Breaking Ground

By / Photography By Melissa Andrews | March 22, 2016
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This spring, an inconspicuous list of zoning amendments, part of an onmibus report, will wind its way through City Hall. When it arrives at its final destination in council chambers on April 27, everything from satellite dishes and school buses will be discussed, and a small but potent change will be made to how Ottawa defines community gardening.

“Community gardens are permitted pretty ubiquitously across the city already,” says Carol Ruddy, the city planner who has been working on drafting the amendments being presented, “We are recommending expanding that definition to include urban food production.”

It may seem innocuous, but tweaking the meaning of community gardening will be a major game-changer for food in Ottawa. Along with a supplementary amendment that will broaden the sites allowed to host a farmer’s market — a single farm stand — to include nearly every public space in town, the changes will essentially allow anyone, anywhere in the city to grow food and share, donate or even sell it.

“If someone had some land and they wanted to grow vegetables, they could do that,” Ruddy explains, “Or they could lease that land to someone else who wanted to grow food and they could sell it through a farmers’ market.”

Just Food has been pushing for changes such as these since the non-profit’s inception 12 years ago. As executive director Moe Garahan sees it, urban agriculture is crucial in a healthy, robust food system, which is exactly what Just Food has been at the forefront of creating in Ottawa.

“The key for many aspiring farmers is that agriculture within the municipality offers farmers increased flexibility and resiliency in their operations,” Garahan points out. With the launch of Just Food’s Start Up Farm program in 2015, the Just Food Farm hosts some 17 farmers on National Capital Commission lands in Blackburn Hamlet, a peri-urban community just on the fringes of the core. “Some can stop and tend to their farm on the way to or from off-farm work. This can be critical particularly in a start-up period when capital is needed from off-farm work to build up the business.”

While hardly a new concept, urban agriculture has been difficult for planners to imagine, especially in a city such as Ottawa, where the boundaries of what is urban and what is rural can be a little less clear. “In Ottawa, with its unique, vibrant agricultural economy based on more than 1,100 farming operations within its largely rural boundaries, the colloquial term ‘urban agriculture’ doesn’t make sense.” Farms in Ottawa are of varying size and scale, from micro-farms on inner-city windowsills, to the mega-farms of soybeans and corn at the edges, and all that falls between.

It can be confusing. While the municipality of Ottawa encompasses rural communities with numerous farm operations, urban agriculture often refers to the innovative ways of producing food in densely populated areas on limited land within a city’s core.

Maybe it is better understood as a social movement, rather than a firmly fixed set of growing practices; a tool of civic empowerment that can help address the myriad challenges facing our cities. It fosters circular, sustaining economies by increasing the flow of wholesome foods and providing a direct exchange of labour to those who need it most. Healthy farms encourage healthy natural systems that absorb wastes and runoff, reducing stresses on the environment by supporting wildlife and pollinators, filtering local waterways and reducing pollution and heat.

At its most basic level, the desire to grow something can be the desire to take pressure off an ever-increasing grocery bill or to provide some greenery relief amongst the concrete and dust that encases much of our lives. Or it may simply be to connect to our communities and the land and people that are a part of them.

Growing food makes good civic sense and cities know it. “This is something many municipalities are dealing with,” Ruddy says. While the amendment will help breathe a collective sigh of relief for growers across the city, it has not stopped citizens from taking up trowels and farming across unlikely landscapes, on rooftops, balconies, front lawns and in back alleys, a fact of which the city is well aware. “People are proactive,” says Ruddy, who points out that the amendment will merely help the city catch up to its own mandate. Complete communities are part of the city’s official plan. "This is a response to public inquiries from people who want to lease their backyard or grow some vegetables and sell them.”

It’s not the first time the public has fought to grow food in the city. As early as 1917, planting crops in the city spaces of war-besieged countries was commonplace, a patriotic and necessary reaction in the face of rampant food insecurity. By the onset of WWII, Victory Gardens were firmly embedded into the wartime psyche across the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and Germany. Campaigns such as “Dig on for Victory!” and “Food will win the war!” bleated across British and American airwaves, but in 1942, the message on the Canadian home front was much different. Fearing that inexperienced "city folk" would merely waste precious resources required for the ongoing war effort, the government actively discouraged their citizens from growing their own food.

City folk didn’t buy it. With one tenth of the population fighting overseas and the agricultural might of the country fixed on feeding the hungry armies assembling across Europe, Canadians knew that growing at least a portion of their own food would reduce the pressures of ration books and food shortages. Women’s leagues, community associations, home economists and gardeners mobilized their efforts, overwhelming the ministry of agriculture and forcing them to reverse their stance.

More than 70 years later, communities across Ottawa continue to struggle to grow food in ways they say fit their communities. Annette Hegel remembers her surprise when the city refused their request for a small, under-utilized park on Main Street in 2007, after she and a group of parents from Old Ottawa East had spent close to a year securing community support and gathering funding.

The city was finally convinced of the community plan and the garden is now a children's oasis where about 100 families grow food for themselves and local food centres. Hegel insists it’s been successful because it is guided by the children in the community. “They are the ones who considered wildlife corridors. They built the atrium where they could have performances.” The kids wind up learning about food security and sustainability in a living laboratory that is designed by them, on their own terms.

A few blocks away at the University of St. Paul, Carly Schelck recalls when her hospitality team took over the campus food operations and launched Café Urban, a university cafeteria with a mandate to serve healthy, fresh and made-from-scratch foods. “It was a hard sell,” Schelck admits, “As a university cafeteria you are expected to have things like pizza and hot dogs.”

As institutional foods tend to be of the cheapest variety, Schelck had to figure out how to cut costs. When two community garden plots on the university property came available, Café Urban started planting, drawing on the expertise of the gardeners who were working beside them. Soon they were growing 40 to 50 per cent of the food they were serving, offering the students and teachers a hyper-local meal that cash-strapped students could afford.

When Linda Pollock noticed someone had planted flowers in a few streetside planters in front of the Centre 507, an emergency food centre in the heart of Ottawa’s urban core, she got an idea. “They had tossed beans in as an afterthought and they thrived in the southwest light.” Pollock, a member of the Centretown United Church next to the Centre 507, rallied her congregation and neighbours on a mission to breathe new life into the streetscape.

The corner of Bank and Argyle proved an ideal microclimate for food growth. With a grant from Just Food’s Community Garden Development Fund, Pollock enlisted the help of a neighbour, “our own Ed Lawrence”, to help them create an inner city farm.

The planters overflowed with food crops, which all found their way upstairs to the Centre 507 and on to the hundreds of lunch plates the centre serves daily. Like the garden, the garden community has grown organically, a lush beacon that is causing ripple effects of green space across the city. “One of our volunteers lives in a condominium nearby,” says Pollock. “And now he wants his building to start growing a garden on the roof.”

A rooftop farm is just one of the possibilities of "ground-up" urban agriculture, and in Ottawa, it seems everyone at the top is on board, too. “Ottawa Public Health asked our team to include urban food production in the planning,” says Ruddy. It makes sense; they support healthy eating and active living, easy to accomplish when you grow your own. “Food production will be a good thing for the neighbourhood. This is in the public interest.” The city will do its part with the amendment, by ensuring people can be healthy, socially connected and eating well. With the growing season just around the corner, we better do our part and dig on.

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