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City folk can try farming thanks to new program

By Pam Kapoor on October 19, 2013

Lisa Gualtieri and Justin Palmer had mused about becoming organic farmers. To take the giant leap of throwing everything into a farm as amateurs, though, was a daunting proposition.

Enter Just Food’s Start-Up Farm Program.

Currently winding down its first year, Ottawa’s very first Start-Up Farm Program provides participants with access to land, shared infrastructure/equipment, and training. Its objectives are to increase access and reduce barriers for people to get into farming in the Ottawa region, help people start successful farm businesses, and generate local food for the local market. Participants receive up to three years of expert on-site support.

“It’s an entry point for folks to develop skills, gain experience, and get numbers under their belt before transitioning to their own longer-term, larger farm operation,” says Leela Ramachandran, Just Food’s Farm Programs Manager.

When Lisa and Justin learned about this initiative last October, their interest was piqued. So they applied and became part of its first cohort of newbie urban farmers. They now operate as Herbivor Farm.

Their season got off to a challenging start: the heavy clay soil on their plot was too wet to plant in. Cue the Program’s central attributes – expert training and collaboration with other participants. Crop plans were adjusted, solutions implemented, and some serious learning was initiated for Lisa and Justin.

Photo courtesy of Just Food.

Photo courtesy of Just Food.

In short order, close to 100 varieties of 30+ crops were in active production at Herbivor Farm, including eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, chard, spinach, lettuce, zucchini, carrots, green onions, squash, cucumbers, basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill.

Lisa and Justin share the same goals as the program itself: strive for ecological diversity and sustainability, celebrate organic, and encourage Ottawa to buy local.

Their vision for the next few years is to grow organic produce in an ecologically-sustainable way for an expanding CSA (community-supported agriculture) membership.

When I asked Lisa and Justin what they got from this initiative that they wouldn’t have otherwise, the response was gushingly enthusiastic:

“The program has given us the opportunity to gain a realistic understanding of what kind of time, energy, and financial requirements are involved with owning our own farm without having to make a substantial investment.”

Essentially, the program reduces risks for anyone seriously considering a career in sustainable food production.

Leela attributes the immediate popularity of this program to two linked dynamics: 1) the increasing demand for local food; and 2) the number of people who want to get their hands in the earth to create it.

Tending to the farm. Photo courtesy of Herbivor Farm.

Tending to the farm. Photo courtesy of Herbivor Farm.

The environmental rationale behind urban farming is widely known: minimize food-miles from field to fork, reduce fuel consumption, shrink a city’s carbon footprint, cycle compost locally.

But I get the sense locavorism is more than a trending green activity – it’s a big part of the broader food culture revolution that’s changing how people think about, source, and consume food. Leela agrees:

“Once people try fresh, locally-grown food, they appreciate the difference. There’s enough public awareness on a range of environmental, social, and food issues that the appeal of supporting local producers is really catching on.”

When I asked how the urban farming movement may be impacting traditional agriculture as we know it, Leela mentioned the emergence of a new kind of farmer – people who didn’t grow up on family farms, second careerists, food activists, even newcomers who bring relevant experience from their home countries to bear in a new context.

“Many diverse people are interested in growing food but don’t have a practical way to try doing so.”

This Start-Up Farm Program helps folks get into the business while increasing the supply of local food for Ottawa. It’s a classic win-win.

Nine ‘test-cropper’ teams were accepted into the inaugural 2013 season, all responsible for their own business from planning to crop production, harvesting, processing, distribution, marketing, and sales. Just Food offers support through courses, one-on-one coaching, test-cropper collaboration, and networking.

Only a handful of such initiatives exist in Canada. Just Food consulted with two pioneering programs before launching its own: the Intervale Centre in Vermont and Canada’s leading example, FarmStart in the 519.

The Just Food Farm sits on 120 acres (roughly ten square city blocks) leased from the National Capital Commission (NCC) – the property once served as its tree nursery.

A program goal is to demonstrate how well agriculture can co-exist with both protected habitat and residential areas. Another cool feature is its collaboration with the NCC to encourage program graduates and other regional farmers to grow on more NCC land (the NCC is actively seeking people to practice sustainable agriculture on its property).

A three-year grant from Ontario Trillium Foundation allows the program to operate while seed funding from the City of Ottawa helped it launch. It is also a recipient of proceeds from the midway at Beau’s Oktoberfest Festival. Training courses run through the program are open to the public, not just participants, so workshop fees are redirected back into operations. The program eventually hopes to function on a cost-recovery basis.

Photo courtesy of Herbivor Farm.

Photo courtesy of Herbivor Farm.

Who’s the ideal candidate for this program? According to Leela, someone who has worked or volunteered on a farm or major community garden, has studied agriculture, and/or has some real applicable skills. Most of all, you need a clear plan of what you want to accomplish and why.

They are accepting a maximum of ten test-croppers for 2014, so spread the word to the green-thumbers you know who may be itching to scale up.

By the way, the Just Food Farm is open to the public. With several cycling and walking paths, it’s a great place to observe urban farmers in action while taking in a beautiful area.

Application deadline for the 2014 season is October 31.