Community

I have been thinking about this post for the last few weeks, turning it over in my head, trying to think about what images to include.

It was supposed to be a heartfelt homage to the folks I farm with and generally up-beat. However, can't have the good without some misfortune.

I wanted to write about how I found fantastic community in the urban farming scene in Toronto. How inspired I was recently at a community meeting with some hard working urban ag leaders. How one of my fellow farmers helped me fix an irrigation problem the other week and afterwards gave me his adjustable wrench and I literally burst into tears after receiving such kind and generous assistance.

But its hard this morning for me to stir up the warm and fuzzies after the news this weekend. I'm hoping writing and sharing will help.

Saturday morning I noticed 3 flats of seedlings missing. I'm a bit harried this time of year and so are so many around me, I figured it was a mistake but I was worried. The seedlings weren't mine. I was plant-sitting and ultimately they were supposed to go to community gardens in the city.

Then I realized the bikes were missing.

And this morning: a phone call from my friend saying someone cut a hole in the side of the greenhouse, stole all the wheelbarrows, a bunch of harvest knives, the weedwacker, and so many random things we figure its a bunch of kids up to no good.

I'm relieved the didn't steal more expensive equipment or trash the place. But I have to admit, my spirits are really low.

Downsview Park is a strange, strange park. Federally owned, run by multiple corporations that the bureaucracy will make your head spin, and then a bunch a renters, like me, and on the ground staff. The surrounding area has its rough neighborhoods. I don't feel particularly safe on my own there in the evening. However, I thought things were going better with our neighbors. Less theft, more people stopping by to talk and ask questions, and we're hoping to run farm gate sales this year.

But stuff like this gets me seriously down and makes me wonder what we should be doing better or can we do anything better to create better relationships and community.

At the farm, amongst our member farmers, we have really been trying to foster interdependence, independence, good communication, fairness, understanding and trust. We've also been trying harder to improve the ecological community at the farm: planting for pollinators, improving our treatment of the soil, etc. But I wonder in focusing so much these last few years on our own small community, we've shied the greater one around us. Because frankly, its a much more complex and difficult one to engage with.

Urban farms and urban farmers are often transient. Available land in cities is only waiting for a new purchaser. Our farmers move according to job opportunities or adventures. I myself will be seeking larger fields at the end of this year.

I think that's why I am so deeply sad. I know I shouldn't but I take this theft personal. Not that I'm angry at the people who stole, but angry at myself that in my time at the farm, I didn't engage more boldly with the surrounding community.

I have some ideas, small ones that I will try to get moving in my short tenure left. I know its not all on me, but I should do my part. Reorient, reorganize, and try to make of the best of my time left.
 

Update: Over the course of the 2015, there were over 4 break-ins at the greenhouse. Work continues to discourage these acts and to foster community and communication in and around the park.

Flowers: a social crop

I just finished truly a game-changing book for me:

The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I decided to order it when one of my farm mentors mentioned it was life changing for him--and he's farmed for 40 some odd years! I got it over the holidays and thought I would sit down and consume it in a matter of days. But somehow, like good food, I soon learned it was a book to be savored. About a month later I've finished it. I couldn't finish it in one gulp because every chapter, every page even filled me with so many thoughts and ideas, I had to slow down and contemplate it.

I won't do it the injustice of trying to summarize it. Instead I wanted to write about one of its more important points: about the culture of agriculture. Barber isn't the first to write about this. But something about his phrase "a social crop" is still ringing in my heads. He used it to describe wheat, but I was left thinking, are flowers a social crop?

I have a confession to make. I love my flowers, deeply so. But I have often felt uncomfortable growing and promoting something non-edible. I do grow veggies too, formerly with Fresh City Farms and for my own family, but I decided to focus in on flowers, to try something different and try to fill what I felt was a gaping hole.

I know that I state this often, but  70-80% of the flowers we purchase have been grown overseas. I think Ontario might be slightly better--we have a larger growing community in Niagara--but  it's strange to think about its lost presence on the landscape. This has a range of impacts. Less flowers grown mean less farmers growing them. This undermines the stability of rural communities. It gives less variety and fresh options to local buyers and designers. Its sort of odd, thinking how amazingly supportive the province is of local food, but at 99% of weddings--big traditional community events that literally create new families and connections--won't have local flowers. With so many people and organizations devoted to the local food movement and to good farming, somehow flowers are being left  out.

I also contemplate, while staring after acre upon acre of soy and corn in Ontario, how flowers are missing from our greater ecological community. I know many of the flowers I grow aren't native, but I do see how flowers can benefit pollinators. This is only anecdotal, but when I walked through my small plots in high summer, I can hear the hum. Flowers, in general, are also great for attracting beneficial insects. I have seen several types of spiders for instance--some as big as quarters. I like to think how my flowers could be benefiting the other farmers at Fresh City. This also reverberates through the food chain, the birds eating the insects, and so forth.

Going back to the community aspect, when people purchase my flowers at a market or use them in their wedding, I like to think of where they end up, how they might brighten people's days, and lend to the beauty of space or event. People bring flowers to dinner parties, flowers are given at birth--and at death, and they are sold at market that bring neighbors and friends together. Flowers brought my friend Aviva Coopersmith of Herb N' Meadow and I together to partner in our flower growing dreams this summer. It has introduced me to photographers, designers, and artists. I hope this year it will bring me together to share my knowledge of growing in workshops for people to grow in their own backyards. Flowers have brought me into the intimate lives of strangers helping them envision a extremely special and some would say sacred ritual: marriage.

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Flowers have also opened the door for me to a community of people who love flowers best: flower farmers. Mainly through social media I've connected to flower farmers all around the world who share their triumphs, knowledge, struggles, and advice, freely and openly. It's a tremendous community. At Fresh City, I have found this community in miniature. We work, eat, laugh, and sometimes cry together as we test the waters of organic growing more seriously. We gently tend to each others fragile dreams of doing the seemingly impossible: becoming awesome organic farmers.

I know that flowers don't feed the body, but I do believe they feed the spirit. Their beauty has the power to relieve depression, decrease stress, recall memories, and ease pain.

Now, I believe that flowers can feed community too. Dan Barber's book has helped me see that.

I know in the future flowers will not be my only crop--I'm far too addicted to amazing tasting food to miss out on growing vegetables and grains. I also yearn to have a relationship with animals again--even if I just have a small herd of ducks some day. I do feel confident now saying that I believe flowers are not just for the elite or only to be considered a luxury or frivolous. I feel for certain they are an essential piece of a larger agricultural landscape and a brighter future.