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The farmer in the city: how Erica Lemieux is bringing farming to Toronto

The past several years of Erica Lemieux's life have been a sequence of serendipity, odd and increasingly purposeful connections that pushed her from environmental studies at the University of Guelph to the helm of City Seed Farms, her urban farming start-up.

"It's called sub-acre, pedal-powered, multi-acre urban farming," she says, rolling a black and frazzled hair-braid between her fingers. "I think around the world people are realizing that treating food as a tradable commodity works to a certain degree -- but only a certain degree. It's not the only solution to feeding the world. And I think very recently it's become evident that local knowledge about the land is the most important thing."

And so as winter offers its rainy-sleety farewell, Lemieux's first year in operation is drawing ever nearer. She's based out of High Park, where she found several neighbours willing to donate their backyards so she can grow carrots, mustards, squash, broccoli, sprouts and more. The donors get a cut of the harvest, and she'll take the rest to the Sorauren Farmers' Market.

"I don't think that five or ten years ago if asked if I could farm in your backyard I would've gotten anything but furrowed brows and confused looks," she says. "It's hard to quantify, but there are shifts in collective consciousness."

Lemieux's own shift was, to appropriate a lick from F. Scott Fitzgerald, gradual and then rather all of a sudden. In 2008, when she was 23-years-old, Lemieux biked across the United States. Over and over again, she met people engaged in small-scale, big-vision food projects, both urban and rural. It left an impression, and she volunteered with Toronto-based Young Urban Farmers when she got back. A friend of hers was headed to British Columbia to conduct an agricultural study, and Lemieux tagged along, expecting to stay for just a few weeks but instead hung around for a couple months.

She was working a vegetable farm in Kelowna, and she heard about a project called Green City Acres run by a guy named Curtis Stone. It was a small-plot intensive (SPIN) operation inspired by a model coined in Saskatoon by Wally Satzewich.

"I was just really inspired by what he was up to," she says. "Urban farming was on my mind, and it just seemed so feasible. It was amazing that it seemed to be popping up everywhere."

Stone encouraged her to get a project started in Toronto. When she got back, Lemieux called a food policy professor from York University, and he told her about a new Guelph-based course called Farmers Growing Farmers. She enrolled. The curriculum is geared toward developing a business plan, and graduates who put together a viable vision receive a $4,000 grant from Heifer International.

"In other countries," she says, "the grant can be in the form of a pregnant cow."

When it gives birth, the recipient passes the calf onto another member of the community. Lemieux's proverbial calf is primarily education, with a bit of produce thrown in for good measure. Already she's making connections, one of which is with the Toronto District School Board. Students start seedlings for her, and she repays them with workshops.

Her own basement -- her parents', she admits with a grateful smile -- plays host to a few planting stations and a big bin of composting worms. Out in the garage is a soil-turner she uses to tear up the backyards of her donors, and also a custom-made green, metal wagon with her initials welded into the frame. Manuel Cappel, owner of Capel Custom Carts (see the Yonge Street story on Cappel here), has been hand-crafting stuff like this for decades. People even fly him to Germany just to benefit from his talents. When the season kicks off, Lemieux will hook his wagon up to her road bike and haul equipment and produce from backyard to backyard.

The future is lush. For now, she's planning on using a few volunteers to help with the more labour-intensive stretches of the planting cycle. She gets excited when she talks about the possibility of inner-city chicken farming, something recently regulated in Vancouver. Ask her about franchising, and the smiles come out again. She really wants to prove that urban farming can be a viable business option.

"There are so many possibilities," she says, again tugging on her braids.

Though this is a relatively new movement, it does have precedent in Toronto. During World War II, Mayor Fredrick Conboy encouraged people to keep vegetable plots in service of the Empire.

"A reporter from the Globe and Mail met him in his onion patch on Bloor Street, and he was proclaiming: Join the battalion! Grow vegetables!" Lemieux says. "But that stopped after the war."

Unless you lived in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At a loss for trade partners thanks to the embargo, Cubans needed quick solutions to feed themselves. Small-plot farming took off.

Wrapped up in all of this is one of urban farming's sweetest virtues: intimacy. Try and typify the larger, established global food system, and she can sum it up in a phrase: Trust erosion.

"In our parents' generation, you could put trust in regulators," she says. "Now that there's a massive, global food system, we can monitor our food all we want, but we can't go monitor all of our imports as well. Because of the increase in steps between producer and consumer, it's trust that you lose."

Paul Carlucci is a writer based in the GTA.

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