Last month I was visiting rainy Vancouver when, almost by accident, I found myself at an urban homesteader’s dream potluck. There were meals full of stored garden potatoes, leeks and carrots, dishes rich with the flavour of fresh dried herbs, desserts of preserved pear and blackberries. It was a feast held in celebration to mark the end of a 9- week, winter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
The food distributed at this CSA had been grown (or found), harvested and preserved by three guys who recognized how much food there was available to glean from their own urban neighbourhood. They harvested then throughout the fall they canned, dried, froze, bottled.
“At one point, we counted over 2000 preserved items,” said Ryan Weemhoff, one of the organizers.
These items were as diverse as quince jam, apple butter, dried plums, canned pears, wild grape vinegar, blackberry wine. Most of the food that was preserved was harvested from derelect yards, forgotten lots, or along tracks and roadways. Weemhoff and his partners walked the neighbourhood looking for edible fruit and even grains (they harvested about 200 cups of flax seed from along the Skytrain line). On finding a seemingly neglected fruit tree, they approached the homeowner, if available, for permission to harvest it. Most people were happy not to have the fruit rot in their yards.
But you don’t have to move to Vancouver to find a CSA. There are a number of them in and around Edmonton. Each one is set up slightly different however almost always the intention is:
1. to share the risk and harvest of farming with a broad group of supportive people in order to help small farms become more sustainable
2. to connect people to educational opportunities regarding sustainable, local food sources.
Getting involved in a CSA usually means you:
1. Buy a ‘share’ at the beginning of the growing season. If the initial price seems too much, partner with a friend or other family.
2. Receive a weekly allotment of varying produce throughout the growing season. Often you must pick up the food at a central location, though there are some with services that drop off at your door.
3. Input a small amount of labour throughout the season- the number of hours vary but generally averages 4 hour per month. Some CSAs sell non-working shares, others have work-only shares for a very small number of people.
While CSAs tend to connect urbanites to rural farmers (producing a range of veggies, fruit, and meat products), CSAs aren’t always connected to a rural business. In Vancouver, the 35 members paid a suggested donation of around $440 per share, with some people paying more and others less. This capital then supported two of the organizers who recovered and preserved the food from the alleys, lots and yards.
In Edmonton, there is the urban CSA ‘On Borrowed Ground’. This will be the second season that Anita Gregoire has organized this CSA. She currently grows veggies and fruit in six gardens; five of these would otherwise lay fallow. Some gardens are located close to her home in Duggan, others are in Capilano and Jasper Place. As more members sign up, she borrows and plants more gardens.
“For the first year I have a garden, I usually plant potatoes and beets which break up the soil and don’t need as much compost as other vegetables. In every garden I use responsible methods of crop rotation and companion planning while inter-planting pest-repelling flowers. I never use pesticides- water, garlic and soap is as harsh a chemical as my veggies get.”
Each garden will grow different things, in one garden she has greens and tomatoes, another patch has potatoes. Last year, the raspberries in her alley provided berries for the entire CSA.
The hours of work that the organizers of these CSAs put in is incredible. But when you ask them why they do it, their motivation often comes down to the health of people and the earth, as well as advocacy about sustainability growing or raising local food.
“People don’t realize how easy it is to grow your own food. Joining a CSA and working alongside experienced gardeners or farmers can inspire members to do it on their small plot of urban yard or balcony,” says Gregoire.
Her inspiration is evident in her neighbourhood. Since she’s planted her Duggan front, back yards and alley with fruits and vegetables, her neighbours have followed her example. One woman replaced her front yard grass with pumpkins and squash. Another planted her back alley with raspberries. One man, who spent thousands on grass in his front yard, ripped it out and planted flowers that were easier to maintain. She says, “If we all start [creative ways of growing food], it’s going to catch on!”
CSAs are an affordable option if you want fresh local produce, if you want to meet other like-minded people, and if you want to learn how to garden.
They also are a great reality check, inspiring you to exclaim: “Where did this food get so much flavour?” And “So this is what it feels like to slow down and ‘smell the roses’!”
Check out http://www.csaalberta.com/ for On Borrowed Ground and other CSAs in the Edmonton area.
Do you have a neglected south-facing garden you’d like to lend? Contact ‘On Borrowed Ground’ at 780-434-7752.