A Brampton couple’s love of food might help save our planet
Startling images of fires eating up vast stretches of the Amazon rain forest and belching black smoke into the sky (the result of thousands of man-made burns to deforest the “lungs of our planet,” and reassign those lands to subsistence farming) illustrate, according to many, a crime against humanity.
This outright assault has left many lost and searching for answers.
That doesn’t include the men that sit front and centre on this issue. They are not even asking questions about what they can do to help restore our ecological order.
U.S. President Donald Trump skipped the recent G7 summit session about finding solutions to global heating through tree planting and shifting from fossil fuels to wind energy. He was dismissive of efforts to battle the rise in CO2 gases, and delivered his tired-old jeremiad about America’s future being tied to the fiscal bounty to be earned from drilling and fracking for more and more fossil fuels. He committed not one dollar to the $20 million promised (and later rejected by Brazil) to fight these fires, from other G7 partners, including Canada. Said Trump, in his bizarre summit-ending news conference: “I feel the US has tremendous wealth … I’m not going to lose that wealth on dreams, on windmills – which, frankly, aren’t working too well. I think I know more about the environment than most.” Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro, a dedicated Trumpster and fellow climate change denier, initiated the plunder of his country’s Edenic forests.
Perhaps the darkening sky over Brazil is an apt metaphor for our troubled times?
Closer to home, we have Doug Ford, who doesn’t believe in a carbon tax and wants to give Southern Ontario’s remaining agricultural and ecologically protected land over to developers as part of his “Open for Business” campaign.
As we watch this horror play out in real time, a new scourge also needs addressing: food shortages, and its sister worry: food nourishment.
A United Nations report says that by 2050, there will be at least two billion more mouths to feed. We now face a hotter and hungrier world. The loss of arable lands has created a 6 percent decline in crop yields, and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report produced by the UN-affiliated agency is a must-read for anyone watching with alarm as heat, storms, and shifting seasons wreak havoc with our future.
Which begs a fundamental question: Can we adapt?
According to a new book, The Fate of Food, by journalist Amanda Little, yes we can. While farmsteads across the planet battle a crisis in climate and political inactivity, she concludes her book with a hopeful message that calls for a synthesis of the wisdom of the past with the ingenuity of the present to help us survive the future.
A world-wide movement called agroecology might save us from ourselves.
Agroecology has real street cred, and to find out how it operates, visit Main Street in Brampton every Saturday morning during the Farmers’ Market that runs from early June to early October.
It’s a cool Saturday morning, a half-hour before sun-up, and on the west side of Main Street just south of Nelson Street, Dawn Ottnad is preparing her small booth for business. There’s a tent to erect, a company sign to put up (The Little Garden Company) and a wide assortment of fresh produce to lay out for about 5,000-plus potential customers. The market is one of this city’s old traditions, a festival of fresh foods that features about 70 participants, mostly farmers, plus a healthy group of artisans.
It is one of the oldest and most popular markets in Ontario, and once a week, it temporarily remakes Main Street into ancient agora, where people meet, shop, buy, and take in the succulent sights and sounds and smells of community commerce at work.
For six hours, most traffic is banned from the area, and Brampton reverts to a bygone era when farmers in the surrounding areas, brought their goods to market.
Ottnad is an eco-warrior, who shakes her head in despair with what is happening in far-off Brazil, and bristles when Trump’s name is mentioned. She is a former employee at Bell Mobility who lived and operated in the corporate world of downtown Toronto. She was up early, worked late, and tried but failed to find the perfect work-life balance. When she met her partner, Geoff O’Brien, the technical director with Global News, who was born and raised in the Bramalea section of this city, joined her on the same hamster wheel.
His return to his family home in Brampton a few years back, changed both of their lives.
O’Brien’s father and sister died within six months of each other, and he and Ottnad took over the Bramalea home, and each began to reassess their priorities.
They had a lovely garden in their backyard, which they quickly turned into a bountiful harvest of healthy foods. Could they turn Ottnad’s love of gardening and O’Brien’s interest in nature, into a business plan?
Last winter they joined the City of Brampton’s Entrepreneur Centre, and graduated in January after completing one if its programs. They won a grant from the city and were given a spot at the Farmers’ Market this year.
Ottnad was a professional gardener, who has worked at estates over the past 20 years, supplementing her income. She simply enjoys the outdoors, and the vagaries of the growth cycle.
With Brampton being one of the few municipalities in the province that allowed homesteading (keeping chickens on site, for example), the couple quickly turned their back garden into a commercial operation.
Ottnad was unimpressed with the corporate world, and said her former job “simply paid the bills”; O’Brien, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High school and a guitarist with Girl & The Machine, was still reeling from his family losses. Both he and Ottnad embraced micro-farming, and the dramatic lifestyle that ensued.
Providing gardening services to homeowners that had grown too old to continue the upkeep, proved lucrative, as did commercial work. They joined a new profession called gardener/farmer, which proved to be a curious throwback to an age when sturdy young settlers tilled the soil, grew their own crops, sold off any excess, and felt they were harvesting something more than just good food. Ottnad says taking product from seed and letting it flourish in an organic setting, was a satisfying career move, and a helpful way to assist a bruised planet.
“There’s a big demand for gardeners to help the retired population,” says Ottnad.
She says in the winter, they practice the micro-gardening of sprouts, which are grown in shipping containers in the nearby village of Erin. These sprouts are part of the firm’s product line at the Saturday market.
On the morning Ottnad talked to The Pointer, she was setting up her stall alone because O’Brien recently broke his hip gardening. As he recovers, she works the market, keeps up customers’ gardens, and performs her duties at commercial properties. The company’s client list is growing, and the products sold on Saturdays are either from their back garden, or purchased at McVean Farm, located on the eastern outskirts of the city, on the Toronto Region Conservation Authority land. It’s home to 10 to 15 micro-gardeners, and many on the 45-acre working farm come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, including the Afri-Can Food Basket. Its mission is to provide leadership in urban agriculture, and foster collaboration to advance food justice, health and social enterprise in the African-Canadian community. Some of its products make their way to the Brampton Farmers’ Market.
Ottnad and O’Brien are multi-taskers. They were vendors at the Erin Mills Backyard Market in Mississauga, and teach children why it’s important to grow and eat healthy foods. Ottnad delivers cooking seminars at Downsview Park and talks about the importance of supporting local farms.
She says this push to micro-farming isn’t simply a moment in time, but fueled to go the distance. It’s driven by the pleasure derived from growing your own food. Finding that immortal sweet spot, “a lovely work-life balance is what everyone seems to be looking for,” is what the Brampton couple have found with the success of their new company.
She admits, “I could never have a real job again.”
The beauty of local-grown food is that “it doesn’t lose anything in the transition from ground to table.” In other words, celery or cucumbers picked yesterday afternoon, could be in The Little Garden Company booth early Saturday morning and on a customer’s table by noon. This all blends nicely with the push to preventative medicine, especially in the U.S., where obesity, heart disease and diabetes have reached all-time highs. This is according to a recent New York Times column by Dan Glickerman, the former Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton. It was entitled: Our Food is Killing Too Many of Us.
Return to whole and natural foods and breaking the circle of pizzas and burgers and fries can lower medical costs and recharge your body.
The old adage, you are what you eat, has never been more true.
This movement to turn TRCA protected lands, city owned properties, and backyards back into agricultural lands, is what agroecology is all about. The City of Brampton has multiple plots available for rental to urban farmers: Creditview Park, McMurchy Community Garden, Norton Park Community Garden, Crawley Emmanuel Community Garden, and the one at Sesquicentennial Park.
This back-to-the-land momentum, squashes the perception that ‘burbs like Brampton are drowning in single-family houses, parking lots, and gridlocked streets. There is a reason why Brampton is nicknamed Flower City, and it’s because of our deep agricultural roots.
This negative perception was very much on the mind of famed urbanologist Jane Jacobs when she penned her final and most pessimistic book, Dark Age Ahead. She was contemptuous of the land-use planning right across the region of Peel. She said the total number of farms in Ontario declined 11.5 per cent between 1996 and 2002 – and that number was even higher (24 per cent) in Peel.
Few shopping at Saturday’s market had an understanding of our past or present. They were simply drawn to Ottnad’s products because of their leafy goodness. They looked different, more robust than anything seen at local grocery stores, or Wal-Mart or Costco.
Agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it is organic, integrated, conventional, intensive or extensive. But it is weighed heavily towards the first two. It is not only a set of farming practices, and a scientific discipline, but a social movement. It is the antithesis of the industrial farming that features widespread pesticide use and nuclearizes product yields by embracing GMOs – genetically modified organisms. The 20th century model of large-scale industrial food production, has come with a hefty ecological cost (see the burning of the Amazon), and the new minimalist movement is urging us to dial it back. The goal is to create healthier yields and do less damage to our dwindling resources.
Agroecology works within the local system by improving soil and plant quality through available biomass and biodiversity. It doesn’t bombard Mother Nature with chemicals.
The Aboriginal peoples of North America called it “living lightly upon the land.”
This, in a nutshell, is agroecology.
On Saturdays, Ottnad pulls her hair back, works without makeup, wears a Roots sweatshirt (which had an obvious double meaning for natural food producers), and joins a generation that is returning back to a simpler time when food production and preparation of meals was a daylong event, and involved all members of the family.
Creating micro-farms satisfies humanity’s instinct to get closer to nature, and speeds up production along the food assembly line
Ottnad needed to channel her love for growing things from seed and turn it in to a business. She and O’Brien and the others are now members of a sub-strata of agriculture, very much tied to the growth cycle.
The degradation of our planet, on brutish display in Brazil, and the villainy of the eco-unfriendly Trump administration, puts Luddites from a different generation on a collision course with this new breed of young urban farmers.
It is a battle being won slowly by the newbies at local markets in cities like Brampton.
Jane Jacobs’ sad lament was well timed, but the tide is turning in favour of reassessing our land-use models. A return to yesteryear to create a new model is now on everyone's urban agenda.
Yes, hope springs eternal, even in the waning days of summer, and the booths selling organic vegetables at this year’s Farmers’ Market on Main Street, display all the colour and crispness and robust good health of food lovingly produced.
The term ‘urban farmer’ used to be a contradiction in terms, but is a handle eagerly embraced by people like Ottnad and O’Brien.
The Little Garden Company represents the best in micro-farming. The scaling back of production to create healthy yields that are chemical-free, and power-packed with goodness, gives those watching the destruction of Amazon rain forests hope that the world might quickly welcome an “organic” solution to what formerly ailed us.
The success of micro-gardening isn’t something new, but found its footing in the darkest days of the two world wars that dominated the last century. As the planet teetered on the abyss, with food shortages everywhere, homeowners had to turn their yards into gardens to grow food for the war effort. Victory Gardens have seared their place in our collective consciousness.
Perhaps we’re close to the abyss again, and should get on a war footing to see if we can survive our current ecological break down.
The heartening news is that the crops at the McVean Farm are ripening as we speak, and will instantly find their way to a dinner table near you. The farmers’ groups operating there, are growing product that will help prevent disease, not bring it on.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) allows micro-farmers to sign a deal at the beginning of each year so customers can purchase a share of “farm stock” and have fresh food delivered to them each and every week.
Writers like Little, continue to peck Mother Nature clean for images, like a bird gorging on a granary floor. A Kirkus review of her book, lauds her ability to illustrate problems and solutions related to food production and climate change. The reviewer says, “the author shows true innovation takes patience and time. Little’s take-home message is that innovation combined with good judgment can provide the solutions to the coming food crisis.”
In an interview conducted with the author, Little says running out of food is as old as civilization.
Then, she adds, “the stakes have never been higher nor the risks greater.”
Climate change has ushered in an era of uncertainty and chaos, heightening the need for a combining of old traditions and new technology to redefine food sustainability on a grand scale.
Little says, “We need to support and enhance local food networks as much as possible.”
Those networks include street smart merchants and backyard micro-farmers like Ottnad and O’Brien.
The embrace of agroecology and new technology has eased worries that we won’t be able to meet the needs of the billions of new people who will soon be populating our planet.
This surge in urban farming looks like a life saver, and could prove that nature and cities can co-exist.
The Brampton Farmers’ Market recently received a $20,000 infusion from the Government of Ontario. Some of those monies will be used Saturday to welcome a series of speakers on the latest innovations in food preparation. At 10 a.m., Suresh Doss will be on stage at Garden Square to talk about Brampton’s Global flavours. Doss is changing the way we think about food. With over a decade of food writing and hosting regular food tours in the GTA, he is a contributor to Toronto Life, The Globe and Mail, and CBC Metro Morning, and also print editor of Foodism Toronto.
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