Grow Local

Urban farming – growing produce in densely populated cities ­– is exploding. Here’s what it means for you and your community.

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Rachel Kimel and Deena DelZotto see Toronto’s vacant lots as opportunities to create a bit of paradise in the city. While the founders of Bowery Project, a non-profit that fills unused land spaces with mobile urban farms (their produce is grown in milk crates), want to create beautiful green spaces, it’s so much more than that.

Each farm they install is designed to actively support the community where it’s located – they often donate the food that’s grown or they work with social service organizations to train people how on how to farm on-site. “It’s really about the community,” says Kimel. “Because you’re taking a space that’s within a community that would be otherwise unused, so let’s make it a positive, beautiful, productive, animated space.”

Kimel and DelZotto are part of a group of pioneers in the emerging urban farming sector. Essentially these farmers are growing produce right in the city – on rooftops, in repurposed warehouses, in yards – to, in part, help create a stronger connection between consumers, their food and the people who grow it.

Over the last few years the idea of urban farming has expanded from the traditional community garden to for-profit operations, outfits, like Bowery Project, with a strict social purpose, and hybrids, which encompass a bit of both. “How food is produced has changed greatly in the last five years,” says James Kuhns, a coordinator at Toronto Urban Growers, a network of people involved in urban agriculture. “At one point it was community gardens, but now there are highly capitalized farms in urban areas.”

Since usable land is at a premium in most cities, urban farmers have to be creative about where and how they grow. Montreal’s Lufa Farms, for example, has built two rooftop greenhouses that produce close to 200 metric tons of produce each year. Typically, urban farmers grow produce that doesn’t require tons of space. Most urban farmers sell directly to customers through food boxes, at farmer’s markets or to restaurants.

Urban farms provide jobs, many train people how to grow their own food, and they may provide access to fresh food in underserved areas. And then there’s the way urban farming connects city residents with their food and the people who grow it.

There are a number of reasons to support hyper-local food growers. Urban farms provide jobs, many train people how to grow their own food, and they may provide access to fresh food in underserved areas. And then there’s the way urban farming connects city residents with their food and the people who grow it. Toronto’s Fresh City Farms, for instance, delivers food to some 2,500 homes. They farm several acres at Downsview Park in the north end of the city, but partner with rural farmers to meet some of the demand.

To get the word out, Fresh City Farms hosts events so people can visit, volunteer and see what farming looks like. “A lot of the farmers that we work with see that we’re spreading the work that they do in a way that’s much more accessible to people,” says the company’s CEO and founder, Ran Goel.

Urban farming isn’t meant to replace more traditional forms of agriculture, but as city populations grow, and demand for fresh food increases, it’s these farms that will help with rising demand. In fact, about 10 percent of Toronto’s produce needs could be supplied by urban farms, according to Kuhns, if, in part, the political will existed to help make this happen. “There is a niche that urban farming can play,” he says.

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