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Seneca College research project aims to attract a new generation of urban farmers in Toronto – Toronto Star

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By Tamara ShephardReporter

Fri., Aug. 27, 20214 min. read

Misha Shodjaee, left, and Jessey Njau, co-founded Zawadi Farm five years ago. Shodjaee manages the community-supported agriculture subscription model and plans and manages the crops, while Njau handles marketing and procurement. Zawadi Farm is comprised of

Jessey Njau and Misha Shodjaee, co-founders of Zawadi Farm, are working to build a small farmers’ co-operative in Toronto.

Currently, 75 members purchase weekly or biweekly their customizable boxes brimming with garden-fresh produce the friends grow in six Toronto backyards, including their own, and at the company’s two urban farms at Downsview Park.

What produce remains unsold goes to a FoodShare Toronto program, which sells the produce at reduced prices to low-income people at community markets.

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Urban farmer Jessey Njau harvests cucumbers from one of Zawadi Farm’s eight farm plots — this one in the 2,500-square-foot backyard at his north Etobicoke home. – Dan Pearce/Metroland

Urban farming in Toronto is a challenge, Njau said.

“It’s a race between us and developers (for scarce Toronto land),” said Njau, who worked in technology before starting Zawadi Farm five years ago. Zawadi means “gift” in Swahili. “We hire youth interested in the source of food. The better the soil is, the better the crop becomes. We’re soil managers now. A friend challenged us to think of ourselves as stewards. The land was here before us and will outlive us. We believe we need to be good stewards of it.”

A new research project by Seneca college aims to address those challenges by helping existing and potential urban farmers and laying the foundation for sustainable urban agricultural businesses. The college recently received a $360,000 grant to lead the three-year project, which begins next month.

“It’s bringing together finance and biology know-how around the subject of urban agriculture,” said West Suhanic, a professor at Seneca’s School of Accounting and Financial Services. “We’re also going to be working with active urban farmers and offering training in business and science.”

Suhanic and Ryerson University associate professor Lesley Campbell, an expert in urban agriculture, will lead a team of 12 to 15 Seneca student research assistants and work with “community partners” Greenest City and Toronto Urban Growers, according to Seneca.

The students will interview current and potential farmers to identify gaps and better understand what’s needed for successful urban agriculture.

Suhanic said the project will bring together urban farmers’ groups and provide them with scientific knowledge to help them increase their yields. “We’re going to be developing finance models to help them make business pitches to help them run businesses,” he added.

The project, which will be run out of Seneca’s Newnham campus in North York, hopes to attract a new generation of urban farmers and get more crops grown by Toronto farmers to Toronto tables.

“Our goal is also to share this knowledge with a global community,” Suhanic said. “We want to provide useful techniques and methodologies.”

Njau said his company shares synergies with the Seneca college project.

“I’m glad they’re waking up to it,” he said in his 2,500-square-foot Etobicoke backyard farm. “We want anyone who comes into urban farming to understand the ethos and that food is political. When farming, start small. It’s a lot of work. You understand you’re investing in the soil and the power of the nutrients and fertility of the soil.”

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Misha Shodjaee, co-founder of Zawadi Farm, tends to some new crops on a farm plot in his partner Jessey Njau’s large north Etobicoke backyard on Aug. 13. – Dan Pearce/Metroland

Shodjaee said while urban farming is a “labour of love” — “you see how life-changing it is when people eat it” — there’s also a careful consideration of the calculus of urban farming.

“When you receive a new piece of land, you have to think, how long will I have it, which will impact how much I put into it and how much I get out of it,” he said.

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Ran Goel is founder and CEO of Fresh City Farms. – Fresh City Farms photo

Ran Goel, founder and CEO of Fresh City Farms at Downsview Park, believed to be the largest soil-based urban farm in Canada, said government regulations keep urban farming from proliferating.

“The three levels of government really sit on quite a bit of land that’s either unused or underused all over the city, and they’re not really making that available easily,” he said.

Goel said he hopes Seneca’s project will help “unlock that” and create awareness of the benefits of urban growing. “Hopefully, it challenges how policy makers approach urban farming.”

—with files from Andrew Palamarchuk

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When reporter Tamara Shephard learned about Seneca College’s new urban farming research project, she wanted to find out more about the challenges of urban growing and how the project aims to help local farmers.