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Farming in the city: how urban agriculture is slowly growing in Toronto

Situated on a 14,000 square foot plot tucked just west of Kipling subway station on Bloor Street is a community based vegetable garden that is not only serving as an agricultural initiative feeding needy families in the community, but is also an outdoor classroom for students and volunteers.
One of PACT's (Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation) newest initiatives in the Etobicoke area, "Farm-in-the-Village" targets at-risk youth and is an offshoot of an environmental program started a year ago with the Toronto District School Board where schools with kids identified as at being at-risk created a program teaching kids organic farming. In its first year, the program had two school-based gardens.
"It's amazing how little opportunity or chances these kids have had growing up in the areas they are growing up in. Giving them the chance to find out what they are good at or what they might enjoy is a great process for me and the kids," says Justin Di Ciano, PACT leader and organizer in the Etobicoke-Lakeshore region.
Currently, in its second year, the program has grown to six school-based gardens and one community garden called. The land, donated by local developer Dunpar Developments, grows more than 20 different varieties of vegetables and another 15 different types of herbs in 60 vegetable beds.
"A lot of our vegetables now have all sorts of chemicals and fertilizers in it and the organic movement is a huge movement," says Di Ciano. "There's nothing better than growing your own vegetables to live a healthy lifestyle."
However, a lot of people have lost farming skills. "Nobody knows how anymore," says Di Ciano. It's through environmental and agricultural programs like this one that Di Ciano says youth learn the process of seeding, growing and cultivating their own food, all the while inspiring future entrepreneurs.
According to Di Ciano, somewhere down the road learning a trade wasn't encouraged in the school system, as more students were encouraged to go to college or university. Agriculture became a dying trade and career choice. PACT is trying to fill a gap by teaching life skills to students who might not want to go to college or university.
The Farm-in-the-Village program is the first step. There are bout 350 kids involved and Di Ciano predicts that about 20 to 30 will truly become inspired. Next year, he intends on putting the kids to work creating two or three more gardens and teaching them how to manage their own farm. "Instead of getting into trouble, they are going to work the farms and sell the produce at a local farmer's market," he says.
Learning how to farm is just one skill these kids will takeaway from this experience. Di Ciano points out that there are a number of different sectors and agricultural jobs they may go into, using the skills somewhere else, not just in traditional farming.
Di Ciano also hopes to inspire new entrepreneurs like Laurel Fortin who was looking for a career change about five years ago. She worked in marketing and journalism for over 10 years and realized she no longer shared a passion for what she did.
She was fortunate that her job allowed her to take some time off one summer. She spent that time on an organic farm in Quebec. "Agriculture was never presented to me in the past as an option in terms of a career path,"she says. "But when I met the farmer and I saw their lifestyle, I saw that this is something that is a viable business."
It was then that the passion was sparked and she looked to network and talk to people with similar interests. This led her to a meeting organized by Farm Start in Brampton where she announced, "I'm interested in farming." The rest was history.
Currently in her second year, Fortin farms with a small group as a cooperative with the Farm Start project on a piece of land that was a once a traditional farm in Brampton, now called Small Potatoes.
Fortin began on a part-time basis working about two or three days and selling her produce at a Saturday farmer's market at Withrow Park on Toronto's east side. She supplemented her income through her marketing work. In her first year, she earned $3,000 in sales, but spent about $11,000 on getting started. "I wasn't expecting to turn a profit in my first year," she says. "I look at it as that I'm changing a career, moving from marketing into agriculture. You don't expect to have the same amount of income straight out when you change your careers."
Even though she didn't make a profit, she had enough success that she wanted more. However, she knew that she needed guidance in order to make this work. Fortin found a program called Farmers Growing Farmers in Guelph that helps new farmers develop a business plan.
"I wanted a plan. I needed a plan. I needed a business plan. I needed a map to show me the path to income," she says. However, she doesn't expect to turn profit this year either, and probably not for a couple of years. But what the program did teach her was that scaling back her lofty ideas in order to make her goals more attainable was the way to go.
"Starting your own business is not for the faint of heart, whether that is opening up your own cafe or starting your own landscaping company or becoming a hair dresser," she says. "If you don't have the work ethic or the determination to make it work, it's not going to work."
She learned her lesson fairly early on that it's going to take some time before she's mastered her new trade. And now Fortin is making it work with the growing season in full swing.
Anna Olejarczyk is a freelance writer based out of Mississauga.
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