This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a deep dive into Ottawa’s food production community—what it’s like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a guest post from Jeremy Colbeck of BeetBox on sustainable farming co-ops, or read Chris Penton on Farmers’ Markets, Steve Beauchesne on craft beer, or Francis Bueckert on local coffee roasting.
Jeremy Colbeck is an outdoorsy guy doing his best to help pull our culture towards a sustainable way of life: one based on reciprocal relationships between the land and all its inhabitants. He is a Farm Coordinator and Grower at BeetBox urban farm co-op.
Apt613: What is the current state of farming in Ottawa?
Jeremy Colbeck: Well first, let’s talk about what we mean by farming. Although farms, and farming as an occupation, are in decline across Canada, they are still a major part of our rural landscape. That’s even more true for a strange city like Ottawa which includes a LOT of rural areas and whose urban boundary takes, what, three hours to cross? About 40 per cent of the rural land in Ottawa is farmland. Most of that farming is corn and soybean cash-crop, as well as some dairy and livestock farming. That’s mostly conventional farming (the kind that is profitable but not exactly where you take your kids on a Saturday).
There are also a lot of agri-tourism businesses in Ottawa, which give you that oh-so-good Saturday spot for family donkey-petting and apple-picking. And it’s totally understandable from a business perspective, but sometimes surprising to find out, that even though they grow some of the Christmas trees they sell, they might also be reselling some that come from much larger farms far away. The farmland around Ottawa is also inflated in price because of its proximity to the city, where it is in demand by would-be hobby farmers—folks who want to do some farming on their property in their spare time but make their money (to subsidize their small-scale farming habit) elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of these properties will have large mansions built on them, which will then make them completely unaffordable for the average farmer
There’s also a segment of small-to-medium-sized Ottawa farms that grow “premium” (artisanal, unique, extra-fresh, ecologically- or organically-grown etc…) products that they sell directly to local eaters via farmers’ markets or other direct marketing channels, including on-farm stores and farm stands. That’s where BeetBox fits in.
Farming, to the members of BeetBox and I think, to a lot of you readers, is about growing food and growing it in a way that is good for the environment, the animals on the farm, and the health of the people who eat that food (and the workers who grow it). These kinds of farms are a minority of food production and sales in Canada, but they sure are on the up and up in Ottawa. Thanks to trailblazers like Juniper Farm, Roots and Shoots Farm, and Mariposa Farm, there is a growing ecosystem of organic farms close to town where you can know your farmer and get to know how they grow food sustainably. Heck, you can probably go help them pull up garlic too if you really want.
The Ottawa folks who decide to grow your food organically are the bedrock of our local food security. They will be there for you in a pandemic, just like they will be there for you on a Saturday when you want to get some fresh air.
BeetBox is proud to be part of this tight-knit network of organic farms. BeetBox also has the proud distinction of being a worker co-operative, following in the food-steps of other leaders like La Ferme coopérative Tourne-Sol (just west of Montréal). In an age where the average farmer is over 60, getting into farming, particularly access to land, comes with major capital expenses (and no promise of making the big bucks anytime soon). The founders of BeetBox created a structure that could give young farmers a chance by co-operatively owning and running the business. We also have the great opportunity to rent a farm in the National Capital Commission’s Greenbelt, right between Kanata North and Bayshore. In fact, we are one of over 100 farms in the Ottawa Greenbelt that make farming just a short ride away (by bike or in a car)!
If you care to make a prediction… Where is cooperative farming going in Ottawa in 2021?
2021 will be a big year for all direct-to-consumer farms, that’s for sure. People, more than ever, are looking for connection with local business owners. They are also looking for a reliable supply of high-quality healthy food. Judging by 2020, CSAs (weekly vegetable subscription boxes) will sell out early. Ours sold out in early February.
2021 is also a great year for cooperative, and creative, farms, as more and more people are looking to get outside and maybe even switch careers, given how much the pandemic has shaken things up. We have had a surge of interest in people wanting to join the co-op or rent land to start their own businesses. Last summer, we created a cross between our CSA program and a community garden. This project “Community Farm” gives people a chance to grow their own food, but with the insights, crop-planning, coordinated work scheduling, and tools of a veggie farm.
We also started a seedling sale for gardeners to buy veggie babies for their gardens, which we think will continue to be popular this spring, given the surge in home gardening. These sorts of projects make 2021 anything but low-key; if anything it’s going to be a great year to invite the community to our farm.
Where in your wildest dreams could BeetBox grow in your lifetime?
As a co-operative, BeetBox could grow in so many directions—that’s the most exciting part. I hope over the next 20 years that our co-operative will just keep growing in members. Diversification is a key part of our kind of farming—it is better for the land and makes for a more resilient business.
We see so much potential on our beautiful slice of greenbelt in Nepean. I can easily see us expanding to have a prepared foods kitchen where we can make delicious pickles and prepared foods, but also offer workshops and training to use up all of the “seconds,” or the ugly veggies. We also have a strong interest in regenerative agriculture and can see the potential for livestock that is raised in a way that restores land. We also have a great event and concert series that we hope keeps blossoming, so that our farm becomes even more of a place for community.
What is the best innovation to take place in sustainable farming since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?
You mean other than our sweet Community Farm program for people to come grow their own veggie CSA? Haha! I would say it’s a combo of online store platforms, but also the people, our customers, who changed their buying habits. The pandemic really awoke in our community a desire to support local even through lockdowns. Whereas before, people wanted the convenience of a one-stop-shop, now, so many people are willing to be a little less convenient and a lot more satisfied with their purchase. In the past, customers got busy on farm store or market days, and if it was rainy they didn’t show up, but with online ordering, they have already put the order in a few days in advance and voila, they would show up to get their freshly picked veggies right at our barn door.
Who is the future of sustainable farming in Ottawa?
People with passion and grit who can connect and team up with the average ethical eater. Sustainable farming is not easy work, especially while competing in a global market of cheap commodified food. The Ottawa folks who decide to grow your food organically are the bedrock of our local food security. They will be there for you in a pandemic, just like they will be there for you on a Saturday when you want to get some fresh air, when you want to make a perfect tomato sandwich or make your own pickles—they will be there with recipes and tips. They will be there to explain how they grow your food safely and sustainability and how best to enjoy it. They are the experts on the land, the food, how to eat well, and they ensure our city has a healthy, vibrant, and dare I say delicious, future.
Tell us something you wish somebody told you when you started your career in farming.
That as a new business owner, it’s easy to have as much computer work to do as work in the fields!
Back in 2015, Apartment613 took a look at the future of Ottawa across several different sectors. In 2021, we’re bringing the series back, asking experts, artists, and community leaders to shed some light on their local field or industry, as it stands now and where they think—or dream—it will go over the next few years. Every week we’ll profile a different cultural sector in Ottawa, leaving no niche unexplored—from social justice to theatre, bars to sports, to the future of the municipality and its natural environs. Keep an eye out for a new batch of posts every Tuesday on Apt613.ca.