Urban agriculture can help Saskatoon feed the hungry and cut carbon emissions

Feature by Gregory Beatty

People have embraced all sorts of new hobbies and interests during the pandemic. Bike shops are sold out of inventory until 2022, vets are booked solid spaying/neutering kittens and puppies, sea shanties are — okay, some “hobbies and interests” are just passing fads. But 14 months into the pandemic, others seem to have staying power.

Zoe Arnold is urban agriculture coordinator at CHEP Good Foods (chep.org) in Saskatoon. One trend she’s seen is a growing interest in gardening.

“Saskatoon has over 50 community gardens, so there has been a really strong interest around that kind of agriculture,” she says. “Unfortunately, even before the pandemic most of the plots in the city had wait lists.”

CHEP runs its own network of community gardens and operates programs to boost food production and distribution in inner city neighbourhoods with pop-up markets, food box pick-ups and the askîy intern project [see sidebar].

The term “food security” describes access to affordable and nutritious food. It’s an important issue, because a lot of people just flat out don’t have food security—many don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Urban agriculture can help address this appalling reality, which, like a lot of problems, comes from our society’s ongoing failure to address grievous inequality and poverty.

Oh yeah, and urban agriculture also delivers environmental and ecological benefits.

Lawn Gone

Regina’s gardening scene isn’t as robust as Saskatoon’s but it’s growing. While both cities have ample public lands, urban agriculture must be balanced against parks, playgrounds, sports fields and other high-value public land uses.

In Regina, Candace Benson and Miranda Holt have turned to the private sector for a solution. Through their company City Streets Farms (citystreetfarms.ca), they’ve arranged with seven homeowners to convert their front yards to garden plots. The women will convert the yards and maintain the gardens themselves, and plan to share some of the produce with homeowners, while also selling at Regina Farmers’ Market and donating to community fridges.

Benson has a farming background, and Holt is a dedicated gardener. Both have certificates in permaculture, and that’s how they intend to farm the plots.

“The philosophy involves working with nature, and harnessing what nature has available to cultivate a sustainable system that, after some human input to set things up, can make food on its own,” says Holt.

“From the larger-scale-agriculture perspective I had growing up, it was always thought you had to fight nature and put in so many inputs such as time, fertilizer and other chemicals to make a profit,” says Benson. “And even then, you’re just scraping by.

“But if you observe a bit, you can see the land is trying to tell you what it needs,” she adds. “If we work with the land, we can create a much more viable system that will eventually take less time, [fewer] inputs, and still provide so much produce while leaving the soil better off rather than depleting it.”

In the current food distribution system, Benson and Holt note, food is grown thousands of kilometres away and then trucked to your local grocery store. Any produce that doesn’t sell is sent to the dump.

“Here, Miranda and I grow the food in a yard in Regina,” Benson says. “Then we compost any produce that goes bad or greens from the yard and, through a side business called Better Earth Worms, use that on the farms. So it creates a closed loop.”

Sourcing food locally in season cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. It also helps promote biodiversity, because as much as Saskatchewan homeowners love their lawns, they are not “green” outside of a modest capacity to sequester carbon.

“A big part of our model is realizing there’s land in Regina that’s underutilized as a resource,” says Holt. “There’s already so much energy going into traditional lawn care, where everyone works really hard and puts a lot of money and resources into their lawns, and they get nothing back but an aesthetic look. Why not use the land to grow food and create a whole new ecosystem based on what nature needs?”

Through her work at CHEP, Arnold has seen those benefits firsthand.

“Environmentally, we’re increasing biodiversity,” she says. “We’re planting wildflowers for pollinator habitat and creating wildlife corridors. We’re helping to decrease the heat island effect in cities too.”

Room To Grow

CHEP has operated in Saskatoon for 30 years. Partnerships are vital to its success, says Arnold.

“I would list community associations for sure, and we often share knowledge and resources with the Saskatoon Food Bank’s Garden Patch,” she says. “For composting, we partner with Saskatoon Waste Reduction Council. We also work with the Gardening at USask extension program, do workshops in schools, and, because we grow and sell food, we have partnerships with local restaurants.”

CHEP also employs an Indigenous food sovereignty facilitator who works to develop partnerships with Saskatoon’s Indigenous community. One example from 2018 is Saskatoon Indigenous artist Kevin Wesaquate’s project to plant 250 saskatoon bushes in an inner-city park to create a community orchard.

Again, Arnold has seen firsthand how gardens can build community bonds and help empower people.

“When people come out, they get to know their neighbours and work together towards a common goal,” she says. “There are education and cultural impacts, along with [promoting] food security. There’s a lot tied up there, and it’s really exciting to see more people taking an interest and coming out.”

City Street Farms is hopeful their gardens will have a similar effect, says Benson.

“Everyone gathers around food, it’s instinctual, she says. “But in a city, it can be hard to get that connection to nature and the land.

“In our dream scenario, we would add a neighbour or two every year until we’re farming a whole block,” Benson adds.

“Understandably, it’s difficult for folks to visualize,” she says. “They don’t see a garden on a front yard often, so it’s foreign and maybe a little scary. But once people see how beautiful it is, and all the birds, bees and other pollinators it attracts, we’re confident it will be a magnet and bring people out of their houses more.”

CHEP relies on the City of Saskatoon to provide water hook-ups for its gardens and secure access to the sites so it has been an important partner too, says Arnold.

“There’s also ongoing advocacy, with CHEP sitting on the Healthy Earth committee,” she says. “Along with other organizations, we provide feedback on different gardening and urban agriculture initiatives and how they could be improved. A recent example is the city’s release of its boulevard gardening guidelines, which we provided some input on.”

When City Street Farms was getting started, they reached out to the city too, says Holt.

“In the conversations we had, they were very positive and motivated towards greening Regina. We’ve also got support from local MLAs, who have helped us connect with the local food bank and community associations.”

While Benson and Holt appreciated the city’s support, they did encounter some regulatory obstacles that made them alter their plans.

“Initially, we wanted to use city-owned land or vacant land landlords were just holding on to,” says Holt. “But it’s just so sticky. We decided to take this route in the hopes we’ll eventually have that access. If somebody wants to farm, and there’s a vacant lot that’s been sitting there for 20 years, there shouldn’t be red tape stopping them from doing it.”

Once the harvest is in, City Street Farms intends to do more yard conversions in the fall and, at some point, start hiring staff.

“We definitely see urban agriculture as a way to revolutionize city life,” says Holt. “Why does food have to come from outside a city, or from another province or country? Why can’t it come from places right in our neighbourhood that we can see?

“We have so much unused space, and I really hope that opens up in Regina.”


Gardens Vs. Polluted Plots

As part of her job as urban agriculture coordinator at CHEP Good Foods in Saskatoon, Zoe Arnold coordinates the askîy intern project which is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth aged 15 to 30.

“They are tasked with learning how to grow a productive garden,” she says. “We focus a lot on community engagement and incorporating culture, as well as general marketing and business skills.”

Arnold’s been involved with the askîy project since 2017. Whether it leads to career opportunities or not, she thinks most interns who participate do continue gardening.

“They do it for mental health reasons, outdoor activity, just getting more in touch with their food and the land,” she says. “We have had some interns who have had career opportunities too.

“One started her own business selling microgreens from the farmers’ market, another started working with the College of Agriculture and a third is still employed with CHEP. So there have been career opportunities, but what I’ve seen more than that is just a real connection to gardening.”

Youth who participate in the askîy project get a relatively unique gardening experience. That’s because it involves container gardening.

“Our original site was a former gas station,” says Arnold. “It had been vacant for about 20 years. We recognized the community had still been using the space. A pathway ran through it which we kept, and people did take an interest in what we were doing and were keen to learn more or maybe help out.”

From there, the project moved kitty corner to a full-size vacant lot which was a former fuel storage site.

“We have over 420 containers and raised beds that we use,” says Arnold. “Then new for 2021, we have an agreement with the City of Saskatoon to use the former Riversdale Lawn Bowling Club in Victoria Park as an in-ground garden.”

Both of CHEP’s original container gardens were on what’s known as “brownfield sites”. Every city’s got them, often in prominent locations, where former “industrial style” businesses polluted the land so badly that it can’t be safely developed without extensive remediation — which the company either refuses to pay for or no longer can because it’s defunct.

“What we’re doing at CHEP with container gardening on a brownfield lot is, to my knowledge, fairly unique,” says Arnold. “I do know of a project in Toronto that operates similarly, with containers on parking lot spaces. It does showcase a way that land that can’t be developed due to contamination can still find a way to be part of the community and be stewarded for the community.”