by Josh Neubauer and Seodhna Keown of Toronto Food Strategy
In September, we had the good fortune to be tour facilitators in the City to Country event. Our tour was called “Planning for the future of food and farming” and we had an amazing group that included students and recent graduates, public health professionals, retired farmers, planners, community activists and program managers. We were a diverse group, and we were all excited to hit the road and learn how planning and food intersect.
Our first stop on the tour was Belain Farm in Caledon, where we met Bonnie Littley, a Board Member from Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT). Bonnie gave us a great summary of how OFT works to conserve farmland in Ontario by working with property owners to create agreements that protect valuable agricultural land from being converted to other non-agricultural uses. To illustrate why it’s important to protect agricultural land, Bonnie took us on a tour of the farm and showed us the giant gravel mine just beyond Belain’s rolling fields and woodlots. It turns out aggregate mining is big business in Ontario, and even strict planning legislation like the Greenbelt Act makes exceptions for new aggregate mines. (Also see the Friends of the Greenbelt and the Ontario and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing pages for more info).
After an eye-opening first stop we got back on our bus and headed to nearby Spirit Tree Cidery, where we met Tom Wilson. Spirit Tree Cidery has rows and rows of apple trees, as well as a beautiful farm building with a wood-burning bread oven, a store, a cozy restaurant, as well as apple processing and fermenting facilities. What’s really fascinating about Sprit Tree, though, is that Tom and his wife ran into unexpected planning issues when they decided to build their cidery. The designs of their facilities and the mix of uses they planned for their properties were uncommon in the area, and Tom spent years working with local planners to get everything approved. The planners—Ben Roberts Ohi Izierein, and Melanie Williams—were on hand for our tour to help explain why Spirit Tree is now a success story, and that the challenge is now to ensure that planning regulations can accommodate other agricultural entrepreneurs like Tom and his family.
From the Caledon countryside we headed back to the city to see the Rockford community garden at Bathurst and Finch created by the community’s Food Action Team in partnership with Action for Neighbourhood Change and FoodShare Toronto. We were lucky to have Jeannie Gonzales with us on the tour all day, as she was a key organizer for the community garden and she was able to tell us about how the garden filled a need for gardening space in the community, and how residents worked with the city to secure the garden space. We were amazed by all the wonderful things that were growing! From leafy greens and tomatoes to hot peppers and okra, the garden really represented the energy and diversity of the community.
From the community garden it was just a short drive to our next stop at North York Harvest Food Bank (NYHFB), where we met NYHFB staff members Michael Friedman and Daniel Liadsky, as well as Du Toit Allsopp Hilliar architects working on the Lawrence Heights revitalization project. We were treated to an inspiring presentation about NYHFB’s plan to become a community food centre, complete with design concepts and examples of similar projects in different cities.
After an incredible day of touring from city to country and back again, we returned to the Lawrence Heights community centre to share a great meal with the rest of participants and to reflect on what we’d seen and heard during the day. Overall our group gained new insight into how important it is for planning policies to incorporate agriculture, processing and community food projects, and that it is vital that community members take the initiative when planning policy is inadequate.
Thanks to all the great people on our tour, our tour site hosts, Sustain Ontario, and everybody else who made the City to Country event possible.