Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meet City Seed Farms

If you live in Toronto and haven't heard of City Seed Farms, you're missing out! City Seed Farms is a brand new backyard farming business that grows veggies in west end gardens and sells them at Sorauren Farmers' Market. I asked founder Erica Lemieux to tell us more about her new business.

How did you come up with this concept?

It hit me like a lightning bolt while visiting an urban farm in Kelowna, BC. I had been working with another backyard farming group in Toronto, the Young Urban Farmers CSA, and so urban farming already consumed my mind. Seeing the operation in Kelowna work so well and enjoy numerous successes in its first year was fodder in the trough. Fuel on the fire. It just added electricity to an already raging thunderstorm of excitement going on in my own head. I was really recognizing an opportunity that I needed to seize. Potential to harness. Bicycle-powered backyard farming in High Park. It all made so much sense.

I recall saying to the head farmer in Kelowna, "I think I should do this in Toronto". He replied, "Heck yeah! Get on the next bus home and start asking your neighbours if they'd be interested in sharing their yards". So I did. I went door to door with a City Seed Farms brochure, saying, "Hi, I'm your neighbour. Are you interested in seeing part of your backyard turned into a productive vegetable garden?" I just wanted to assess the interest of the homeowners in my neighbourhood. Within a couple of days I had seven responses. To date, I have ten yards under cultivation.

What else will you be doing with your crops besides selling them at the Sorauren Farmers' Market? Does any of it go to the homeowners, and will you be selling your produce to any restaurants?

We give a weekly share to each landowner and bring the rest to four restaurants in the area.

From my experience volunteering with Young Urban Farmers CSA, I know that turning a back yard lawn into veggie beds is hard work. Who helped you do all of that double-digging?

My sister and my cousin, as well as about ten other friends and volunteers. I provided the granola bars and they provided the strong backs and stamina.

Your backyard growing method is a form of SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming. Can you explain to the readers what that's all about and how you make it work?

SPIN farming is a method of farming that maximizes yield and profit in small plots of land. It is meant for plots in the 1/8 - 1/2 acre range. It uses farming methods like relay cropping and standardized bed sizes to make the operation efficient and consistent. For instance, I will plant one backyard with entirely low-intensive crops like squash and beans so that I can allot a certain amount of attention to that yard and not leave any crops to become neglected. All the high-intensity crops like lettuces, arugula, spinach, radishes, etc., are also clustered together. This allows me to focus my time and energy at the sites that need it.

If the SPIN farming method comes through for you, how long do you think it might take until this business transitions from a cost-recovery model to making a healthy profit?

End of next year. Once I pay off my start-up costs like my rototiller and double-door refrigeration unit, I feel that City Seed can profit.

A very important question: what are you growing this year?

Mmmm. We have so much bounty in the gardens right now. Carrots, beets, radishes, leafy greens of all sorts, herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, pearl onions, bunching onions, peas, beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers. My favourite plant is the beautiful and tasty Bordeaux Spinach. It has a fiery red stem and tastes more spinachy than any spinach I've ever had.

What do you think City Seed Farms will look like in five years? In ten?

I hope that City Seed Farms flourishes the way I imagine it. I want this business to continue on its path toward becoming a trusted name in west Toronto, and a legitimate and substantial contribution to the food supply in my community. I want to see our fleet of four bikes grow to forty. Our yards from ten to one hundred. Ideally, every backyard in Toronto will be a mini-farm by the ten year mark.

What advice do you have for young farmers who might like to follow in your footsteps?

Do it. The resources and support are there. The opportunity and need that exists around urban farming is real and pertinent. Hope on board! There is no better time than now.


If you would like more information, check out the City Seed Farms website! You can also e-mail Erica at lemieux.erica(at)

All photos used by permission from Erica Lemieux/City Seed Farms.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pick-Your-Own Strawberries, 2011 Edition

If you've been following my blog since you last year, you know I enjoy picking my own fruit in the summer. Last year I told you about my trips to pick-your-own farms for raspberries, blueberries, and apples. Today I've got pictures from my weekend strawberry picking adventure - all 17 minutes of it!

The plan was simple: drive 45 minutes to Andrews' Scenic Acres in Halton Hills, which is 52 km (32 miles) from home. I've been to this farm before, and the last stretch of the drive is really pleasant on a winding, hilly country road. The less fun part is on Highway 401, a major thoroughfare through the Greater Toronto Area that is always densely populated with vehicles, even on the weekend. Hence the need to spend 45 minutes to drive 52 km.

What I hadn't expected was construction, or more specifically, construction that closed one stretch of the highway overnight but which did not end at 9 am as planned. Four lanes of traffic were merged into one and directed to a detour route through suburbia. Total driving time: two and a half hours. This left 17 minutes to get to the fields, pick as quickly as possible, grab another pre-picked basket on the way out, wait in line to pay, and navigate the crowded parking lot on the way out to make it back to town in time for an appointment I couldn't cancel.

But the berries... they were so lovely! I couldn't hold a grudge against the universe for making my one car trip of the week a total nightmare. Take a look at this photo and remember that all it takes to grow such a beauty is for one of those tiny seeds to germinate in healthy soil and create a plant when exposed to sunlight and water. That's it. Nature is incredible, no? Makes it easy to forget about silly drivers and silly construction and my inability to cycle all the way to the farm!

That's as far as we got in 17 minutes. I'll be visiting family in Montreal over the long weekend and may be able to squeeze in another farm trip then to make up for my minuscule harvest. Meanwhile, this first batch went to good use with cream scones (thanks Marc):

Trust me, there was actually a scone underneath all of that whipped cream, as well as slices of strawberry and a lovely strawberry coulis. What's your favourite application of farm-fresh strawberries? Do you pick your own?

Friday, June 24, 2011

BYORB... Recycling Bin, That Is

I know, it's Friday, and I should be writing a Friday Feel Good News post, but there isn't much good news out there, not when the Canadian Government has decided to block the listing of asbestos on an international list of hazardous chemicals - apparently saving jobs in the industry here is more important than saving lives in the countries we export asbestos to, because that's not "our problem". So let's distract ourselves from that bad news with a look at a product you might see on store shelves soon: the Waste Folder.

Say you find yourself spontaneously having a picnic only to discover you have no method of transporting your recyclables back home. What will you do with that apple core? That aluminum drink can? Those juice bottles? Look no further than akarchitectes' Waste Folder, a cardboard package the size of a file folder that unfolds into a bag with six compartments to carry your plastic, glass, cans, paper, organics, and tetra packs out of the park in style. For lots of images that showcase the design, check out designboom - I don't have permission to show the images directly from this page.

I heard about this idea back in the winter, when picnics were just about the last thing on my mind. Strangely, I haven't found myself impulsively having any since the weather has improved, so I'm not sure this would be terribly useful. When I do plan picnics, I use an insulated picnic bag. Since it is large enough to carry my food and drinks into the park, it's large enough to carry the waste back out. Most importantly, I will continue to use it for years, whereas the Waste Folder looks like it wouldn't fare so well after the initial use - especially not the food waste compartment, which doesn't even look sturdy enough to be filled with wet organics!

The compartments would be useless to me, too, since curbside recycling pick-up in Toronto uses a "dump everything into the truck to be sorted later" approach to encourage higher participation rates among city residents. I'd be taking the time to sort my waste, then tossing it all into my blue bin once I got home. There's also a good chance I'd forget to take this item with me. Most days my purse can't hold anything as large as a file folder, already filled to capacity with a water bottle, travel mug, empty food container, fork, and cloth napkin!

So... what's the point? Is this perhaps more appealing to the recycling-unconverted, and I just can't see it because I've been carrying home my waste for years? Or is this truly designed for those who frequently go on unplanned picnics? The real question: would you use this?

Photo used under Creative Commons from Ian Westcott (iandavid/flickr).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Guest Post: Facts About Japanese Tea in the Wake of the Fukushima Disaster

I recently read what sounded like bad news about Japanese tea and radiation. To help us understand what's going on and separate fact from fearmongering, I've called upon a scientist to explain!


First, a quick word about who I am: my name is Marc, and I’m a physicist. I’ve been working in the research and development industry for about ten years now, and my work allows me to deal with scientists from a huge array of fields, from astrophysicists to zoologists and everything in between. And, as many scientists before me, I have been horrified by the Fukushima Reactor crisis: not so much the crisis itself, but more so the absolutely shameful job of the media in reporting on the situation. The information they have given the public swings between wildly inaccurate conjecture all the way to outright lying, all designed to sensationalize and horrify without a scrap of truth anywhere to be found. Radiation and radioactive fallout are scary topics, at least in part by how poorly they’re understood, and situations like the media response to Fukushima don’t help matters.

Thankfully, greater minds than mine are devoted to educating the public about the truth of the situation, and those with the intelligence to question the drivel being fed to them can read up on the topic here:
But it is time to add my own small contribution to the voices of reason out there, specifically on the topic of tea. The question as to whether my favourite soothing drink has been transformed into a radiation-laced toxin capable of giving me cancer is one that is close to my heart and probably beneath the notice of other scientists.

A report of the potentially radioactive nature of Japan’s greatest export (besides anime and giant transforming robots) can be found here. The story comments on the fact that ‘higher than normal’ levels of radiation have been found; specifically, 679 becquerel (Bq) per kilogram of tea, which is above the permitted maximum of 500 Bq/kg. For those of you who are not physicists, a Bq is defined as the number of radioactive decays per second, as opposed to cpm (counts per minute), or a Curie (the radioactivity compared to Radium) or Gray (absorbed dose of radiation in tissue), or Sieverts (dose equivalent radiation), or Roentgen (radiation to produce a charge in a unit of blah blah you get the idea). The fact of the matter is that there are dozens of ways to measure radioactivity, and very few people actually understand the way they are all interconnected and related.

But back to the core issue: is this hazardous to people looking to consume green tea? Well, yes and no. Mostly no, though. In fact, overwhelmingly no, but not completely no.

The problem is that radioactive cesium-137 has deposited on the leaves. Unlike most of the radioactive material from the Fukushima fallout, cesium-137 has a long half-life of 30 years (so if there are 20 particles of it left today, in 30 years there will be 10 left, and 30 years after that there will be 5 left, etc...). Most of the radiation reported in the media is either Iodine-131 or radioactive isotopes of water, with half-lives ranging from a few days to a few seconds. The stuff everyone on the West Coast was so scared would be coming over from Japan in the initial days and weeks of the accident was actually less radioactive than standing next to a smoker for a few minutes (smoking generates very low doses of radiation, about 15 mSv/year) by the time it reached the coast. But radioactive cesium is long lasting, so there is some risk that it will still be on the tea when you consume it. But again, is this a risk?

Thankfully, the answer is still mostly no. See, in order for radiation to inflict damage, a bundle of radiation (either a particle or quantum of high energy light) has to smash into something vulnerable, like a strand of your DNA. If it smashes into something that absorbs it harmlessly, then there’s no risk. And it just turns out that water is a great harmless absorber. So when you steep your pot of tea, you’re effectively surrounding any potential radioactive particles with a very healthy measure of shielding, reducing the effectiveness of any radiation by 30 to 40 times!

Furthermore, there is almost no risk that your body will absorb the radioactive cesium, since unlike radioactive iodine, your body doesn’t pick up or use it in any fashion. It’s not stored or used, and so any cesium you swallow is going to be purged back out, harmlessly away from your body.

Now, there is a risk if you happen to enjoy eating dry tea, but I’m pretty sure not many people have a sudden urge to munch on a handful of dried tea leaves. But even that risk is minimal: there is a huge amount of research that points towards the health benefits of slightly higher-than-average doses of radiation, since people in Tibet or other high-altitude areas are already receiving significantly more radiation than people who live near the ocean shore. And to be clear, the ‘standard safe levels of radiation’ listed by most organizations fall way, way below any possible risk level to alleviate the public’s concerns (and lack of understanding) about radiation.

So, at the end of the day, there is very little reason to not sit back and enjoy that cup of Japanese green tea... assuming tea growers manage to convince the Japanese government to let them ship it and tea drinkers ask the Canadian government to accept it.

Will this affect your purchase of tea from Japan? What about other products, like fish?

Photo of Fukushima nuclear power plant used under Creative Commons from Beacon (Beacon Radio/flickr).
Photo of tea plantation used under Creative Commons from ajari (flickr).
Photo of tea set used under Creative Commons from Shigemi J. (pen3ya/flickr).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


Good news from the province of Quebec today as a new law will go into effect at the end of the month which will tighten the restrictions on the pollution that 5,000 institutions, businesses, and industries are allowed to release into the air.

The overhaul of Quebec's 32-year-old air quality law is expected to reduce smog and acid rain when regulations are made stricter and brand new standards are created. That includes controlling the release of 80 new substances that are linked to serious health problems - this is accomplished by requiring the affected companies to measure their pollution levels and report these to the provincial government. These new standards apply to the aluminum, steel, cement, and pulp and paper industries. Meanwhile, stricter regulations around the release of volatile organic compounds are relevant to paint manufacturers, printers, dry cleaners, and refineries.

The Quebec government wanted to update this legislation years ago but put it off until businesses had a chance to recover from the recession, considering the overhauled law will require them to invest in new pollution-reducing equipment. Despite such expenses, most companies are expected to comply within a year, and those that haven't by July 2013 will be fined up to $50,000.

This is great news for, well, everything that breathes. Air pollution impacts cardiovascular health, which is why those with heart problems are advised to stay indoors on smog days. Public health researchers estimate that over 1,500 deaths in Quebec are caused by poor air quality every year. These are preventable deaths, and I'm relieved that steps are being taken to improve this horrible statistic. If only we could convince other governments to follow suit, especially in those provinces and states with a greater density of polluting industries!

Photo used under Creative Commons from Uwe Hermann (flickr).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Films That Move: Hungry For Change

Looking for something to do this Saturday? Look no further than Hungry for Change, a free community event on the way we grow, buy, and learn about the food we eat. In addition to watching a short movie and sampling delicious local food, you'll also get to meet Toronto's community kitchens, neighbourhood gardens, chefs, farmers, and teachers. At the event you can learn about free community programs, local businesses, and volunteer and funding opportunities.

Date/Time: Saturday, June 18th, 10 am - 2 pm

Location: George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, 300 Adelaide Street East


10:00 - 10:30 am: Reception

10:30 - 11:30 am: Welcome and movie clips

11:30 am - 12:15 pm: Panel discussion featuring...
12:15 - 12:30 pm: Announcements and urban farm funding raffle draw (2 recipients will receive $2,500 each towards an urban farm project).

12:30 - 2:00 pm: Community Market - free food sampling, meet and greet, networking, and social.

Please note that at this family-friendly event, the organizers will be shooting footage to produce Toronto's first film on the local food sustainability community. Register to get your free tickets here.

Photo used under Creative Commons from spelio (flickr).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fresh Food in the City

Good news for students, staff, and faculty of Ryerson University: a brand new MyMarket® farmers' market is coming to you starting tomorrow!

The new Ryerson market will run weekly on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer and early fall. Featuring locally grown produce as well as meats, cheeses, honey, maple syrup, baked goods, artisanal breads, and skin care products, the Yonge & Dundas community will finally have a place to shop that is much more local and sustainable than the Eaton Centre mall!

Time: Tuesdays between 3:30 and 7:30 pm from June 14th to October 25th

Location: Gould Street just east of Yonge Street

Special Events: official grand opening and strawberry fest on June 28th, corn boil on July 19th, peach delight on August 23rd, and applemania on September 13th.

Volunteers: the market needs volunteers. Please get in touch with Diana at diana.mymarket(at) if you're interested.

Three of my friends live ten minutes away on foot, and I'm excited that they'll have fresh, local food options that should keep their trips to the supermarket to a minimum. Congrats to Ryerson and everyone in the neighbourhood!

Photo used under Creative Commons from Thomas Hawk (Thomas Hawk/flickr).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


Exciting news today about a project that will not only generate clean electricity and fix broken school roofs, but potentially also teach tens of thousands of kids about the value of renewable energy: the Toronto District School Board has signed a deal with AMP Solar Group Inc. to build, install, and maintain solar panels on up to 450 school rooftops or 12 million square feet of roof space.

Incredibly, AMP will be responsible for all project costs, presumably because they will generate a lot of additional business through this deal - if my child attended one of these schools I'd turn to AMP for solar panels on my own roof! Not only will the TDSB avoid the huge expense associated with a project of this size, but they will also gain $120 million worth of roof repairs and generate $1.1 billion in clean, renewable energy over the next 20 years.

That translates into 58 - 66 megawatts of electricity per year, which could power 6,000 homes! This energy could be sold into the local grid, 14.5% of which would be used by the schools themselves. As electricity rates continue to rise, the TDSB will be able to use the money it saves to support programs that benefit the students directly, whether academic, athletic, or extra-curricular, and this is the message I hope they get across to the kids: green power makes environmental and economic sense! Building roofs are unproductive spaces with the potential to generate electricity (or grow food, but that's another post) that could help so many people without compromising anyone's health. When students see this first hand on their own school roofs and learn to value it, I have some hope for the next generation!

Would you like to see solar panels on school roofs in your area? Are there any downsides to this plan?

Photo of solar panels used under Creative Commons from Kevin T. Houle (kevinthoule/flickr).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Get Your Share of Locally and Sustainably Grown Veggies

Take some seeds, one part rain, two parts sun, and a generous amount of heat, and all that's missing is you: it's time to purchase your share in Young Urban Farmers Community Shared Agriculture program!

It only costs the equivalent of six lattes a week to get your hands on a bounty of the freshest, most locally grown veggies in Toronto. This is Young Urban Farmers CSA's second year growing food in backyards in the Wychwood, Lawrence Park, and Riverdale neighbourhoods, and it's going to be a great season. I've already told you how thrilling it was to receive and cook with veggies grown minutes from my home (especially considering I don't have a garden of my own), and I've alluded to my rewarding volunteer involvement with YUF CSA; now it's time to fit you into this picture. I am shamelessly advertising this great opportunity because I've benefited so much from it and really want to see the organization thrive.

What do you get? Only the tastiest GMO-free, organically grown heirloom varieties of leaf lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, kale, broccoli, radishes, beets, carrots, leeks, garlic, spring onions, shallots, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, beans, peas, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, and herbs. Southern Ontario simply overflows with food in the summer months; why would you want to buy imported veggies trucked in from far away to the supermarket? Even a farmer's market can't beat this freshness - you take home your share mere hours after it was harvested, often in the very same garden it was grown in.

Support your health, the environment, and the local economy by investing in YUF CSA today. If you don't live in Toronto, please pass this on to those you know that do, and click here for a list of CSAs in Ontario.

Do you own a share in a CSA? If not, what's holding you back?

Monday, June 6, 2011

How Cool is the Centre for Green Cities?

In a previous post I shared with you some of the great features of the LEED Platinum certified Centre for Green Cities building at the Evergreen Brick Works. It turns out this place is even cooler than I thought - pun absolutely intended.

Just as the heat and humidity took over from the cold and rain last week, Evergreen kick started their state-of-the-art cooling system. Using six different but interrelated strategies, traditional air conditioning use will be minimized and energy will be saved.

Keeping the Heat Out
Not only are the building's external walls well insulated, but the windows themselves keep heat out with a special film that redirects heat away from our offices like a mirror. Additionally, all windows are equipped with blinds - sometimes the simplest strategies are the best!

Natural Cooling - Open Windows
In the spring and fall, and on cooler summer days, tenants can open their windows (the type you crank open with a hinge at the top so that a slot opens at the bottom). In the past we've had our office door slam shut because of the cross ventilation from our windows to those on the opposite side of the building. Clearly the windows have been strategically placed to encourage a breeze to run through the building. Ceiling fans enhance this air movement on non-windy days.

Thermal (Solar) Chimneys
Imagine a fire place with the fire at the top: making use of convection, three chimneys run from the second to fifth floors, heated at the top by the sun to draw the building's warm air up and out. Solar-powered fans are used on days when the conditions aren't right for the natural convection process to occur. Brilliant.

Night Cooling - Closed Windows
On cool evenings and nights, the windows are opened and fans are used to cool the concrete slabs that form the building's floors. The next day, with the windows closed again, hot outside temperatures take longer to heat up the building because it was pre-cooled overnight.

High-Efficiency Scroll Chillers
As a last resort, a very efficient staged mechanical air conditioning system can be used at partial or full capacity on the hottest days when the other methods just don't cut it.

Building Control System
An automated system has been programmed to respond to a variety of scenarios based on outdoor air temperatures. The simulation model used to design the system has predicted an energy savings of 30-40% over conventional buildings!

We must collectively begin to recognize that insisting on feeling cool on the hottest summer days is absolutely unsustainable. It is possible to be productive at work while saving energy. I used to hate having to change into pants, closed shoes, and a sweater at my desk at the hospital because the A/C was so cold! A moderate temperature is much more comfortable when you're dressed in shorts or a skirt and a loose-fitting top. Enjoying a Mega Mr. Freeze works, too.

What are ideal working conditions for you? Do you need cold, dry air to be productive at work?

Photo of air conditioners used under Creative Commons from Peter Morgan (pmorgan/flickr).
Photo of Mega Mr. Freeze used under Creative Commons from Christa (Christaface/flickr).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

To zoo or not to zoo, that is the question.

I celebrated my birthday this past weekend. Seeing as I was turning 5, I decided to go to the zoo.

Seeing the big cats at the zoo is a guilty pleasure of mine. Why not just a pleasure, without the guilt? Because most of the cats at the zoo (tigers, lions, cheetahs, leopards, cougars, and jaguars) aren't native to southern Ontario, and part of me believes they don't belong here, not even in the trusted hands of expert zookeepers. There's the standard philosophical issue around whether it's fair to keep animals on display in enclosures, even if they were found injured and wouldn't have survived in the wild, or if they're part of breeding programs to bring back the species from near extinction - but I don't really want to get into that here. My concern stems from the resources required to keep animals in confinement, and whether our reasons for doing so are strong enough to justify the financial and environmental expense.

From feed to medication to staff, large (especially carnivorous) animals require lots of resources. For any of you who own medium to large sized dogs, this concept is likely familiar to you. How much chicken, pork, and beef does a typical zoo use on a daily basis to keep its animals well fed? How many vets and drugs does it take to keep them healthy? How are all of the droppings disposed of?

Most of the animals at the zoo can't handle this climate. Subsequently, they spend the late fall, all winter, and early spring indoors. My mind immediately races through the additional costs associated with that kind of a setup: building construction (materials, energy), heating (energy), lighting (energy), and cleaning (materials, probably toxic ones). I can't help but think about the world's impoverished living in slums, shantytowns, favelas, and tent cities - imagine what all of these resources could do for them!

There are other issues, such as the gas-powered zoomobile, which runs seven to ten hours a day, 364 days a year. Most visitors come by car because the public transit route is extremely long. The picnic tables are underused these days with so many families buying food on site in disposal containers. Don't get me started on the worthlessness of the gift shop!

Enough whining. What's the alternative? After all, zoos serve three important purposes: educating the public, conserving endangered species, and promoting better stewardship of our natural environment. My suggestion is to stick to those goals, but go local. In Montreal, there's a wonderful place called the Ecomuseum Zoo. The animals featured in this zoo are all indigenous to Quebec's St. Lawrence Valley, and the website says...

The animals that reside at the Ecomuseum zoo are all animals that could not survive in their natural environment. Most of our animals are here because they have injuries that would prevent them from surviving in the wild (i.e. They are unable to escape a predator or to eat on their own). All our animals come from accredited rehabilitation centers and zoological institutions. The Ecomuseum zoo is also a refuge for orphaned wildlife and other wild animals born in captivity. In these cases the animals have not acquired the knowledge or learned the behaviours necessary for their survival in the wild, so we offer them protection against predators, food, care and lots of love!

I'd like to see more of these types of zoos, even if it means no more tigers for me! I'm happy to settle for an Ontario bobcat or lynx, and of course the two little cats indigenous to my living room.