We interviewed Rachel Kimel, co-founder of the Bowery Project, a not-for-profit organization that creates opportunities for urban agriculture in vacant Toronto lots. She told us why their gardens are mobile, what city dwellers can learn from getting their hands dirty, and where they find all those milk crates!
The Bowery Project has a beautiful name. How did you decide what to call it?
Bowery means farm in Dutch. Deena Delzotto (my co-founder) and I spent a lot of time on our name. Deena lived in NYC for 9 years without ever knowing the meaning of the name of the ‘Bowery’ neighbourhood. When the Dutch settled in Manhattan in the 17th century, they named this main thoroughfare the ‘Bouwerij’ (farm in Dutch) as it was the road that connected the farms to the settlements. We loved the idea of playing with this word in a contemporary setting, as we are bringing farming back to the city and connecting city people to growing food.
The urban farms that you build in Toronto are mobile, rather than permanent. Why is that important to your mission?
Our mission is to create opportunities for urban agriculture through the temporary use of vacant lots. When we see grey, void, unused concrete spaces, we see an opportunity to transform the space into a vibrant, productive, green place to engage and educate the community in urban agriculture. A place to enjoy and learn about growing food, the power of healthy food and living sustainably. There is so much power in the transformative nature of the project: Making something from nothing.
Our tag line is, ‘vacant spaces into growing places’
Where do you get all of the milk crates that are used to create your mobile farms? What is the largest number of crates you’ve used for one space?
Some of our milkcrates are found and repurposed, others for our larger farms are bought from Orbis a reusable plastics company.
The largest farm we have to date is at the Vanauley Street YMCA homeless shelter with 1500 crates.
This season we will be starting another 1500 crate farm at the corner of Sherbourne and Gerrard at a privately owned lot (which has been vacant for well over a decade and ironically, was the lot which inspired us to start Bowery). Here we will be offering programming to the Native Women’s Resource Centre, the Sherbourne Health Centre, the Robertson House (a women’s homeless shelter) and the Anishnawabe Health Centre, all just steps away from the vacant lot.
Are there any Toronto-based chefs and restaurants who are currently serving the food grown in your urban farms? Are you looking for more?
We are readily anticipating the spring when we can put the seedlings we’ve been starting into the soil. Last year we sold a ton of herbs to the chefs at Mamakas, Omaw, The Chase, Cafe Belong and JKFries. We hope to continue our relationship with them and would love to provide to more restaurants looking for locally grown organic produce.
Which vacant-space-turned-farm are you most proud of?
We are most proud of the farm at the Vanauley Street YMCA. It is our first substantial farm; it is connected to a homeless shelter, the youth living in the shelter and using the drop-in centre volunteer for us and learn urban farming, and the produce we grow goes directly into the kitchen to be used for healthy meals prepared for the youth. We received an Ontario Trillium Grant for this project and were also sponsored by Tridel and Toronto Community Housing. We also produced a beautiful sign that encloses our space using sketches from a talented Toronto artist (Saffron Francis) and designed by our friends at Co-Effect.
What do you think the average city dweller can and should learn from urban farming?
The basics: where food comes from, how important the soil is to what is being grown in it, how even small spaces can grow a lot of food.
Also, the pleasures and benefits of gardening: simply being active, being outside, getting a little dirty, the sense of pride and power from tending a living thing from seed to plant to taste.
Where does the food go once it’s grown?
At the YMCA, the food goes directly to the onsite kitchen – as well as a portion sold to local chefs. At the Sherbourne and Gerrard site, we have committed to donating to the Native Women’s Health Centre for their lunch programme feeding over 100 meals/week to native women in need.
If there’s a vacant space that could be used for growing food, what’s the best way to let your team know about it?
With your hands so often in the dirt, how do you have time to have your hands on a computer to run the Bowery Project?
We are really busy…
After our final harvest in the fall (this past fall we were still harvesting in December!) we do a lot of our planning and organizing for the upcoming season – grant writing, communicating with key organizations, expanding the organization to take on additional vacant spaces, connecting with volunteers, and so much more. We really love what we are doing and as our little organization keeps growing we are getting busier and busier and will need to find more hours in the day to be doing computer work!
The Bowery Project has a great Instagram account. Is it easy for you to do well?
Both Deena and I have studied and love photography. We really enjoy capturing what we are doing and showing how beautiful and inspiring it is to be farming in the city.