Urban-farming, Calgary Style

Grow Calgary farm manager Paul Hughes, centre, and two volnteers work the land in the city's first urban farmThrough the efforts of volunteers, a previously vacant transportation and utility corridor along the Trans-Canada Highway has been transformed into Calgary first — and Canada’s largest — urban farm.

Urban agriculture attempts to integrate the growing of food and the raising of animals into the economic and ecological systems of cities.

For years Paul Hughes, a food security and urban agriculture advocate, had sought a location to create an urban farm to provide the Calgary Food Bank with fresh fruit and vegetables.

After lengthy negotiations with provincial authorities, Hughes was able secure a five-year lease on an 11-acre parcel of land located just west of Canada Olympic Park.

Now Hughes and Grow Calgary — the organization under which the project has been organized — hope that the urban farm will generate 100,000 pounds of fresh produce for the Calgary Food Bank.

One million seeds planted

Grow Calgary gained access to the land on May 15. A few days later, volunteers began tilling and preparing the ground. Over the course of three weeks in July, volunteers then planted one million donated seeds — among them, potatoes, beans and corn.

Presently, eight-acres of the land have been planted. Tony Prashad, an urban gardening advocate and former chair of the Calgary Food Policy Council, says that plans are to eventually utilize the entire 11 acres for food production.

“This is year one,” Prashad says. “Over the next couple of years, we are going to develop it more in terms of space and what we are growing.”

James McAra, CEO of the Calgary Food Bank, says that perishable produce from the Grow Calgary Farm will be a welcome addition to the organization’s emergency hampers.

Obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables is a common problem for Canadian food banks, something McAra says the Calgary Food Bank has worked to address.

“If you look across Canada, food banks are typically seen as ‘what you see, is what you get.’ They are often seen as a stop of last resort,” he says. “We believe that the Calgary Food Bank should not be a stop of last resort.”

McAra says that the aim of the Calgary Food Bank is to provide a starting point from which those in need can connect with other community agencies — a starting point that includes ensuring emergency food hampers provide proper nutrition.

“Using that as a preventative model, rather than a reactionary model, we know that we need to ensure the food quality is there.”

McAra says that the Calgary Food Bank is one of the few food banks in the country that bases its emergency hampers on Canada’s Food Guide.

“We have been working hard for many years now to ensure the quality of perishable goods and the consistent nutrient within our emergency hampers,” McAra says. “This urban garden is another step up towards being able to provide quality food for everyone who is coming to our door.

“We are thrilled to be a part of it.”

Reconnecting people and food

Hughes founded the Calgary Food Policy Council in 2008 with the aim of promoting a sustainable and local food system within the city. He says that the establishment of the Grow Calgary urban farm has been a very sharp learning curve, both politically and logistically.

He says that one of the biggest challenges facing the urban agriculture movement in Calgary is in trying to bridge the “chasm” that exists between consumers and their sources of food.

“People often don’t really know what it is that you are talking about when it comes to food,” Hughes says. “For example, milk doesn’t come from a grocery store, it comes from a cow.

“We are very disconnected from our food. So one of the biggest challenges is trying to connect, and reconnect, people with food.”

While McAra says that the such things as the reality of Alberta’s growing climate limit the amounts and types of food that can be grown, things like community gardens and urban agriculture provide important opportunities for individuals to connect and contribute on a community level.

“I think it’s unrealistic to expect that urban agriculture will ever become self-providing or self-sufficient,” McAra says. “But it certainly is a way to look at land use in a growing urban environment, and not just run it to fallow.”

Prashad says that, until recently, the urban agriculture movement in Calgary was
generally practiced in private and away from public attention.

“Only now has it become more mainstream,” Prashad says. “It’s no longer a thing that we feel we need to hide.

Both Prashad and Hughes hope — building on example of Grow Calgary — that in the future more unused land within the city can be transformed into places to grow produce.

“This is an example of what we are trying to do with the urban agriculture movement,” Prashad says. “We want to grow food, and we believe public land is a good place to do it.”


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