Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Little Urban Farm on the Prairie

"I'm so glad you are doing this, somebody should be."

That's what Pat said when she heard of Lettuce Connect's Inaugural (Food Warrior) HarvestTrek2012.  She, along with her co-gardener Dennis, is pictured below in the picture I took at the South Zone Community Garden.

Pat & Dennis taking a break from tending their community garden plot in Regina.

There I was, barreling through the Bread Basket of Canada, and not expecting to see much other than wheat and cattle (and other large cash crops like canola).  Bread Basket is the name I learned in grade school for this region of Canada. The prairie provinces of Alberta/Sasketchewan/Manitoba grow wheat and other grains/pulses that are exported around the world,  This adds a huge amount of export dollars to the Canadian economy and I could safely state that this vast resource is one of the pillars that helped to construct this country and continues to form the economic foundation of two of these provinces. (Alberta now has an economy centred on oil).

I was heading through the capital of Sasketchewan, Regina, and contemplating the fact that the soil in this region could grow all sorts of crops but economically it makes a lot of sense for these farmers to concentrate on solid cash crops like wheat.  I was approaching an exit marked for the University of Regina when all of a sudden my food warrior whiskers started twitching. Out of the corner of my eye I had spied a rather large urban park that had stakes and vines and all sorts of interesting looking growing activity.  I missed that exit but set about winding my way back to what I suspected was a University testing farm since it was so large and was adjacent to the University.

I parked my car across from the largest urban community garden I've ever seen in person. I took this short panoramic video of the garden to try and capture the size of it:

Contest worthy pumpkin:  over 300 pounds!
I could not see any signage but I could see quite a few people working their plots so I set off towards the fruit trees at the corner and then started following ripe produce which made it like a hopscotch game...jumping from one impressively ripened vegetable to another until I happened upon an enormous pumpkin (pictured).  I marvelled over the enormity of it and the complexity of the growing system supporting it (complete with solar panels, irrigation system and a frost blanket that gets put on nightly).  Nearby, I spied Pat and Dennis independently working on their own plots and asked Dennis if he minded if I asked him a few questions.  Pat was brought into our conversation when Dennis hollered over to ask her to help clarify one of my questions.  Because I had more than a few questions once I found out that this enormous community garden was not, as I had thought, a demonstration garden that was part of the university.

Dennis told me that the South Zone Community Garden site was maintained by the city in the department of Community Services.  There was approximately 320 plots available for a $35-50/annual fee (depending on size of plot) and yes, there was a waiting list.  The fee included access to water that was easily reachable by the many hoses and water taps placed throughout the site and in the fall the fields were plowed so that each plot was ready to go for the spring.  There was some concern expressed by Dennis about the permanence of these plots since the university owned land was supported by the Wascana Centre Authority and the city but what with this large parcel of land adjacent to the university, there was pressure to use the land for housing or expansion purposes.

It has been my experience that people that grow their own food tend to be very food aware and Pat and Dennis were no exceptions.  They both shared stories of the personal impact these garden plots had on their lives. Dennis also maintained another plot in a different area of the city so his retirement springs and summers were spent happily planting, weeding and harvesting.  The bucket around his neck in the picture was to hold the 'September' raspberries he was growing. He had obtained this raspberry plant years ago from the University who had thought it might be a great variety to grow in the prairies due to the late fruit but Dennis said they gave up on it due to the 'problems' including double budding fruits and wastage at the end of the very short growing season available in the prairies.  Pat told me that her grandchildren really enjoyed coming with her to the plot and yes, they enjoyed the pumpkins that she was growing but that monitoring the progress of the large contest worthy pumpkin was the main attraction by far.

The talk of food security took a sombre twist when Dennis asked Pat if she had heard about the largest Saskatchewan pork producer filing for bankruptcy that very day (September 13th, 2012).  He told us that the meat producers were on the front line for feeling the effects of the American mid-west drought of 2012.  The price of animal feed had skyrocketed.  Dennis' own farmer brother was a beneficiary of this very same drought since he was getting over $8 a bushel for the wheat he grew. This year other feed like oats and barley have seen similar increases and this is the stuff that feeds the animals in our food chain. We all contemplated this and I pointed out that this is why having large urban community gardens was important. Every urban dweller should have the chance to grow at least a small amount of food because that gives an individual or a family some small measure of food security. I also mentioned that allowing urban hens gives people a similar opportunity and as our food systems become controlled by just a few corporations, small actions like urban farming will become increasingly important to the continuity of our collective knowledge base about how to feed ourselves at the most fundamental level.

As we talked the sun took a noticeable dip in the horizon and I was reminded that I had interrupted their work with my questions. I thanked them both for their time and as they hurried back to their harvesting and digging tasks I informed them that I would try and get their story up soon. Pat was especially excited at the opportunity to have her moment of 'fame' on my fledgling blog even though I assured her that the readership was currently in the dozens rather than hundreds (or thousands).

But I totally get her enthusiasm.  Us food warriors, we use weapons of mass instruction to disseminate and educate. And hopefully, after reading this, she will carrot a modicum of pride at the plot of land she maintains on the Little Urban Farm on the Prairie.  She and her grandkids.  And their kids.  And so on.

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