The tomatoes are ripe, the salad greens have been sold and another growing season is nearly done at Almost Urban Vegetables in St. Norbert.
Despite a fourth consecutive harvest under their belts, Bruce Berry and Marilyn Firth are reluctant to call their business a farm. It sounds a bit ostentatious. They prefer the term market garden.
But a farm by any other name is still a farm. And whether they agree or not, Berry and Firth belong to arguably the fastest growing farm sector in the world: urban agriculture.
Growing food was the goal when Berry, 51, and Firth, 50, made an ethical decision to leave Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario in November 2006 and settle on a 12-acre river lot just inside Winnipeg’s south city limits.
A mechanical engineer, Berry was tired of making factories run faster, churning out more stuff for people to buy. As a CBC television director, Firth had also had enough of the 24/7 rat race.
Now, together with their three boys, Berry and Firth are carving out a new identity as food producers.
Almost Urban Vegetables sells 40 varieties of vegetables and herbs, mainly to the St. Norbert Farmers Market, where Firth is community relations manager. The operation has two greenhouses with a third one going up this fall. It is home to a community shared agriculture (CSA) project involving 20 families. Berry supplements the family income by selling composting supplies.
They describe their new lifestyle as rewarding.
“This feels like work worth doing,” says Berry.
WORK WORTH DOING
Simon Hon says the same. A member of the Landless Farmers Collective, a registered partnership functioning as a co-operative, Hon and his two co-owners Coral Maloney and Danielle Mondor, run one of Manitoba’s smallest agricultural operations with the most unlikely location: downtown Winnipeg next to the Pan Am Pool.
Now wrapping up its second full year of operation, the Landless Farmers grow herbs and vegetables on plots rented from the city totalling about half an acre in size. The group expects to gross $14,000 this year with returns from 26 CSA shares and direct sales to city restaurants. Not a lot, but still a much better per-acre return than a wheat farm.
And business is growing, says Hon, whose group recently hosted a workshop for people wanting to get started in urban agriculture.
“There’s just more and more people wanting to have that connection with their food, not just have it a distant store thing.”
Trends such as buy local, 100- mile diet and knowing where your food comes from aren’t fads. They’re part of a mindset shift by a public which wants a say in how their food is produced, says Sharon Taylor, co-ordinator for The Manitoba Farm Mentorship Program, a project of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba.
“I think it’s here to stay,” says Taylor, whose group encourages urban agriculture.
Admittedly, it’s a long stretch from the vegetable plots of Winnipeg to the grain and oilseed fields of rural Manitoba. Some may wonder if Hon, Firth and Berry are real farmers or just playing at agriculture.
But Ian Wishart, Keystone Agricultural Producers president, takes them seriously.
“I view them as real participants,” says Wishart.
“For me, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a large-scale producer or a small-scale producer. You’re a farmer in the province of Manitoba.”
Wishart knows farmers who began at a micro-level and eventually expanded into commercial operations. Around Portage la Prairie, where he farms, some large-scale vegetable growers started out with only one-acre plots.
That may not be in the cards from urban farmers in Winnipeg, where green space is limited.
Still, the idea of developing urban food production is catching on, not just to satisfy increasing demand for fresh locally-grown vegetables, but also as a policy tool.
A local network called the Winnipeg Food Policy Working Group is calling for an agricultural land reserve in and around the city to support local food security.
The group also wants the city to form a food policy council to develop a plan for urban food systems.
The group feels instrumental in getting Our Winnipeg, a new proposed development plan, to include a food policy statement, the first ever for the city.
“We heard from Winnipeggers that this was something they thought was important – a component of the long-term vision for the city,” says Ian Hall, Winnipeg’s environmental co-ordinator.
“It’s one element of sustainability, particularly from a social point of view. Food is a basic human need.”
The food policy statement includes strategies to support local food production, create new community gardens and include food in planning neighbourhood revitalization programs.
It also includes a strategy to protect existing agricultural land within city limits.
Paul Chorney, a member of the food policy working group, sees the statement as a good first step in developing a genuine food policy for Winnipeg, which Toronto, Vancouver and other Canadian cities already have.
“It’s a start. It talks about directions. I think the next stage will be trying to move it further,” says Chorney, also the community liaison officer for Food Matters Manitoba.
For some, food policy statements may seem unnecessary when food is in surplus and supermarket shelves are crammed with products of every description.
But in a country where nearly 800,000 people visit food banks each month, obesity is on the rise, average farm income is falling and no national school lunch program exists, a food policy is long overdue, according to a newly-formed organization called the People’s Food Policy Project.
The group plans cross-Canada meetings in October to discuss what it calls the most important public policy development since Medicare.
And cities will play an important role in that development, says organizer Colleen Ross of Iroquois, Ontario.
“As a long-time farmer, I am experiencing increased demand from urban folks who want to buy directly from me,” says Ross.
“They are worried about food security, safety and the ethics of transporting food around the world.” [email protected]
MARKET FRESH: MARILYN FIRTH AND BRUCE BERRY HARVEST GREENHOUSE TOMATOES AT ALMOST URBAN VEGETABLES.