein anyone wandering the garden can call a number, punch in an extension, and hear stories from the gardeners.
As our group heads back to the bus, our shadows stretching before us, I can’t help but be amazed at how vibrant this city of ours is. From across the GTA to the edges of Ontario’s Greenbelt, some really great things are growing, not the least of which is food.
To learn more about world crops in Ontario, visit worldcropsproject.posterous.com or vinelandresearch.com. Plus, you can always use greenbeltfresh.ca to find where your favourite ethno-cultural vegetables are grown and sold in and around Ontario’s Greenbelt. Visit greenbelt.ca to learn more about Ontario's Greenbelt.
Photos and post by Emily Van Halem. Emily coordinates the World Crops Project, a Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation - funded initiative that supports commercialization of locally grown world crops in the Greenbelt.