A young farmer turns a pocket of land into a bountiful harvest of Asian vegetables to feed a new generation of Canadians.
Photos by MANUELA GARAY and BEATRICE S. PAEZ
by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
It’s a sight that would boggle your taste buds. Right across the green pocket of farmland on Toronto’s Downsview Park is a constructed plaza with a string of fast food joints. Suddenly Subway’s “Eat Fresh” mantra reads like false advertising when viewed from behind rows upon rows of fresh vegetables, grown at Red Pocket Farm. Buses and cars stream past, momentarily interrupting any illusion of being transported to the countryside.
But when the green ground full of potential comes into focus, blurring the urban distractions from the surrounding landscape, all that remains is the fresh earth and the lives it supports.
“Once I’m absorbed in my work, I don’t really notice what’s happening across the street,” says Amy Cheng, the lone farmer at Red Pocket Farm. “It’s peaceful even [when] surrounded by so many things going around.”
The farm’s name is a nod to Cheng’s heritage: the tiny red pocket envelopes that are filled with money and given during Chinese special occasions.
A piece of Asia grows on Cheng’s quarter acre of land, bearing seeds transplanted from Japan and China. Half of the plot is cultivated with Asian vegetables, while the rest is filled with salad staples, such as lettuce, kale, arugula and spinach.
Cheng’s organic produce nourishes the multicultural, mixed-income communities of Toronto’s Parkdale and Regent Park, where she sells throughout the harvest season at Sorauren Farmers’ Market and Regent Park Farmers’ Market.
Vegetables, as easily recognizable as bok choy and edamame and as uncommon as hakurei salad turnips and tatsoi, flourish under Cheng’s green thumb.
With her kale and gai lan firmly rooted in the soil and proudly spreading their lush leaves, it’s hard to believe she is only into her third season as a farmer.
Cheng didn’t bolt straight to farming despite being fascinated with the experience as a volunteer in Costa Rica. But it stirred in her a desire for farming that never left. “It opened my eyes to how little I knew about food, and thinking how crazy that is,” she explains.
Her long courtship with farming played out for about 10 years. Largely self-educated, she devoured books and resources on farming and food systems, and it became increasingly evident where her interests lay.
Eventually the clarity of farming’s life-giving purpose persuaded her to abandon her first calling as a visual artist. She enrolled in online courses on food security at Ryerson University and spent her first season interning at Everdale Farm in Hillsburgh, Ont.
Cheng has worked in other jobs before, but had sometimes questioned their purpose. “With farming, as hard as it is, there’s no doubt about the need for more farmers and the need for food to be grown in a healthy way for both the soil and human consumption.”
Harder to convince were her parents and friends, who “couldn’t understand” her interest in farming and her decision to forgo her more stable pursuits as an artist. Before farming, she made a good living by painting theatre sets, mounting museum exhibits and teaching arts education to children.
More than anything, she knows her parents’ reservations are backed by real concerns about her future. Farming is meticulous, backbreaking labour that offers no guarantee of a huge financial return. And as an urban farmer operating in a limited space with no room for imposing machinery, Cheng’s small, lithe frame is her main tool.
Then there’s the universal, parental preoccupations of wanting to see one’s offspring start a family, to have a reliable income.
“I worry about those things, too,” says Cheng. “Whatever romantic ideas I’ve had about farming, I’ve broken through a lot of those things.”
Though the romance with farming has dipped from its initial high, she is still starry-eyed and keen on making her “farm vision” happen.
“I definitely dream about having my own space,” she says. “It’s the way most people would feel about owning their own home. I envision being able to share farming and food with a wide group of people that includes my friends and family.” Part of that dream is to combine her background in education and run workshops educating children about food.
For her own children, the lessons she is saving for them are how to appreciate different types of cuisine and how to share food.
The upside of farming in the city is that she is able to give her “urban-centric” friends and family a tour of Red Pocket Farm more often than if she were to farm in a rural community.
Farming within the constraints of an urban setting is a difficult venture to sustain in the long run, but for Cheng, it was the more practical route as a budding farmer.
Zoning bylaws for the space that she leases from Fresh City Farms in Downsview Park restrict farm animals; the property is also not expansive enough to allow the use of tractors and other machinery. Through Fresh City Farms, a social enterprise, Cheng contributes a portion of her produce to the local food box program to generate income.
The arrangement enables her to experiment in growing uncommon Asian vegetables, which are otherwise imported and stocked at ethnic groceries. The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, an institute for agricultural innovation, reports that in 2010, new immigrants spent $800 million on imported vegetables not locally grown in Ontario.
At Red Pocket Farm, Cheng is breaking ground in an industry that is beginning to ramp up efforts at farming homegrown Asian produce.
The sheer lack of organic options for a wide selection of Asian vegetables convinced her to test and diversify the market. Together with the research centre, she is recording her observations about the vegetables’ “habits and temperament” in the Canadian climate.
If she were to ascribe character traits to some of her vegetables, bok choy would be sturdy and easygoing; choy sum is finicky if slightly too hot or too cold, and gai lan—her favourite—is the most beautiful and graceful of the bunch.
Organic Asian vegetables are not an easy sell, even in neighbourhoods with a high density of ethnic groups and recent immigrants. Price can be an issue, along with a lack of awareness that their favourite foods can actually be found at farmers’ markets, Cheng explains, citing the newly launched Regent Park Farmers’ Market.
Her main customers fit a different profile and tend to be from a younger demographic, some of whom are starting a family. Bok choy remains the best seller.
The curiosity and willingness of young, non-Asian Canadians to try unfamiliar vegetables has also helped Cheng sustain her enterprise.
While you can expect Cheng to show up at the farmers’ market every week of the season, it’s hard to expect customers to pop in on a regular basis with the vast number of convenient options available.
Cheng has tried to cultivate a following among her friends’ parents, and to turn them into advocates for organic food by offering samples of her produce.
She finds that the older generation is reluctant to buy organic when there are cheaper alternatives available in larger quantities, which they have relied on for years.
“They’re used to stuff imported at 99 cents per pound,” she explains. “The price is an issue, and if tell them it’s organic, they’re not exactly sold [on the idea.]”
A small basket of shishito peppers retails for about $4 at the market in Sorauren Park. Most of her produce falls within a reasonable range for organic produce, from $1.50 for chives to about $4 for eggplants.
When her family’s neighbour, who isn’t entirely food-conscious, signed on to purchase a basket of greens worth $50 each week, Cheng says it felt like “a huge victory for me.”
The family friend still makes trips to her ethnic grocer, but Red Pocket is her first stop when she’s planning her meals for the week. “She hasn’t watched Food Inc. [a documentary film], but she’s being convinced to buy this other type of produce for taste and for education.”
In time, Cheng hopes that with more awareness and a more stable income through farming, she can feed more ethnic communities and provide them with a solid alternative to vegetables sold at supermarkets.
Right now, she is faced with monumental choices about how, and where, to move forward with her enterprise. Securing a piece of farmland in Ontario is expensive.
Empty green spaces are hard to find, and the government does not prioritize land for small-scale agriculture, she says.
What we might envision as a new soccer field in the back lot of a school, Cheng imagines a harvest that could feed every student’s family, if the land is cared for. With an imagination like that, Cheng is well primed to feed generations of Canadians to come.