Urban farmers break ground on 15 acres of vacant city land

A nearly 15-acre parcel of city land in southeast Calgary will soon be home to an urban farm as a local pilot project launches at the site.

The first compost was spread at 1920 Highfield Crescent S.E. on Wednesday as representatives from the City of Calgary, non-profit partner The Compost Council of Canada and a team of urban farmers celebrated a five-year lease being signed for the vacant piece of land.

Mike Dorion, one of four members of a core team behind the urban farm, said a range of produce will be grown at the site, including lettuce, tomatoes, beans, carrots, beets and cauliflower.

“Since I’ve been running my business working with soil, I’ve always wanted to be a farmer . . . and this actually gives us the chance to really dive into it and do the research, figure out what works, what doesn’t work and get down to the nitty-gritty of it,” he said.

“And then hopefully showcase a model that we can repeat and repeat and repeat, because this city’s got lots of vacant land that’s not doing anything, so let’s put it to use and put value to the surrounding community.”

The lease signing follows a “couple years of hard work,” said Kristi Peters, sustainability consultant with the City of Calgary. The project came about as a result of the city’s food action plan, which aims to support more local food production and access to local food for all Calgarians. Peters said the city identified the parcel of land in 2016, but many changes were required before the interim lease could be finalized, including changing the land-use designation.

While the land is being held by the city for future urban development, there are no current plans for the site, which is why it was chosen for the project.

“They’re on a nominal lease and under the commitment that they will provide community benefit programming,” Peters said. “So a lot of that will be around growing food and soil regeneration . . . and also donation of the food that we grow here.”

Jack Goodwin, another member of the urban farm team, said the “three pillars” of the project are land restoration, sustainable food production and community development.

“Our first goal is to really take a site like this, that has kind of been run down, overgrown, hasn’t really had any love, and really inject some life back into it and start to return that soil back to health,” he said.

The urban farmers are all passionate about growing food and about good, local ingredients. The group is also planning to hold workshops and tours at the site, and to offer publicly accessible green spaces.

While the team is planning to set up a market stall and to sell produce to local restaurants and stores, the project will also involve charitable growing, with volunteer opportunities and donations to organizations such as the Calgary Food Bank.

“We’re hoping to produce a significant quantity toward those ends, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting way for people to come learn how to grow food, but also have a direct impact back to the people who need it most in the community,” Goodwin said.

The next steps for the team will be getting the site ready, including fencing it off and setting up raised garden beds for food production.

Susan Antler, executive director of The Compost Council of Canada, said Wednesday’s event took place during International Compost Awareness Week.

“Recycling organics is important, but it’s important to realize that it’s not just about recycling, it’s about returning those valuable nutrients back to the soil, because that’s really the essence of everything,” Antler said.

“This urban farm is going to show what’s possible.”