There is no doubt the culture of food is constantly evolving in Edmonton. Consumers are increasingly vigilant about what they are putting in their bodies and sourcing food locally is becoming the norm, a notion reflected on an individual and commercial level. With this comes the increasing prevalence of urban agriculture, and while Edmonton is not on the scale of other Canadian cities like Vancouver, which allows chickens and bees to be kept in backyards—something many Edmontonians hope to see in the future—the city is beginning to see a growing network of urban farms and community gardens to complement its numerous markets and consumer philosophy along with the continued work of Fresh, Edmonton’s Food & Urban Agriculture Strategy and the Edmonton Food Council.
The newest farm to pop up within city limits is Reclaim Urban Farm, a business founded by Ryan Mason and Cathryn Sprague, students at the University of Alberta in the midst of master’s degrees in environmental sociology. The pair met last year and have been working on their respective thesis in the same department, with Mason’s research focusing on understanding the interconnection between gender, food and food security in Tazania, while Sprague is focused on community involvement in food and agriculture on a local level.
“We’re both doing a lot of theoretical work around food and food security, whether it’s international, domestic or local, and when we tried to find ways to apply our knowledge and our research that we’ve done and all the education we’ve gained, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to be both applying theory but also practising improved agriculture and food systems,” Mason says of Reclaim, which began to take shape in the fall of 2013.
“It’s about seeing how urban spaces can be transformed into not only beautiful spaces to grow food, but also how much food you can grow within the city limits of Edmonton,” Sprague notes, adding that on a personal level it allows her to get away from her computer, something she doesn’t get to do often as a student.
“We’ve both done a bit of travelling and seen, in Cuba, for instance, how much urban agriculture there is, and even in Japan, some of these cities have urban agriculture right in the middle of the city. You think of Japan with all of these skyscrapers, so I think there’s a huge potential to show how much food can be produced.”
Reclaim focuses on taking unused spaces of land in the Whyte Avenue, Garneau, Strathcona, Queen Alexandra, Bonnie Doon, King Edward Park and Pleasantview areas and reinventing them as fertile plots of land brimming with a lengthy roster of urban-friendly produce—items like greens, carrots, parsnips, small squash and herbs that don’t take up space the way potatoes and grains do, which are best left to rural farms. The land is either vacant lots, front yards or backyards, and land owners are provided with fresh produce on a weekly basis in exchange for hosting a plot. Alternatively, the land owner can choose to have the produce donated to a charity of their choice.
“If we had to have a tag line or something like that, it’s ‘growing good food locally for the people in the community,'” Mason says, noting they have turned down offers on the perimeter of the city in order to keep the focus on the more densely populated Whyte Avenue area.
“One of the reasons we wanted to stay local was because it’s the community we both live and work in,” Sprague adds. “We’re going to be using our bikes for a lot of the transport between sites so that’s why we’re sticking close: to reduce our fuel consumption.”
It’s still early days for the farm, and the slowly dissipating snow has meant much of the produce is currently being grown indoors, but Reclaim has approximately 15 plots slated for use during the upcoming season—which will run until September or October—on vacant lots and front or backyards, with its ostensible home base being situated at the St John’s Institute.
“They have two lots out back; two empty city lots, basically, that they are eventually going to build on, but for now there’s nothing happening with them, so they’ve just been sitting open,” Sprague explains. “So we’re using the land and in exchange we’re going to give them some food to use in their kitchen because they host great Ukrainian pierogi suppers every month, and we’ll also be providing a little bit of educational outreach with some of their youth camps, too.”
Sprague and Mason acknowledge securing land—and permission from the city—was a simple task, as many of the land owners are individuals who do not have time to maintain a garden themselves but value the fresh produce that comes with it, or seniors who are no longer physically able to manage the upkeep themselves.
“Our model is really focusing on community as well, so really being able to connect with the land owners and have a relationship with people who own the land as well,” Mason notes, adding a shout out to the land owners, without whom Reclaim wouldn’t exist. “Lots of the land owners have said, ‘I’m interested in learning how to grow food,’ so they’ll be involved in some way, even if it’s just coming and looking over our shoulder every once in a while. It creates immediate relationships and food connections.”
The duo is in the midst of getting farmers’ market applications completed, but they will also be providing produce to local restaurants including Café Bicyclette, Vivo Ristorante and the Next Act, as well as the new space Kathryn Joel of Get Cooking is opening at Grant MacEwan this summer.
“We’ve been blown away by how much interest there is in sourcing locally. Two of those four restaurants approached us through social media,” Mason says. “So there’s a movement that’s still pushing for a lot of these things.”
Reclaim Urban Farm is not certified organic since Sprague and Mason do not own the land, but their practices are comparable to that of an organic farm. They install rain barrels wherever possible to cut down on water use, do not use harmful chemicals or pesticides, use reclaimed materials whenever possible for building purposes and source seeds from their own produce each year. If they have to purchase seeds from outside sources, they come from companies who sell non-GM seeds and have taken the Safe Seed Pledge.
Mason and Sprague also make their own compost using a technique called vermicomposting. The process involves using their resident pet worms in boxes or Rubbermaid tubs fitted with air holes that are layered with soil, newspaper and vegetable scraps that are added on a weekly basis.
“They (the worms) eat it very quickly and it just turns into the most beautiful compost,” Sprague says. “It’s a nice way to compost year-round. It doesn’t smell at all as long as you cover up the scraps with newspaper. I have friends who do it in their apartments, just in their kitchen.”
Mason adds that the ideal situation would be to produce all of Reclaim’s compost themselves, potentially sourcing food scraps from local restaurants, but for now, they’re making use of city compost to fill the gaps.
“Which is kind of cool, because people eat here, they throw away some of their food scraps and it gets turned into compost and we’re using it again to grow food right from the city,” Sprague adds.
Mason and Sprague are still on the lookout for new land to use, specifically vacant lots up to 2000 square feet. If you want to get your hands dirty, keep an eye out for upcoming work sessions via social media—you never know, urban agriculture might just be your thing.
Reclaim Urban Farm