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Not quite old McDonald's farm

Everyone knows farmers grow carrots, but who would have guessed that a carrot could grow farmers? In a nutshell, that's just about the story of the McVean Start-up Farm in Brampton.
It's a project of an organization called FarmStart, which was founded in 2005 by Christie Young with a modest grant of $5,000. The money came from Carrot Cache, a non-profit corporation set up by Toronto's Big Carrot Natural Food Market to support worker-owned businesses, community food strategy initiatives and agriculture projects that use organic farming techniques.
Today, Young serves as executive director to an organization that employs a staff of eight besides herself and works to break ground for a new generation of Ontario farmers. The McVean Start-up Farm is a key component of the organization's work, which also includes workshops and farm tours. Situated on 45 acres that once made up a prosperous family farm, but is now leased from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, it provides new farmers—many born outside Canada—with growing space while they learn their skills.
The goal of the operation is "basically to create sustainable farms that can meet the growing demand for local food," says FarmStart's startup farm programs co-ordinator Ian McCormick, "sustainable, not only environmentally and socially, but financially."
Starting any business is risky, but farm businesses are especially tricky. Apart from giving the farmers a place to grow, FarmStart offers other kinds of support. For instance, they provide organic certification for crops grown on the McVean Farm. "When people are getting started, they can't claim they are certified organic, but they can claim they are growing on property that is certified, and that can give them an edge," McCormick says. Later, some of the farms will certify themselves as well.
In 2009, McVean's first year as an incubator farm, there were four farmers. In 2012, 36 farmers from more than 10 countries grew crops for 23 distinct farm enterprises. The farmers sign on for a six-year tenure, but some are so successful that they have already been able to acquire their own land and start hiring employees. One of these is Daniel Hoffman of The Cutting Veg.
Others are close to being able to take the same step, like Bob Baloch of The Fresh Veggies and Southern Horizons, operated by Margaret Zondo, originally from Zimbabwe, and Rodney Garns of Barbados. Their world crops, like Asian and African varieties of greens, have made them favourites at the farmers' markets at Montgomery's Inn and The Stop's Green Barn.
In fact, the coincidental recent growth of the farmers' market network in the GTA has been beneficial for the McVean farmers. After just three years at McVean, Manmeet Singh and Rupinder Natt (better known as Ruby) sell their garlic, okra, daikon radish and salad greens at Evergeen Brick Works, Withrow Park and Leslieville, making their Healthy Choice Farm the main family business. "We're doing very well this year," says Natt.
"We love farming; my husband has a master's in Agriculture from the University of Guelph," she says. Although both the couple's parents farmed "back home" in India's Punjab region, the McVean Farm gave them their first land here.
"They gave us a very good opportunity," says Natt. "We learned a lot from the other farmers."
Without the support of the McVean Farm, the family would have found it much more challenging to be able to afford start-up costs, but "now we know how to manage it, and we want to buy soon."
Audrey McDonald of The Greenhouse Eatery is in her second year at McVean, raising organic culinary herbs, tropical plants, vegetables and flowers. Growing up in Jamaica, McDonald developed an interest in agriculture through watching her grandmother operate family farms. She maintained that interest when she came to Canada, but McVean was her first "full-scale serious step" into a career that has become her sole income during the summers. "Before that it was my hobby," she says.
Without the support of FarmStart, "I wouldn't have had the co-operative infrastructure that I do now," McDonald says. "We share equipment; we share the farm manager. When we buy compost, we buy it in bulk; so the costs are shared."
There are consumer benefits, too. The McVean Farm is so close to the city it gives shoppers the chance to buy the freshest produce around. "You can harvest the same day you go to market," says McDonald.
In the past century, urban growth has encroached on what was once a rural area; the McVean Farm is now surrounded by suburban houses. That speaks to southern Ontario's shrinking pool of farmland—and the people to farm it. But new farmers like McDonald are reversing that history.
"I like the fact that we bring tonnes of food to Ontarians," she says. "We are a huge part of the local food movement here."

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book, We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, was a finalist in Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012.
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