Toronto Star column – published June 1, 2013
“Funny thing about sustainability is that you have to sustain it.” Ron Finley, L. A. Activist Gardener
A couple of months ago I wrote a three part series on the future of food in the urban environment. I explored various applications in response to one key question: is it possible to use locally produced food as the centre of a community? The idea is to create a plan for a subdivision that mirrors that of a residential golf course community, only using a community farm instead of a golf course. I will admit that I enjoyed researching those stories as I learned a lot about the exciting possibilities.
But ‘possibilities’ was about as far as the discussion went. While interest in farmers’ markets and community/allotment gardens continues to grow, there was, to my knowledge, no residential development that had actually implemented a plan that revolved around a community farm in Canada. I now know differently.
Sean McAdam, a reader of my column who lives in Old Chelsea, Quebec, chased me down and offered to tell me a story about the 10-year journey that he and partner Carrie Wallace have been on. Together these business partners have created a vision for a new residential development that is a 15-minute drive from downtown Ottawa but located on the threshold of the 200 year old village in GatineauPark.
As a result of a short phone call and a visit to their website I decided to visit ‘Hendrick Farm’ in Old Chelsea. Here is a summary of what I discovered.
Imagine a typical residential neighbourhood that is carved out of existing farmland. Only this one is not typical at all. House sizes range between 1,500 and 2,200 sq ft., they are all two stories (for environmental reasons), and they are built in clusters of 10 or 12. Each cluster is designed around a common green space that is connected to a natural playground [no plastic slides!] and an organic farm.
The organic farm is the ‘gathering place’ at the centre of this new community. Already 76 neighbours have bought in to a C.S.A. or ‘community supported agriculture’ program where food is delivered to patrons weekly, depending on what is ready for harvest. The farm also supplies 2 local restaurants with fresh produce. While house building has yet to begin in earnest, 21 homes have been sold and the farm has been up and running for over a year. Last fall, 12 volunteers helped plant 4,000 garlic bulbs in two hours. The same farm produced enough parsnips to provide a 1,000-pound donation to the local food bank.
All of this occurs on a 7-acre farm. One of the remarkable features of this plan is the enormous productivity that is being achieved on a small piece of agricultural land. While the idea of intensifying the planting and production of a farm is not a new one, Hendrick Farm proves that it can work in today’s society. And it works on several levels.
While producing quality, fresh food is obviously one goal of the residential/farm project, there are other benefits for which people are quite prepared to pay cash or volunteer their valuable time. Consider, for instance, the social benefits of bringing like-minded people together under one barn roof to sort and clean the produce. As they work they connect with each other, creating building blocks to a new community. Relationships evolve and volunteers learn who their neighbours are: friendships result.
Another benefit of this residential/farming concept is achieved in the established community of Old Chelsea itself. It is instructive to note that, while Sean and Carrie were wading through the approvals process at the local municipality, many of their future neighbours showed up to ask Town Council why the process was not moving along more quickly. For any residential developer reading this, the idea of not having to fight future neighbours when applying for substantial changes in a neighbourhood must come as a shock.
Truth is, the ‘establishment’ of the historic village will benefit from access to fresh, locally grown organic vegetables at a roadside stand, which will no doubt be manned by volunteers from the community itself.
The question of who funds or subsidizes the activities at the farm is a fair one. At Hendrick Farm 1% of the purchase price of each home is invested into a trust fund that holds the cash for the future operations of the farm. As houses in the development are resold in future, 1% will continue to be invested in the farm, ensuring that the benefits from it are grandfathered.
The development plan calls for the engagement of kids in the new community. There is a ‘kids’ garden’ already incorporated into the farm and two local schools have been engaged in educational activities on the farm that are designed to help kids understand where their food comes from.
Who is buying houses at Hendrick Farm?
People who enjoy a physically active lifestyle are snapping up these homes and they are paying a modest premium for the privilege of living near one of Canada’s natural treasures in GatineauPark and of course the trails and paths that take you from your doorstep into the wilderness beyond. Not to mention a short commute to Ottawa.
Want to learn more?
If the idea of living where your food is grown is one that appeals to you, I recommend that you go online to see a recent TED talk by Ron Finley, a native of Los Angles. In his ‘high risk’ community he has discovered the magic of growing veggies and fruit on public land, including the boulevard in front of his house. As he puts it, “I planted a food court in front of my yard.” He was arrested for it, that is, until local authorities came to his rescue and put a stop to the nonsense. In time, municipal councillors supported him in his efforts to help his community feed themselves by planting on otherwise underutilized public land.
The city of Los Angeles, he points out, owns over 26 square miles of vacant lots. That is the equivalent of 20 Central Parks [New York City]. Ron explains, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” When asked if he is concerned that some people will steal the food from his boulevard gardens he responds, “No. That is why it is on the street. I want people to take back their health. You know, if kids grow kale, they will eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they will eat tomatoes.” Which is another way of saying that food gardening is one effective tool in our toolbox of good health and a building block of healthy communities.
This activist gardener describes his gardens as a ‘tool of transformation of my community’.
What Ron and Hendrick Farm have in common is a vision of a healthier, more viably sustainable lifestyle choice for a new generation.
If that is not exciting then I don’t know what is.
For details about Hendrick Farm go to www.hendrickfarm.com
For Ron Finley’s Guerrilla Gardening TED Talk go to http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerilla_gardener_in_south_central_la.html