Friday 2 December 2011

Sowing a farm in the city

Greenhouse becomes a hotbed of urban agriculture

The greenhouse on top of Concordia’s Henry F. Hall Building boasts an eagle’s eye view of the city, but it’s no ivory tower.

Increasingly, the greenhouse is a hub of community building and a hotbed of urban agriculture. Last week’s City Farm School was the latest manifestation of this growing role.

Over the past couple of years, the greenhouse has become increasingly active in community outreach, creating workshops and supporting the burgeoning curiosity about the cultivation, processing and distribution of food in and around the city. But an overwhelming number of volunteer applications — there are over 500 names on the listserv — has made volunteer training an issue in itself.

The week-long City Farm School (April 26-30) was designed to help manage and respond to the needs of this abundance of human resources. Mornings featured theory-based lectures — delivered simultaneously in French and English sessions. Afternoons were for activities such as building vermicompost bins and guerrilla gardening walks discussing “how to use space that isn’t technically yours” for growing. The 40 graduates of the City Farm School were then assigned internships with some 15 diverse community groups, including Westmount High School and St. James the Apostle Church, all clamouring for assistance in organizing new agricultural projects.

Volunteers learn how to set up their own worm compost systems with instruction from Noémie Messier (crouching in red dress below) responsible for vermicomposting in the greenhouse. | Photo Concordia University
Volunteers learn how to set up their own worm compost systems with instruction from Noémie Messier (crouching in red dress below) responsible for vermicomposting in the greenhouse. | Photo Concordia University

Marcus Lobb has been Education Coordinator at the greenhouse for 10 months now. He explains that the greenhouse community is also creating new projects of its own on the Loyola Campus, building on the success of The People’s Potato (the vegan soup kitchen) garden: tea and herb gardens, another small garden plot, and outdoor mushroom growing.

A student in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Lobb says he, like many young people, combined his interest in travel and organic farming by travelling through WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Participants learn about organic growing and other sustainable living practices, and experience a unique cultural exchange. “They find opportunities on five- to 10-acre family run farms, where they work, learn and share their knowledge.”

Back in the city, many WWOOFers make their way to Concordia’s greenhouse through programs like the Sustainable Food Festival, held in September 2010 and built around the university’s role in the sustainability movement, ensuring food sources remain diverse and productive over the long term.

Kim Fox, the administrator who handles the logistics and organization of greenhouse events, says, “People want to learn how to garden again. They want to learn how to cook, how to grow their own food, and to understand the politics around food. Why not have gardens in the city?” Over 1,000 people came through the festival’s food fair, held on the Hall Building terrace. The point was to raise awareness of food: “where it comes from, and connecting people with local farmers and food issues.” Interest is growing, she says, adding, “the more people find out, the more they wish to reclaim food,” to produce it themselves rather than having it brought to them over great distances.

Fox, finishing up her BA in political science, is “really inspired by helping people understand what is in our food supply and how it is produced. I want them to understand the burdens of monoculture and agribusiness.” With its diverse programming — speakers, food festivals and now the farm school, the greenhouse is well on its way to filling this growing community need.

[Originally published May 2, 2011 in Concordia NOW.]

Related links:
City Farm School
Concordia greenhouse

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