BRAMPTON, ON – When Paul Stewart was working on a degree from Ryerson in politics and governance, his first career choice wasn’t agriculture.
“What got me interested there was what we learned about food justice,” the 26-year-old explains. “We also did a course on food security and it was that sort of material that got me involved in the subject of food and its importance to everyone.
“I grew up in Toronto so farming really wasn’t part of my background. It was working in community gardens in and around the city later that eventually got me interested in agriculture,”
Today he and his partner 26-year-old Shira Katzberg – who did child and youth studies at George Brown University and still works in that field – are successful new market gardeners at FarmStart’s McVean Farm in Brampton, a start-up farm that is the first of its kind in Canada and a viable model that offers agricultural learning experiences to up-and-coming farmers from across the country and other countries.
The 45-acre McVean farm, owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation and leased to FarmStart on a long-term lease, has about 36 new farmers from 10 different countries with 20 farm enterprises on-site. Participants produce everything from honey to mushrooms and hundreds of different kinds of vegetables.
The produce is fresh picked and often sold directly to consumers through farmers markets, restaurants and on farm you-pick.
“All our crops are organic.” Paul says. “We are on ¼ acres of land – a small plot for intensive farming. We grow lots of greens, beets, radishes, carrots and also some tomatoes. We also have a plot of garlic separate from this – a crop that is shared on a sort of hobby farm out near Cambellford.”
The FarmStart initiative was incorporated in 2005, growing from the recognition that farming communities are aging, and structural, economic, and practical challenges are preventing new and young farmers from getting into the sector. Organizers say new farmers bring skills, connections and passion that can lead to innovation and renewal.
It began as a Start-Up Farm near Guelph, (based on Intervale) to provide a supportive and relatively risk free way for people from non-farm backgrounds to enter the sector.
It continues to provide practical support, sector leadership and a voice for a new generation of farmers.
Paul, a strong supporter of FarmStart, says he got involved in agricultural with his partner back in 2009 when they did some urban farming, raising chickens and working on a couple of yards growing vegetables, mainly for fun.
“Then we did a nine-month C.R.A.F.T. (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Ontario) apprenticeship in 2011,” he continues. “Much of that was focused on the production side, growing vegetables, learning about CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and also working with livestock.
“From there we applied to get land at FarmStart, then started working on the ¼ acre site in 2012 and selling to a farmer’s market organized by the Stop Community Food Centre (1884 Davenport Avenue in Toronto). The Stop’s Green Barn is the Wychwood Barns.”
C.R.A.F.T. Ontario is composed of several regional nodes. Each node is a network of farms that offer internships. These are business relationship between the farm and the intern, not with C.R.A.F.T. Ontario.
The Stop has two locations with a main office at 1884 Davenport Road providing frontline services to the community – a drop-in, food bank, perinatal program, community action program, bake ovens and markets, community cooking, community advocacy, sustainable food systems education and urban agriculture.
“This year we will be on one acre of land at the same location, where we leased,” Paul says. “This will be my first attempt at farming full time with Shira doing part time. In terms of long term planning, we hope after the five-year period we can acquire our own land or come to some other sort of leasing arrangement where you are basically on your own.
“I’m committed to doing that. At the moment we are very enthusiastic about growing from ¼ of an acre and moving ahead. You have to take one year at a time and don’t jump into a mortgage right away. You are a test cropper the first year at FarmStart but it is the next year that is considered to be your first, then there are five years after that.
“This is a great system because you can try your hand at all aspects of agriculture without taking on loads of risk right away. As well as that, you are close to cities so you can live there and commute to work if you want to and not have to uproot yourself right away.”
Paul says the apprenticeship gave them the opportunity to see first-hand just how much work was involved in farming and how difficult it can be. They knew others who had been involved in the FarmStart so that meant they could talk with them about their experiences.
“We found out just how long days were, so when we actually got to work we were not totally shocked,” he says. “FarmStart is a great way to get into the agricultural business. The apprenticeships are incredibly valuable because you’re not simply sitting back and watching someone. You’re doing it yourself.
“The physical work is very enjoyable and gets you outdoors. The entrepreneurial aspect of working on your business, seeing how it grows and growing with it makes it all worthwhile. Figuring out what’s in store for the next season is another exciting facet of farming. I would highly recommend this to others interested in an agricultural career.
“Both FarmStart and C.R.A.F.T. Ontario have been invaluable in helping us learn about the basics before getting involved. It was the best route to take and we’re happy that’s how we got into farming.”
For information on C.R.A.F.T. ONTARIO:
Discover FarmStart at: http://www.farmstart.ca/