Back to the Land with FarmStart
New farmers from around the world have found a place to grow at the McVean Incubator Farm near Brampton, thanks to FarmStart, which gives budding growers access to land, equipment and mentorship. Photo Laura Berman.
Manmeet Singh has a dream. Originally from Punjab, India, the 40-something farmer lives in Brampton and drives a truck to support himself and his family. But in his heart, he wants to be a farmer as he was in his native India.
Buying land is beyond Singh’s reach right now, but thanks to FarmStart, a Guelph-based charitable organization, he and many others like him have been given a chance to devote themselves to the work they love so well. At the McVean Incubator Farm near Brampton, Singh and his family spend every moment they can cultivating such non-traditional crops as methi (fenugreek leaves), okra and kaddu (pumpkin).
The McVean Farm is situated on what is known as the Peel Plain, where the soil is among the best in the province for growing crops. The first time I set foot on the 45-acre property in 2010, I was struck by its beauty. The carefully tended patchwork of garden plots and the historic 1840s double English wheat barn, one of few left in existence, constitute an island of calm in the sea of suburban sprawl that surrounds the farm on three sides.
FarmStart, which leases the land from Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, aims to provide opportunities to a new generation of ecologically-conscious farmers, in particular new Canadian farmers like Manmeet Singh, as well as young people from non-agricultural backgrounds who want to make the leap into agriculture.
FarmStart gives these budding growers access to land, equipment and infrastructure, and seed capital, as well as running workshops and mentorship programs. While the challenges facing all farmers these days are great, these new farmers bring knowledge, connections and an infectious passion that could breathe new life into an aging sector.
Last year, this diverse group of 30 growers from 16 countries (including Jamaica, Poland and Zimbabwe, as well as Canada) produced more than a hundred varieties of organic vegetables, flowers, honey and mushrooms on plots ranging from one to five acres.
The project allows prospective farmers to explore and realize their dreams of working the land without having to “buy the farm” until they are ready. Farmers usually spend between one to five years learning to grow, establishing markets for their produce and getting to know the business. They learn by doing, through trial and error, co-operation, mentorship and their own hard work. FarmStart does not necessarily make the journey easier, just a little more accessible and a lot less lonely.
I hope you will come out and experience and support this inspiring place at our annual McVean Harvest Table and Fundraiser on Sunday, August 19. Meet the farmers, savour the bounty of the fields, freshly picked and cooked over coals by chef Yasser Qahawish of Artisanale restaurant in Guelph.
The four-course meal of local meats, cheeses, salads, desserts, wine and beer is served family-style on long wooden harvest tables at the centre of the farm. You will leave with a full belly, a sense of awe and a renewed commitment to support a vibrant future for Ontario’s agriculture.