In Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge, 10C Shared Space’s Urban Sustainability Activator Vicky Huang shares the incredible initiatives led by local champions of urban agriculture and funded through Harvest Impact, a project of 10C and Our Food Future’s Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge

For our eighth installment, Vicky visits Heather Lekx of Ignatius Farm to learn about the new growing projects that are feeding our community. Below is their story, and a short video featuring the project.

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With the gentle breeze on October 7th, Claire (my coworker and Grant and Circular Project Development Lead at 10C) and I walked through the beautiful grounds of Ignatius Farm to meet Heather Lekx and Matt Soltys at Ignatius’ new community garden site located within their Upper Pond field. This site hosted the “Diversifying peri-urban food production and experiential knowledge transfer hub” project, the recipient of the $20,000 “Scaling Out Community Agriculture” award from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge. We were both so excited to learn about their project and to share their story with you.

The story of Ignatius Farms’ Upper Pond field

Heather and Matt walked us through the history of the Upper Pond field, which was almost as rich as the community garden it now holds. About a decade ago, the upper part of the field was once a dwarf orchard. However, because of disease, that orchard was taken out and replaced by a privately-owned orchard, which was rented out for 6 years. People came to that orchard for U-Picks, but overall the field had unrealized potential. Three years ago in 2018, that orchard was taken out and a new chapter began once again.

Vicky Huang and Heather Lekx at the Upper Pond Field.
Heather and I at the Upper Pond Field! It was such an amazing visit.

As they removed the trees, they knew that they needed to preserve the orchard in some capacity - especially considering that some trees were still producing. So with the help of a grant in the summer of 2019, they hired Matt to come work with them to “find the orchard again,” as Heather puts it. With training from the previous orchardist, Matt helped the team reclaim the trees they wanted to keep, and moved them towards the east side of the field, where he would start a new community orchard.

The now-available 1.5-acre field was full of highly-valuable land space. Because of the monocrop style of the orchard however, the soil in the Upper Pond field was not ready for productive use just yet. The next two years were thus dedicated to enriching the land: cover-cropping it with straw and rye, and simply recollecting and replenishing nutrients into the soil.

In the meantime, a vision for the space emerged - and one of a diverse, community-led space for community farming took shape by creating the current space of 108 community plots. The 100, 200, 300, and 500-square-feet plots are distributed to community members and their families on a pay-what-you-can and sliding scale price structure to ensure accessibility, and new plots are always in high demand. Crop rotation and good field management are key practices that Heather ensures, to keep the soil fertile and productive yearly.

On the other side of the community gardens, a new community orchard has been established and is now providing fruits and berries to passersby, hosting U-Pick events and various knowledge-sharing activities related to horticulture and fruit-tree care. It is unquestionable that this once-abandoned space has now become a vibrant and diverse community garden, invaluable to all the community members who share it.

Ignatius Farm & the GWUAC: Diversifying peri-urban food production and experiential knowledge transfer hub

With the GWUAC funding, Heather and the team were able to successfully realize two major achievements:

1. Adding water infrastructure 

After the two years of soil preparation, the land was rich, fertile, and ready for planting. However, in order for the space to reach its full potential, infrastructure for water was needed. Without readily-available and easily-accessible water, growing large yields would be very difficult. The GWUAC was able to fund half of this water infrastructure, a key to the foundation of the community garden vision.

“Unless you have water, you can’t have community gardens.” - Heather Lekx, Farm Manager at Ignatius Jesuit Centre

The pipes now run through 9/10ths of an acre, with the installation for the remaining 6/10ths being completed for the coming year.

Water system beside the project signage.
The Upper Pond Field's water infrastructure and wash station, beside the project signage.

2. Hiring Matt as the Community Orchardist

While the community orchard vision and plan took place in 2019, Heather had reached out to Matt Soltys, an urban orchardist and plant enthusiast whom she thought would be the perfect fit for taking care of the orchard as well as running experiential learning opportunities for the community. 

“I reached out to Matt and said “come and work with us!” (laughs)” - Heather Lekx

Matt Soltys, the orchard manager
Matt Soltys, the Community Orchardist and educator.

And a match it was - Matt currently is doing just that, with the goal of transitioning the space into a diverse community food forest and experiential knowledge transfer hub. Keeping him in this position was also made possible with the GWUAC funding.

The project’s impact

“So the idea for this space was that it could become - with the water access - a place with great fecundity, and of lots of enjoyment for a lot of people. The location is really amazing, the views are great, it’s really well suited with the retreat house as a reflective space - so we thought this would be really cool!” - Heather Lekx

Since our visit, Ignatius Farm has published a GWUAC update of their own that outlines the difference this funding made. This field is now home to many “really cool” spaces indeed:

Kale at the Upper Pond Field.
Lots of kale and veggies of all sorts at the Upper Pond Field community garden!

1. A new, lively community garden

With the water infrastructure installed and Matt taking care of the community orchard, the Upper Pond field has been completely revitalized. Heather had explained how their community gardens always run at full capacity, and eager community members and gardeners are always asking for more space. I’m sure that there was so much excitement when this field opened up, with 108 plots currently activated on 9/10ths of an acre and 6/10ths of an acre to be activated next year. While there isn’t an exact number for how much food the 38,500 square feet of garden space, Heather estimated 3-5 bushels of food for every 1,000 square feet - which would amount to 115 to 200 bushels (920 to 1,600 gallons) of food - significantly more food being grown currently than ever before.

“Honestly, I would say that - and I’ve been working here since 2001…this is the first year that this particular field area feels so rich. In terms of community and abundance.” - Heather Lekx

All of the food grown from this project is given back to the community, seeing as they are all community plots that are owned by individuals and families, or shared amongst friends and neighbours. It would not be hard to say that at least 200-300 community members are eating from the food produced on this land. 

Cattle at the Upper Pond Field
The activated space at the Upper Pond Field also allowed one of their community gardeners to have livestock! Beautiful cattle graze on the field beyond the garden plots. They actually escaped once and munched on some flowers, which was a fun adventure! 

In addition to feeding the community members who grow food on the land, the community garden at Upper Pond field also feeds vulnerable community members too. Each “Tuesday at 2”, Lori - one of the community gardeners - collects any extra produce from any of the plots and brings them over to the North End Harvest Market, a weekly free produce market for those in need. Throughout the 8 weeks that she collected donations, she counted 23 bushels of produce that went to the Market.

In order to maintain the productivity of the community garden, Heather explained their circular growing strategies, because as she puts it perfectly, “you don’t grow food if you’re not into circular economy,” a term that she says is just a new word for many practices that have been done for a long time within organic systems. Methods such as cover-cropping and rotating crops are two examples that keep the field’s nutrients cycling properly and prevent their depletion in the soil.

“If you expect to get your micronutrients and nutrients from vegetables, then it’s extractive. Annual vegetables are the most extractive thing you can do to your soil, so the reason that we actually rotate our garden plots with cover crops is to support that soil life and decomposition process, and it also breaks up pest cycles and disease cycles. The cover crop rotation of an organic farm is a critical part of that circular economy thinking: grow your fertility as much as you can, hold the fertility, don’t let it volatilize. Every time you till, you’re volatilizing some of that, so you have to see how you can mitigate it.” - Heather Lekx

Some overripe tomatoes in the soil.
Some overripe tomatoes, which will decompose and bring nutrients back into the soil.

Additionally, Heather is a big proponent of leaving any food leftover in the soil for the coming year.

“It might look like food waste to you but it’s not food waste for all the organisms that live on the land, and that are feeding us the next year. So whenever people talk about food waste, I remind them that if it stays in the land, it’s actually turning into next year’s food. If you ship it off and then don’t use it, then that’s real food waste. If you leave it in the land and make sure that it gets incorporated, then it can become food for the future. So it’s really important not to take food off the land that is actually just going to sit somewhere, that you don’t have a plan for. We’ve all done that in our own fridges. But if we do that at an organizational level, then we’re actually just stripping the land of fertility, for no reason.” - Heather Lekx

To Heather, it makes little sense to use fossil-fuel energy in moving food and compost around, when we can turn it into fertility right on site by leaving it in the soil. Of course, composting is an extremely valuable practice, but for this field where there is not a separate composting system, it currently works better to keep whatever is leftover in the soil.

2. A low-risk business incubator & launching space

Looking over the Upper Pond Field
Looking over the Upper Pond Field, a space of so much possibility.

“If you’re transitioning into a business where you're doing high-end crops or value-added things, you can’t just jump from 2000 square feet to a 4-acre field - so it also works in tandem around the small-plot agriculture program here so that businesses here can launch, and also not just an incubator farm where you have to leave, but you can stay here! Until you outgrow us.” - Heather Lekx

Usually, community garden plots in other fields max out at 2,000 square feet - a reasonable amount for most people. However, the idea with this space and community garden is that with a slightly larger plot allotment of 3,000 square feet, it can be an initial space where people can test out their skills before needing to commit to a much larger space or time period. Although the structure at this field doesn’t give the community gardeners long-term land tenure due to their crop rotations, it does give them a valuable opportunity to experiment and try out their business ideas in a low-risk environment, and with water access included.

3. An experiential knowledge-transfer hub at the community orchard

While we’ve focused a lot on the community garden, the other key element to the project is its focus on experiential learning, driven by Matt at the community orchard.

“Similar to how the farm is an incubator for people to come learn farming skills - the goal [at the community orchard] is still to produce good food and sell that and share it, but it’s also a social space and teaching space. It’s a place where people can try goji berries and elderberries and gooseberries and currants for the first time. People can see what you can grow here. And to that goal, I also did a number of workshops just to get people involved in the orchard. Some people come here to help out just because it’s very spiritually therapeutic to spend time in a place like this. Some people want to learn fruit-tree related horticulture skills for their own backyard or home orchards too.” - Matt Soltys, Community Orchardist

Goji berries at the community orchard
A goji berry bush at the community orchard.

From July to early October, Matt had already ran 6 workshops that taught participants meaningful fruit-tree-related skills. Just like pets, fruit trees need love and care as well, and Matt shares his expertise and experience to help people become more responsible fruit tree owners. Workshops included how to harvest so that less fruits go to waste, how to manage and recognize pests and weeds, and as Matt puts it, other skills “so that people who plant new things can feel competent about what they're planting.” He observes a generally-lower level of education around caring for fruit trees compared to other plants, and is aiming to change that.

Fruit tree workshop
Matt holding a fruit tree workshop!

“I think that perennials like fruit and nut trees and shrubs can play an important role in long-term food security…that’s how I see it as important.” - Matt Soltys

His workshops have reached over 50 people, with one workshop being posted online afterwards as well.

“The feedback has been very positive, and people keep coming back.” - Matt Soltys

If you’re interested in attending Matt’s knowledge-filled workshops, be sure to sign up for their newsletter and/or follow them on social media!
 

Next Steps for Upper Pond field

Looking across the Upper Pond Field and envisioning its future growth excited all of us. Soon, the remaining 6/10ths of an acre will have water lines and will be buzzling with community gardeners and plants of all shapes and sizes. The area previously used for growing and harvesting will be planted with cover crops, where rich nutrients will go back into the soil, preparing it for an abundant harvest the following year. Once the warm spring air arrives, there will be more laughter in the field, more sprouts peeking out from the soil, and more food that will feed the community.

Another highly exciting transformation that Heather and Matt shared was about their community orchard. They expressed that the Saturday prior, they held a community orchard visioning event, where a small-but-mighty group came to share their ideas on how the orchard can embody community even more.

“We wanted the orchard to transition from just being run by me as one staff to more of a collective model where more people get invested in the orchard and come to have responsibility over parts of it, and has more collective capacity labour hours that can pull of successfully, and people in turn can get more invested in it…learn more.” - Matt Soltys

Flowers at the Upper Pond Field.
Flowers at the Upper Pond Field.

Matt and Heather are excited to increase the learning capacity in the community orchard, and listening to the visions of the dynamic duo was inspiring to say the least. To maximize this impact, they are also looking towards securing ongoing funding for their educational programming, 

My takeaways

Walking through the Upper Pond Field at Ignatius Farm, I witnessed a whole new level of wonder.  All around me were fruits, vegetables, legumes, flowers that were thriving and growing peacefully and happily; any annual crop I could think of. I completely understood and felt the “community and abundance” that Heather had described as unprecedented and as the “smiles of the soil”. 

Kale at the Upper Pond Field.
Some thriving "monstrous kale", as Heather puts it, smiling in the community garden.

As well, having Matt as the wealth of knowledge he is really makes this community orchard invaluable to the Guelph community. His workshops drive the educational vision of the space, and I am so glad that he is there as both an orchardist and community educator. His role is an inspiration for me, who wants to pursue a career in sustainability but also education as well.

Thank you so much, Heather and Matt, for sharing about the past, present and future of the Upper Pond Field and how the GWUAC fits into its story. My visit to this incredible space really warmed my heart. 

Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series of Guelph’s newly-innovated urban agriculture projects! (Spoiler: I visit Shelldale Farm Park, the recipient of our biggest, $70,000 award next!)

Summary of the Ignatius Farm Upper Pond Field GWUAC Project.
A summary of Ignatius Farm's "Diversifying Peri-urban Food Production and Experiential Learning Hub" GWUAC Project.

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This is the eighth installment within the "Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge" series. All installments of this series can be found here. The seventh installment was on the "Putting Down Roots: Newcomer Youth Community Garden" project by Immigration Services Guelph-Wellington.