Activists compost and grow veggies on urban farm steps

Sunny Lam walks down his farm row pointing out the epazote here — “it’s a Mexican herb” — and the flowering kale there, which is “growing like crazy” as another city bus roars by.

TORONTO — Sunny Lam walks down his farm row pointing out the epazote here — “it’s a Mexican herb” — and the flowering kale there, which is “growing like crazy” as another city bus roars by.

“In farming, even in the city, you have to experiment,” he says, holding a straw hat in one hand and snatching up a clump of earth at his feet with the other. “You got to get to know soil, which crops grow well there.”

A few months into the season, it seems the soil here is good for growing many things besides strip malls and bus shelters: purple-stalked Cairo cabbage, fluffy dill and a packed row of Bambino and Rosemore lettuce.

This is FoodCycles, the first farm dug doggedly into the city rather than swallowed by it. Built at the edge of Downsview Park, it stretches across almost 1.2 acres of land and into a greenhouse, where tomato plants explode from pots and volunteers hammer together cedar planks to make bins for worm composting.

It was started in May by a group of young urbanites riding the wave of enthusiasm for agriculture. Armed with $54,000 in grant money, they negotiated a three-year lease with Downsview Park and set to work. Their vision: a city farm that is part business, part education centre, part testing ground for new urban agricultural techniques.

“There is no reason you can’t grow greens in apartments,” says David Wild, who until recently made his living writing for a medical newspaper. He reaches into a wooden box and pushes some earth aside to expose a mass of wriggling worms.

“Smell that,” says Wild, 32. “It smells great.”

“As Will Allen would say,” says Lam, 28, “it’s the best compost in the world.”

Allen’s name comes up a lot at FoodCycles. He is the Al Gore of the urban farming movement that’s sweeping North America. Growing Power, the urban farm he started in Milwaukee, has become a small empire: a $2-million budget, 35 employees, goats, ducks, beehives, fish and a thriving compost system that churns out more than 45,000 kg every four months.

Allen, who teaches inner-city youth skills they can use in the new green economy, is the inspiration for the group at FoodCycles.

The compost bin they are building is one of 64 planned. They’ve talked to wholesalers at the Downsview Park Merchants Market about picking up their discarded produce each week and turning it into more than 50 tons of compost each year. They’ll sell it, along with their food, at farmers markets.

“They give us their waste, we turn it into compost and then turn that into food, selling the food back to them. That’s a cycle,” Wild says. “A food cycle.”

Foodies across the city are watching the experiment closely to see if it is a workable model, both as a business and as a use of city land.

The key difference between Toronto and many U.S. cities, says food researcher Lauren Baker, is access to land. Where places like Detroit are rife with vacant downtown lots, Toronto’s core sprouts condo after condo.

“I hope it will show how this work is feasible and that it is suitable use for urban green space,” says Baker, co-ordinator of the new not-for-profit Sustain Ontario, the Alliance for Healthy Food and Farming. She is part of a York University study examining what it would take for Toronto to grow 10 per cent of the vegetables its citizens eat.

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