Urban farm wins over Garneau neighbours after rocky start

Brian Peel was in Saskatchewan when he learned someone was digging up the vacant land next to his house for an urban farm. "I had no information and I was just totally caught off guard by it," he said.
Ryan Mason and Cathryn Sprague are behind Reclaim Urban Farm in Garneau. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC News )

It wasn’t a call Brian Peel was expecting while he was out of the province a few months ago.

“A fellow that was checking on my house phoned me and told me they’re about to dig up the lots and create a farm next door,” Peel recalled with a laugh.

“I was alarmed, actually, when I heard about this. I had no information and I was just totally caught off guard by it.”

The news was even more surprising because Peel lives at at 111th Street and 83rd Avenue, right in the heart of Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood.

Only a small walkway separates Peel’s home and the new quarter-acre operation called Reclaim Urban Farm. Despite his proximity, no one from the city or the farm contacted him. 

The miscommunication could have launched a bitter and long-lasting neighbourhood dispute.

But thanks to the willingness of both parties to listen and mend fences, the story has a happy ending.

Urban farms fairly new

Ryan Mason and Cathryn Sprague, the operators of Reclaim Farm, thought they had done their homework.

Urban farms are still a relatively new concept in Edmonton but both the city and property owner St. John’s Institute were supportive of what Mason and Sprague were planning.

However, some people in the neighbourhood had concerns. The Garneau Community League worried whether the project was legal. And no one understood what the farm was going to look like.

As for Peel, he had plenty of questions for his new neighbours.

“Were they going to spray the crops? Where was the water going to come from? Was this going to involve … chemicals, spraying? Was this going to come onto my property, this kind of thing,“ he said. “So these were legitimate questions I had to ask.”

Mason admits he and Sprague weren’t as thorough as they should have been. While they canvassed the community, they didn’t get to everyone.

“And we didn't get to talk to the direct neighbour which is probably the most important one to deal with,” he said.

Mending fences

When that conversation finally happened, Peel was able to get answers from Mason and Sprague. Planners from the city of Edmonton also contacted  him.

Now Peel is completely onside. He gives Reclaim access to his water and shed; they help him with costs and share some of the produce from the farm. 

Peel is pleased that the lot is no longer being used for parking. He is also a big fan of what Reclaim is trying to achieve and impressed by how the project unfolded.

“Just observing how these vacant lots, which were basically derelict, have been transformed into a very productive urban farm, and just watching the industry with which Ryan and Cathryn [and] some of the other people that are helping them have attacked the property,” he said.

Reclaim is now selling bags of mixed greens at farmers’ markets and supplying produce to Fringe venues like Cafe Bicyclette and Vivo.

Lessons have been learned from this experience. Hani Quan, principal planner of the city’s food and urban agriculture division, says this is a great example of how important it is to be transparent about brand new projects.

Victoria Jones with the Garneau Community League says the city needs to update its zoning to catch up with what citizens want.

As for Mason, he is now able to offer this advice.

“Get into the community leagues, get into any non-profits in the area that are really community-focused,” he said.

“Go and meet the neighbours and chat with them and see what their concerns are.Try to provide examples of what's going to happen because it's abstract before it happens.”

With files from the CBC's Matthew Kupfer