This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Spring 2024

Growing community

Neighbours are gathering across the country to seize their means of food production

Emesha Boyko

A hand picks a lush bunch of Swiss chard

Photo by Jonathan Kemper

Kevin Sidlar’s garden has been a refuge for the past two decades, if not quite a major source of sustenance. For much of his adult life, he’s grown annual flowers, peas, and tomatoes in his backyard.

In the early days of 2020, something shifted within Sidlar. He felt nervous about disease and the security of our food systems. Surveying his abilities to meet his own basic needs in a suddenly uncertain future, the Thunder Bay resident decided to get serious about growing his own food.

Sidlar was sure that increasing his self-sufficiency would settle his nerves about what he felt could be an impending societal collapse, and spending more time with the earth would improve his mental health in the short term. He grew up on a farm that had been in his family for 100 years, and he’d absorbed the rhythms and methods surrounding him. “Gardening teaches me responsibility. Also, I’ve got more fresh food in the house, that leaves me less reliant on the grocery store and frozen foods,” he says. An application developer for the region’s major phone and internet company by day, Sidlar delves deep into one or two hobbies at a time. In his 40s, his major avocations have included foraging for wild mushrooms, sailing, and drumming with a local band. Translating that energy to food production made sense.

For one thing, grocery stores didn’t carry some of Sidlar’s childhood favourites, like kohlrabi, perhaps because it’s impossible to machine harvest large quantities. Also, shade from nearby apartment buildings and trees limits the kinds of crops viable in population-dense urban areas, and Sidlar wanted to diversify the crops he was able to grow. He found a Facebook post advertising affordable rental garden plots located a few minutes’ drive from his home, just within city limits.

Adventure 38 was Jay Tarabocchia’s response to the growing needs of his urban neighbours. He and his father were only able to use a small portion of the 38 acres they lived on, and Tarabocchia had seen how much joy and contentment gardening had brought his father in his senior years. Having moved back to Thunder Bay from Ottawa to care for his dad in the family home of 50 years, Tarabocchia extended use of the land to would-be gardeners who lacked the space. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we do some kind of project to keep expanding on the gardening theme, keep him excited for life?’ So I started making more gardens.” It wasn’t long before he thought to share the space with others.

Nutrient-rich soil and unimpeded sunlight offered exciting opportunities at Sidlar’s rental plot—he could finally grow corn after innumerable failed backyard attempts. His first growing season was a learning experience, though, and he took note of how different the conditions were between his lakeside backyard and the farm plot, which is farther inland.

Lake Superior affects the weather in Thunder Bay, which means more moderate temperatures in town. Adventure 38 experiences a shorter, more intense season. The hotter summer days offer greater outputs, provided gardeners are able to time sowings appropriately. Crops requiring higher evening temperatures, like okra, corn, and peppers, do well there. Seed packages offer guidelines, but it’s only through trial and error that farmers learn when to plant which crops, and which plant relationships are mutually beneficial when interplanted. This long-term thinking with considerations for the rhythms of the seasons gives Sidlar a sense of profound satisfaction, and an afternoon spent in the dirt offers a quiet ease that can be hard to attain in late-stage capitalism’s dizzying circus.

The deep disconnect many of us have from food sources has deleterious effects on mental and physical health. Joining a community garden like Tarabocchia’s is one way to stitch our relationships with food, ourselves, and the earth back together.


When food prices shot up enough that many fully employed people weren’t able to feed themselves or their families, it was time to go back to basics. Whether the unending, oppressive food scarcity is partially or entirely artificial, the only recourse many Canadians have is to seize the means of production.

Almost everyone has felt the mounting pressure from climbing food prices in the last two years. The Bank of Canada has, since 1991, tried to keep inflation to two percent yearly, yet grocery store prices have risen steadily since December 2021. The metric for prices is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which uses a “basket” of foods most families consider staples to calculate the changing costs of a trip to the grocery store. As of August 2023 it contained hundreds of items spanning different cultural and dietary considerations: avocados, baby food, chicken, dried lentils. In 2022, the CPI for food had its largest year-over-year increase in 41 years at 11.4 percent. The metric for all items went up 6.8 percent, and that year saw an increase in average wages of only five percent. Following a 2022 poll, Statistics Canada estimated that 20 percent of Canadians would need to use a food bank in the next six months.

Primary causes for the jump in food prices include supply chain interruptions with COVID-19 outbreaks and facility closures, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and changing weather. With concurrent increases in housing and energy costs, most people have difficult choices to make. While harnessing solar or geothermal energy may be outside the budget for many, the average Canadian can take steps toward improving their food security.

Once thought of as a quaint hobby primarily enjoyed by retired folks, gardening has taken off and captured the hearts of people across demographics. Due to a surge in first-time home gardeners, stores in Canada’s cities were sold out of many gardening supplies in spring 2020, and similar purchasing frenzies occurred in 2021. As the vast majority of Canadians live in cities and lack the space, soil, and light sufficient to grow much food, community gardening solutions have proliferated to meet our changing needs.

A meta-analysis of community gardens in Canada and five other countries showed a 19 percent increase in use from 2018 through 2019. Following decreased interest at the onset of the pandemic, numbers surged again in 2021 and levelled off in 2022. The city of Edmonton created 350 ad-hoc community garden allotments in 2020, while Victoria reallocated resources at Beacon Hill Park to grow food for distribution, prioritizing socially vulnerable populations. Brampton responded to pandemic gardening needs by distributing gardening materials to home growers, who either consumed the food they grew or donated it to the community.

In Winnipeg, Wolseley Community Gardens (WCG) sprung up in 2021 as a response to some of this increased demand. They offer garden space mostly to those living in multi-family dwellings and apartment buildings. WCG co-chair Jade Raizenne says that they received 47 applications for 20 plots in 2021; 39 in 2022; and 37 in 2023. The group expanded the garden each year, so it now hosts 24 raised beds, a native pollinator garden, and an orchard of fruit trees. “Since we started, everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned how much they love coming here, and how good it is for their mental health. One man who doesn’t rent a plot, but walks through the orchards every day, said it’s often the high point of his day,” Raizenne says. At times of social unrest and anxiety, community gardens are resilient, offering respite and a relatively safe third space in cities.


As globalization and capitalism accelerate, operators of large farms have found it increasingly challenging to make a living growing food. Rates of suicide among farmers have soared in the past decade, and many young adults coming of age in the aughts were unable to envision a financially feasible future farming. Large farms became more technologically advanced over the past 20 years, with the proliferation of drones, robotics, and sensing technologies. While these advances can drastically increase quantities of food being produced, the ecological costs may not be fully understood.

The opposite is true for less tech-dependent, older methods. Permaculture has been a buzzword for the last two decades, and merits consideration by anyone looking to optimize their land use. It’s a framework that works with the land, rather than imposing changes in an effort to yield species that may not do well in a given region. Colonizers famously brought invasive species with them wherever they went, and despite how charming some of these species can be, like bellflower, they can choke out native plants that offer more to ecosystems. Most invasive plants, though, can be replaced by a native species with a little research.

And in a growing number of gardens, ancient, Indigenous cultivation methods are in use despite settlers’ efforts to supplant them. Three Sisters is commonly practiced among gardeners and the symbiosis of beans, squash, and corn gives each crop advantages they lack when grown individually. Intertwining stalks and varying growth habits makes that triumvirate impossible to machine harvest, so we see how cultivation with respect for innate qualities of plants and the earth they grow in is inextricably linked with slow food practices.

Regardless of what type of food plants are grown where, it is clear that monoculture is the enemy of sustainability. When agents of industry realized that one species of orange and one variety of banana performed best, those varieties were grown on huge farms to the exclusion of all others. Today, the only banana commercially available is the Cavendish seedless, which is a clone. Because every tree on a plantation has the same DNA, if a novel fungus attacks, the entire crop can be wiped out. This already happened with the Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, in the 1950s. Without genetic diversity allowing for adaptations to changing pathogens, farmers have had to continually increase pesticide use on bananas. In the past decade, some years saw seasons of near-total losses of navel oranges and russet potatoes. Late-stage capitalism and an unconscious preference for uniformity have brought food production systems to a point where staple crops are needlessly vulnerable in ways that biodiverse farms aren’t.

At community gardens the world over, including Adventure 38, gardeners are constantly learning through trial and error, and by exchanging ideas. There are innumerable choices that farmers make, consciously and not. Whether to use pesticides, fertilizers, and whether to use cost-effective synthetic products versus old-school organics like bone meal and composted manure are just a few of the variables to consider. People are experimenting with and reviving traditions that had almost been forgotten, like hugelkultur. This German practice creates large mounds of decaying logs, offering lower-effort raised beds than the more commonly seen flat rectangles, fabricated with lumber. The sloping sides increase available growing space, and soil quality improves as the wood decomposes. One person whose plot neighbours Sidlar’s uses two-litre plastic bottles, standing upright in small hills. They fill with rainwater, overflow runs downslope, and these reservoirs keep plants happy without having to get out a hose. Not having to irrigate cuts down on labour, allowing the grower to make fewer trips to tend to their farm.

As small farmers return to pre-tractor methods that may decrease yield, they find that some kinds of input become unnecessary. Fertilizer prices skyrocketed following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions, as Russia and Belarus are two of the world’s top exporters. But bringing kitchen scraps to a composter, learning more about how to revitalize soil, and narrowing the scope of a farm have allowed hobby farmers and intentional communities to approach self-sufficiency. Sourcing hyperlocal materials such as a neighbour’s livestock manure can decrease dependence on global supply chains while building connections with others.

The idea of gardening was deeply implanted in Sidlar’s family history, but those new to gardening can consult books, radio programs, and community members. For those who are able, gardeners and small farmers are always looking for labour, and trading effort for produce is one way to broaden the reach of community gardens. For folks whose time is consumed by work, community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes of produce can connect them with local food systems. This gives farmers more money for input at the beginning of the season, and customers get high-quality, local food at an accessible location without having to brave the markets.

It’s more of a challenge, but self-grown food is popular in the city, too. At the Thunder Bay Conservatory, a grassroots organization has put on workshops teaching alternative gardening methods, like straw-bale planting. Not everyone can rent and transport themselves to a garden, or perform the manual labour required. Time, fuel, and physical ability considerations make community gardens inaccessible to many. Planting into the surface of straw bales brings the garden a few feet off the ground, making them accessible to some wheelchair users or folks with physical limitations. Methods like these show that almost everyone can learn how to grow their own food.


While Canadians may be waiting a long while for agricultural trends to change, on a microscopic level, small farmers and gardeners can steer things in a more sustainable direction. Though quantities will always be smaller than what factory farms provide, the benefits to small-crop growth are immeasurable. Paying close attention to the relationships between plants and weather facilitates an attunement with natural rhythms. And being emotionally invested in food production prevents waste. “If I put my sweat into a tomato, I’m eating it before it goes bad,” Sidlar says.

CSA kohlrabi in Thunder Bay may cost more than the cheapest alternatives at big box stores. But it has more intact enzymes, a lower carbon cost, and promotes a future of resilient, biodiverse small-scale agriculture that won’t accelerate climate catastrophe or exploit disadvantaged farm labourers elsewhere. It’s probably a lot tastier, too.

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