Toronto Urban Agriculture with TUG- Part 1

Toronto has a vibrant urban agricultural community that is pushing the envelope on how the practice is regulated in the City. Sprout had the opportunity to interview a key member, Rhonda Teitel-Payne, a coordinator at Toronto Urban Growers (TUG); an association of diverse organizations with different perspectives on urban agriculture that have come together to share information and drive policy change in the City. Rhonda has been a member of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Toronto Community Garden Network and GrowTO - greatly contributing to the local movement for local food security and urban agriculture.

One exciting new project that is coming to Toronto this summer is the CEED project which stands for Community Eco Economic Development. With the growing interest in urban agriculture, there remains a disconnect between individuals looking to support agriculture practices through small business and the lack of accessible land in the city.

This interview looks in-depth at the CEED project, TUG's role in driving change and highlights some of the opportunities and challenges ahead. The interview will be posted in two parts and we encourage the reader to take part in discussions in the comment section below. 

Sprout: I thought we could start with what TUG is, its members and then also your mission?

Rhonda: OK, so our mission is to scale-up urban agriculture in Toronto. When you say who is Toronto Urban Growers that is an interesting question because it is a network of anyone who is involved in urban agriculture; and because our definition of urban agriculture is very broad that means people who are running community gardens, non-profit organizations, people who are running small businesses, selling food for sale commercially, as well as academics and people from the city who are working on policy so it covers quite a lot of ground.

Sprout: And how are these diverse groups brought together into a cohesive or not so cohesive group?

Rhonda: Both by the kind of work that we want to accomplish, so exchanging knowledge between people working in the urban agriculture field, identifying policy barriers and trying to work through them, helping people share resources, that kind of thing.

Sprout: So, on a project by project basis groups opt-in and opt-out of particular projects depending on its value.

Rhonda: Yes. So we have some standing things like our quarterly meetings where people can come and hear speakers and raise issues, and network; and, our website which tries to cover the whole spectrum of interests in terms of information, and the map [a map of urban agriculture resources city-wide]. So people will tap into whatever they find useful. And then we will have time limited projects where we get funding and take on a particular aspect of urban agriculture that is timely.

Sprout: The Community Eco Economic Development (CEED) project is one of those, timely projects. So what is the CEED project and how does it fit with that mission of scaling up urban agriculture in Toronto?

Rhonda: I’m going to give a little bit of background because it does really come from a historical perspective. In 2009, Toronto Urban Growers formed because there were a number of practitioners who realized that this field is growing, we are all encountering similar issues so working together will make us stronger. At the time there was recognition that having community gardeners working with commercial growers, there was enough commonality that we would all have a much stronger voice if we approached issues together. Two of those issues that are pretty common to everyone are land access and also working through regulatory frameworks. We were encountering a lot of policy barriers that stopped people from doing what they wanted to do and had an equal experience of not being able to get the right information.

Sprout: So is CEED a way of getting at those two issues?

Rhonda: Yes . . . there was a Metcalfe report on scaling up urban agriculture, there was Rod McCrea’s, “Can Toronto Grow 10% of its Food Within the City Boundaries”, there was a whole GrowTO process where there were workshops and planning sessions to identify what the priorities were for urban agriculture in Toronto. So out of that process, which involved a lot of people within the urban agriculture field, these two priorities came through loud and clear: that we need to increase land and we needed to come up with more information on regulatory frameworks. So all of these processes identified the broad issues, but also, at the same time, identified the hydro corridors as one specific strategy to follow. So, I started talking to Lauren Baker from Toronto Public Health in late 2013. She figured that an approach would be to use the hydro corridors to come up with some pilot sites to develop model lease agreements between the City and Hydro because once there were some pilots established there would be lots of ground where we could establish more farms.

Sprout: Sorry, model lease agreement between Hydro and the City?

Rhonda: Yes, so, Hydro is the land owner but they don’t actually run any programs, they would lease it out to the city. So, right now, there are a number of recreational spaces in hydro corridors. The city has a master lease agreement with Hydro One. And so what would happen is that these hydro farms would be incorporated into that master lease agreement. [Leases] haven’t been done for the purposes of agriculture, they have been done for community gardens but not farms.

Sprout: What is the critical distinction between the community garden and the farm?

Rhonda: Selling food. Selling food, not just for Hydro One, but for the city, is an issue. We needed some good precedents set. The lease agreements would be another precedent as well. But also, [Toronto Health] had just come out with the soil testing protocol and had some success with it. The Hydro One procedure for getting approval, particularly the environmental assessments are very long onerous, expensive processes. So there was some hope that with this Toronto Public Health soil testing protocol that they would be able to use that to expedite the process. So this would still achieve the goals of public safety, and ensuring that the soils are safe but doing it in a way that isn’t quite as costly. That was the goal way back then.

Concept Urban Agriculture in the Hydro One Corridor - CEED Project -Rendering by Michelle Moylan 

Concept Urban Agriculture in the Hydro One Corridor - CEED Project -Rendering by Michelle Moylan 

Sprout: Can we talk a little bit more about why selling food would have been an issue for Hydro and the City?

Rhonda: I don’t think it’s so much an issue for Hydro. It is a permitted use on the Hydro lands. However, for the city, I’ve heard that there is a concept that this is public land and it should not be used for private gain. So selling food . . . obviously when you’re playing soccer you are getting personal enjoyment out of it, but it is time limited. When you are walking your dog that is for your personal enjoyment, but the sense is that giving someone a patch of land for a continuous use is going too far. Particularly if money is being made from it. Community gardens, they’ve acknowledged that people can take food from the land and they see it as a recreational purpose, that’s fine, but as soon as you get money into the equation then that tips the balance.  Regardless of the fact that there are already other commercial activities going on in parks.

Sprout: Looking at the types of groups that I’ve seen involved. The actual users at the end of the chain of groups that are involved. I wouldn’t characterize any of them as being for-profit. They are community based. I don’t see large companies getting involved in this.

Rhonda: There are some small businesses that are doing urban agriculture and I don’t think any of them are making piles of money. It’s kind of the status of food, in general. But specifically the CEED project, one of the outstanding characteristics of it is that these are non-profit organizations that are managing each of the farms. By CRA regulations [Canada Revenue Agency] they are not allowed to make a profit. The whole purpose for doing this is [promoting] community economic objectives. Whether that be training, whether that be incubator farms, whether it be income supplementation for low-income community members, none of it is about making significant profits for individuals. And the point of the CEED projects is to run them for a year and demonstrate how that works, what the benefits are.

Sprout: So the City has come onside in terms of being willing to see what the benefits are, but they haven’t made a decision about whether that is an appropriate way of moving forward?

Rhonda: Yes, but when you say the City, what is taking so long about the CEED process, well a very large chunk of the process, was the city determining which division would actually house the CEED project because parks and recreation was quite adamant that, because of the revenue generating aspect of it that that’s not in their mandate. They felt very clearly that this was not their project. Even though they are the ones that have the expertise on setting up this type of project.

Sprout: Is that how it got brought to public health?

Rhonda: Public Health initiated it, but it made its way to social development, finance and administration, which is currently holding responsibility for the CEED gardens. And that means that it does have the freedom to be a community economic development project. Their mandate and focus is quite broad so in some ways it does make sense. Not so much from a logistics perspective, but from a program development perspective, they do have the experience of programs that bridge multiple goals and objectives. So in that way it makes sense.

Sprout: So, let’s talk about that process. After 2013, you identified this as a project. How has it gone since then and where do we find ourselves in 2016?

Rhonda: At the end of 2016! We started off with five sites in four different communities we are now down to two sites in two communities. There were some sites that were eliminated for various reasons.

Sprout: What are the two sites?

Rhonda: Morningside Heights and Flemingdon.  

Sprout: Is that due to soil testing? Or is it a variety of reason?

Rhonda: You mean why there are only two sites?

Sprout: Yes.

Rhonda: One site in the Massey Taylor Area, local residents objected to it. So, the councillor in that area was not willing to go forward.

Sprout: What did they object to? That’s public land.

Rhonda: It’s public land but they didn’t want a community garden next to their homes and the idea was not to resist that. The other site in that neighbourhood, the Crescent Town site, couldn’t go forward because of Hydro One requirements for the site due to required access for their vehicles. Their program is called Secondary Land Use Access. They are very clear that primary use is the hydro transmission lines. They have certain requirements so that they can get in and maintain those wires. For Crescent Town, the shape of the site was such that a half meter of access made the difference between their trucks being able to get in for repairs or not. The site is in a bit of a swale so the side where the trucks can go is 5.5m instead of 6m and they said we can’t let you develop that site. That was because of the hydro operational requirements. And the final one, Rexdale, is the last one to be taken off the plate. That was a combination of things because the process for getting approval was so long and new costs were added to it as we went along, eventually the decision was made that we don’t have the budget for this, we can’t field the extra costs. But then the other piece was also that we knew that there had been contaminants on the site and we had come up with the plan for dealing with those contaminants but Hydro One didn’t accept that plan and they required full scale soil remediation and that would have been too cost prohibitive.

Sprout: So that is a good lead toward the discussion of public health’s soil standards vs. the provinces soil standards. How did that process end up working? Was it possible to use the Toronto public health (TPH) soil standards?

Rhonda: Right, That was the most challenging and in some ways the most heart-breaking part of this. That was one of our hopes, that the TPH soil protocol would be able to be used in the future for this. TPH staff really diligently, worked very hard to get that approval. They made a very evidence-based case, evidence based argument that their standard were in some ways more stringent than the provincial requirements and they go approval from the ministry of environment but, unfortunately, not in writing. When we went through this process of doing a modified environmental assessment for all of the four sites that we were working with and after we had completed those, we found out that  no Hydro One was not going to accept that. They were going to stand by their own process. Basically what it comes down to is the usage of the land. There are three different tables of soil contaminant values so you have to compare your samples to those values. The table that you use will depend on use of the property. It’s probably more complicated than I can explain in an interview, but basically we were told that, at one point this table would apply, and then later on we were told that actually, no, you need to go by this table. So there was a change of opinion throughout the process of what would be acceptable standards, I guess, would be the best way to summarize that. My point is basically that the Toronto Public Health people, I think, used a very good process and were quite diligent about the work that they did but the province, for their own reasons, could not accept that. And, people have asked me since then, is that fair? Can we fight that, and I don’t have the technical expertise to be able to say, yeah, your right, or no, you’re wrong. But I think that would be something that would be worth exploring in the future: was this decision the most appropriate decision?

Part 2 will be posted shortly stay tuned. Please reflect on your own experience or pose questions in the section below. Let us start a dialogue on how to improve access to Urban Agriculture starting in your household to policy level initiatives. 

If you wish to join or learn more about TUG check out their website: