Perhaps the key to weaning our dinner tables off of fossil fuels is to start right in our own backyard, or apartment balcony, or even south-facing window.
By Jason Allen
Published July 14, 2010
So it's Tuesday night, and it's time to pick up the farm share from our CSA. Of course, we pick ours up at the actual farm itself, so I grabbed the keys and headed out to the door. Went straight for the car, and opened up the driver side ... so I could fish out a couple of reusable bags.
Then I closed the car door, locked it, and proceeded to walk to the farm, a block away from my house on the corner of Peter and Pearl Streets in Strathcona.
While the local food craze has swept North America and has even trickled up to places as large as national grocery store chains, most people still consider anything grown in Ontario to be local.
Russ Ohrt at Backyard Harvest brings 'local' to a whole new level, taking his extensive farming experience and adapting it to the big city. He calls it "urban agriculture".
Most people who stop by Ohrt's yard are inspired by his "farm," but some express a concern over the safety of the produce. Given Hamilton's industrial history and still-active smokestacks not too far away, is it safe to eat something grown practically downtown?
To Ohrt, it's a chicken and egg problem. Do we clean up all the pollution before we start growing our food this close to home? Or do we start growing our food right here so it requires less oil to produce it and bring it to market? Ohrt's produce is grown without chemicals and is eaten fresh, which preserves nutrition and decreases chemical content and enhancing taste.
Anyway, since pollution travels it isn't just downtown farms that are affected by Hamilton's manufacturing sector. Between the agricultural spreading of biosolids to your neighbor's pesticides being carried on the wind, in an area as densely packed and filled with industry as Southern Ontario, who can tell?
While Ohrt's property is large for an urban yard, he started his business to educate residents about urban agriculture and to access more space to grow. His clients include one family who had him design their garden and tend it, supplying them with fresh, ultra-local produce. In other cases, Ohrt simply leases land in the neighbourhood from individual property owners and harvests the vegetables for himself.
Besides the CSA, Orht has been selling his produce at the "Maker's Markets" around Hamilton's west end and at a roadside produce stand in front of his home, cleverly disguised as a garage sale. Russ is now up to seven backyards in his 'farm', and with his table at the Maker's Market selling out most weekends, he is on the lookout for more land to till.
It all feeds into the issue of food security in Hamilton and area. It's commonly understood that every calorie of food that comes from a supermarket typically takes 12 calories of fossil fuels to create.
Uber-local food that uses no pesticides, herbicides, diesel tractors or refrigerated transport trucks would seem to position Hamilton well for the changes to come.
And to those who say we could never grow enough to make a difference, I'm afraid history would disagree. During World War II, it's estimated that 40% of the vegetables on the average American's table came from Victory Gardens.
Yet we've come a long way from the government encouraging people to grow gardens out of patriotic duty, and Ohrt even wonders if we have retained enough of those skills. That's why in our house, we have begun with four simple Square Foot Gardens to get us started.
We're now in our second year, and our veggie patch looks like a scene out of a John Wyndham novel - in the best way possible.
Perhaps the key to reskilling our society is for more people to be willing to just 'give it a go' now, before those skills become crucial.
And perhaps the key to weaning our dinner tables off of fossil fuels is to start right in our own backyard, or apartment balcony, or even south-facing window. The possibilities are only limited by your patience, courage, and selection of seeds.
If you're interested in learning more about Ohrt's ideas, including leasing your yard, or having him come to your yard to show you how to grow your own victory garden, you can contact him at 905-296-4479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published on Jason Allen's personal website. An earlier version of this article appeared in Fall 2009, in The Park Bench, Strathcona Community Council's Newsletter. The information regarding food security and peak oil are recent additions.
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