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 ninth and final installment, Vicky visits Omelnisaa Giddam and Angela Picot at Shelldale Farm Park to learn about the new growing projects that are feeding our community. Below is their story, and a short video featuring the project. 

(Their beautiful story does have a lot of components, so we've put together a visual summary of the project you can check out too! You will also find it attached at the end of the story.)

After our visit to Ignatius Farm on the beautiful afternoon of October 7th, Claire and I headed out excitedly to Shelldale Community Centre, where we would visit and take a tour of Shelldale Farm Park, the biggest project of the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge and the recipient of the $70,000 “Transformative Urban Agriculture” award. This grant would fund a multi-year and multi-facility project at Shelldale Community Centre, and we couldn’t wait to learn how their project was going!

Omelnisaa and Angela standing with the Shelldale Farm Park GWUAC sign.
Omelnisaa and Angela standing with the Shelldale Farm Park GWUAC sign.

The story of Shelldale Farm Park

The vision of Shelldale Farm Park was created with a whole community approach, where folks from Everdale Environmental Learning Centre (now Everdale), The SEED, Guelph Community Health Centre, Shelldale Family Gateway, Kindle Communities, and residents of the Onward Willow community all came together to brainstorm what would deeply transform the urban agriculture scene in their community. 

What came out of the visioning session was a comprehensive, ambitious, and exciting plan: a Shelldale Farm Park with components such as an outdoor community garden with accessible raised beds, a four-season commercial greenhouse, a community kitchen, a year-round hydroponic growing container, a composting area, nature therapy gardens, an outdoor pavilion, walking trails, a naturalized playground, shale sails, a rainwater harvesting demonstration garden, pollinator gardens, a Little Free Library, a seed-sharing station, picnic tables, and a community farmer’s market.

The beautiful scenery at Shelldale Farm Park’s community garden.
The beautiful scenery at Shelldale Farm Park’s community garden.

Without a doubt, this will completely transform the Community Centre into a highly functional, diverse and thriving community-oriented space for “collaboration, coordination, partnerships!” as Omelnisaa put it perfectly. It is so clear that there was tremendous thought put into the design and planning of the space, and over the next few years, this vision will become a reality invaluable to the Willow Onward community.

Shelldale Farm Park is located at the Shelldale Community Centre.
Shelldale Farm Park is located at the Shelldale Community Centre.

The first stages

This year in 2021 was the launching of the project, with the first components being constructed: the community garden.

Omelnisaa Giddam is the trailblazer for this part of the project, and started on May 20th of this year after being hired as the Shelldale Farm Park Coordinator. As soon as I met her, I knew she was the perfect person for the role. Omelnisaa's passion for community agriculture could be felt a mile away. She had completed her Masters in Agriculture and Extension, and has 19 years of experience working with the  Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Bank Project, German Development Cooperation and International Committee of the Red Cross in agriculture, capacity-building, community development, rural advisory, emergency programming, urban peri-urban and rural agri-food systems, livelihood support, food security strategies and direct farmer research. 

Omelnisaa Giddam, the Shelldale Farm Park Coordinator, tending to some cucumbers.
Omelnisaa Giddam, the Shelldale Farm Park Coordinator, tending to some cucumbers.

When Omelnisaa first arrived in May, the SEED team led by Gavin DandyManager of The SEED project at Guelph Community Health Centre as well as the Executive Director at Everdale, both main project partners of Shelldale Farm Park—had already ordered the input supplies and coordinated with all the other coordination with project partners, to start the project smoothly. Omelnisaa expressed her genuine gratitude for Gavin, who supported and facilitated her into her project coordinator role in just a short period of time and allowed her to continue bringing the project to life. The water system was installed, and the on-site work began. By June, the grass was covered, wood chips ordered and put down, and the garden was seeded. The community started to come together and by July with the help of volunteers from The SEED, 45 raised garden beds were built and ready for growing with 12 of them being accessible for folks with wheelchairs. Everdale donated seeds, and the community garden was soon buzzing with activity. The soil was rich and fertile, and all throughout the summer, there was bountiful harvest and beautiful harmony from the community gardeners.

Shelldale Farm Park & The GWUAC

Shelldale Farm Park’s GUWAC signage, standing proudly by the shed.
Shelldale Farm Park’s GUWAC signage, standing proudly by the shed.

Shelldale Farm Park is a multi-partner project, all of whom play an integral role to bring the project to life. In terms of the GWUAC’s contribution, the $70,000 grant is allotted primarily for infrastructure and equipment, as well as some staffing. Infrastructure and equipment include construction materials and supplies needed to build the structure and facilities of the project, for instance the raised beds, tool shed, gardening and farming tools, kitchen equipment, and educational signage.

However, while the GWUAC funding contributes enormously and sets the groundwork for the rest of the project, without the food-growing inputs, activities, community events, programming and connections from The SEED and Shelldale’s other partners, the facilities would not be animated with such vibrant energy, education, and empowerment.

A look at some raised beds. There are 45 of them in total, 19 of which are wheelchair accessible.
A look at some raised beds. There are 45 of them in total, 12 of which are wheelchair accessible.

Indeed, the impact that this big project has needs to be recognized and appreciated, because the ripple effect it will have on the community cannot be understated.

The Shelldale Farm Park impact

Shelldale Farm Park’s core values really shine through its design, no matter from what angle you look at the project.

From its website, they clearly state their three main goals, which are to:

  • increase access to nutritious food for residents of Onward Willow
  • bring community members in Onward Willow together to share food skills (like growing and cooking!)
  • build community resiliency and social engagement

Upon a closer look, it is without question that what Shelldale Farm Park stands for is exponentially more than just those three goals. Just from our short visit to their community garden, I was able to feel the depth of their impact. I’ve tried to capture these impacts below.

To me, Shelldale Farm Park authentically communicated the values of:

1. Celebrating diversity and honouring the “community” in community agriculture

“It’s an all-people garden, even the children’s garden. It’s a garden for all! Even the small insects.” - Omelnisaa Giddam, Shelldale Farm Park Coordinator

A bumblebee rests on a marigold flower in the community garden.
A bumblebee rests on a marigold flower in the community garden.

At the Shelldale Farm Park, everyone is welcome. And we mean everyone. Just in languages alone, the community gardeners that come speak a total of 11 different languages including Nepali, Urdu, Tigrinya, Swahili, Arabic. Chinese dialects, amongst others. The 120 family members encompassing 31 families come from all over the world, and there is a beautiful diversity that is present daily within the space.

On our visit, we met one of the community gardeners, Chandra. As soon as she approached the garden, Omelnisaa greeted her with so much enthusiasm, it’s as if she returned home. We then all chatted about the upcoming year, and Chandra expressed how she would love to get more space next year. 

“I like this garden…I come here every day!” - Chandra, a community gardener at Shelldale Farm Park

Chandra standing by her raised bed with Omelnisaa, at Shelldale Farm Park’s community garden
Chandra standing by her raised bed with Omelnisaa, at Shelldale Farm Park’s community garden

Those who use the garden are nourished not only by their harvests, but also by Omelnisaa’s careful and passionate support that she skillfully provides across language barriers.

There is also not only a diversity in languages and cultures that gather at the Shelldale community garden, but a diversity in ages too. “The families always come with their kids,” Omelnisaa says. “Kids are also involved because kids love and just want to do something to learn.” She invites them along and includes them in just like family, showing them how to germinate seeds, how to plant vegetables and fruits and determine their viability, and how to harvest their plants.

Something else incredible that we witnessed on our visit was how integrated the Guelph Outdoor School is to the community garden. They have one of the big raised beds there, and they bring their students regularly to tend to the garden, learning gardening skills practically. The day we visited, the kids had just planted some trees the day before from Green Legacy, and came by Shelldale Farm Park to pick up some mulch. There was just something uplifting about watching the elementary school kids use shovels to scoop up mulch onto a wheelbarrow, having fun, laughing and working together to take care of their trees.

2. Spearheading knowledge mobilization of practical, ongoing education 

“We didn’t do workshops, training or something formal. I just work with them and my colleagues on a daily basis. It’s informal education…an ongoing educational process. Call it on-the-job training, like a practical training, not a workshop, not a class—all these people, 31 families, 45 raised beds, I work with them one by one.” - Omelnisaa Giddam.

The dedication to ongoing education and knowledge transfer at Shelldale Farm Park is something that I found very refreshing. It’s an entirely different approach from hosting workshops and educational events, because it’s fully personalized to each individual, their progress, their knowledge, their skills and interests. It builds everyone from where they are at, and gives them the exact knowledge they are looking for. It’s no surprise that with Omelnisaa’s daily guidance, mentorship, patience, and vast experience, the families have grown beautiful, blooming, and bountiful gardens.

The plants are thriving at Shelldale Farm Park.
The plants are thriving at Shelldale Farm Park.

“The people here plant what they love to eat. I don’t tell them what to eat... When we offered [community members] space we ask what [they] want to plant. If they don’t know how to plant, I teach them how.” - Omelnisaa Giddam

This type of education, while the most impactful, takes a significant amount of dedication and effort. Omelnisaa is such a diligent teacher to the gardeners. She knows that it’s challenging to learn planting skills in a classroom setting, so she took it to a daily, practical, and on-the-job setting. She told us how she would often stay at the community garden after 5pm, where if folks came after work to plant or harvest things and they had questions, she could be there.

Omelnisaa’s person-centred approach to education also gives the children who come to Shelldale Farm Park a welcoming environment to learn. She smiled as she told us how they’re learning to cultivate crops too, and how they are never short of questions to ask her.

“The kids always ask me “how do I do this?” and “please let me plant!” (laughs)” - Omelnisaa Giddam

3. Explicitly embodying an integrated, collaborative, multidimensional circular system

While some circular projects' circular elements are behind-the-scenes and are not as visible to the public (i.e. back-of-house composting, behind-the-scenes partnerships, non-advertised activities), many circular elements are explicitly embedded within Shelldale Farm Park’s design—it's built on that concept, after all.

A “kitchen” label on one of the raised beds indicates that the produce from this plot will be used in the community kitchen.
A “kitchen” label on one of the raised beds indicates that the produce from this plot will be used in the community kitchen.

There is visible signage on three of the raised beds indicating that they are for the community kitchen. After this fresh produce is used in the kitchen, the kitchen scraps are then composted and turned back into fresh, rich soil for the garden. The composting system is highly visible and right by the entrance of the community garden. In the near future, they are hoping to transform this compost heap into a bigger, 3-bin system. This compost rebuild will be supported by the Compost Queens of the Royal City—another GWUAC recipient who has transformed multiple compost ‘piles’ into highly-productive and usable compost systems—very exciting!

The compost bin at the community garden, ready to be rebuilt into a 3-bin system.
The compost bin at the community garden, ready to be rebuilt into a 3-bin system.

Their planned rainwater harvesting demonstration and rain garden would certainly harvest rainwater to use in the community garden. Seeds from the to-be seed-sharing station will undoubtedly contain seeds from both community donations as well as the community garden, which will be shared with each other. Folks who grow and harvest food will be sharing produce and gathering in the future picnic pavilion, bringing the food from Shelldale Farm Park and its community together. 

It is also worth saying that these circularities are already present even without the future facilities, a prime example through Guelph Outdoor School. The kids from the school not only learn and practice gardening skills at the community garden, they also give back by planting produce and growing food, adding to the vibrant landscape of the gardens. Some of these kids will grow up inspired by urban agriculture, and maybe even contribute in other ways to the food system! Everyone who learns and practices their gardening skills at Shelldale Farm Park will take it with them the rest of their lives, and the impact of all these community members’ increased capacities is immeasurable.

One of the community gardeners’ children immersed in the community garden.
One of the community gardeners’ children, immersed in the community garden.

Alongside the abundant circularity within Shelldale Farm Park is also the collaborative and multidimensionality of the space. Community partners range from The SEED, a not-for-profit organization operating from the Guelph Community Health Centre that aims to build a new kind of food system in Guelph-Wellington that is inclusive, just, collaborative, and empowering; Shelldale Family Gateway, a non-profit organization that provides programming for children, youth and families in the Onward Willow neighbourhood; Kindle Communities, a non-profitable and socially-responsible landlord that develops and manages properties that reinvests in and supports the community; Everdale, a community teaching farm that provides hands-on learning programs on food and farming; and Our Food Future, the parent initiative of Harvest Impact and the GWUAC funding. This collaborative effort is what enabled and created such a multidimensional space, with interconnected elements and facilities that work together.

More specifically, the team at Everdale designed the space, and are leading the project. The SEED is their main implementation partner and activator of the community kitchen. The property was secured through a collaboration between Kindle Communities (who own and manage the Shelldale Community Centre) and the City of Guelph, both very valuable partners. The community partners also enabled the hiring of three summer youths—one funded through The SEED and two through Shelldale Family Gateway—that are being trained on the farm as assistants and add to the capacity-building activities this space provides.

It's no wonder that Omelnisaa takes every opportunity to thank all the partners and individuals who made this project possible—including all of The SEED staff, volunteers, Onward Willow residents, and the project planning committee team.

4. Bringing back the connection to the soil, food, and gardeners to the community, increasing social wellbeing

Coming to the community garden is also not only about planting, nor even connecting to the community members—but it’s also about transforming the community connection to the food. Indeed, having a meaningful connection to the soil is deeply comforting for some people, because many of the community gardeners grew up on farms when they were younger. After having moved to Canada, those memories and that connection to their food may seem like the past, so being able to bring that experience back to them is usually highly meaningful.

Cucumbers growing at Shelldale Farm Park.
Cucumbers growing at Shelldale Farm Park.

Omelnisaa witnesses the impact of this experience on the community members. This was especially visible after one of their field trips, where they took two school buses full of families to Everdale for a harvest event that focused around the Shelldale Farm Park community and the community gardeners. After the event, Omelnisaa did a verbal survey with the participants, and out of the 60 people she asked, 58 of them said that the day was excellent. They harvested 8100 pounds of carrot, potato, and onion, a great accomplishment by the gardeners, who were fully immersed in the harvest. Omelnisaa shared with us a story of an elder from Nepal, who after the harvest, told her how “for a long long time I couldn't feel what I could feel today…today as if I was back in my home country cultivating crops.” 

Angela describes the community gardening experience like a bridge.

“It’s just such a beautiful connection…and Omelnisaa is the driver in that, having someone to talk to people. Not everyone is comfortable in that environment so the personal connection can’t be undersold.” - Angela Picot, Food Literacy Coordinator at The SEED

The food and the community fostered within this space grows the social wellbeing of the gardeners.

“It’s like this lady who one day harvested this,” (points to picture of a community gardener with her harvest) “When you look at this happening daily, it’s examples of how within the three months, families have secured their food and improved their livelihoods. Especially the elders—they are so happy.” - Omelnisaa Giddam

Photographs of the community gardeners and their produce hang outside the Shelldale Farm Park community garden shed.
Photographs of the community gardeners and their produce hang outside the Shelldale Farm Park community garden shed.

She goes on to share a story of an elder who expressed his profound gratitude to Omelnisaa. He told her that he hasn’t tasted arugula for 5 years, and now he can taste it thanks to this garden. He couldn’t find the variety he was looking for in the grocery shop, and it had used to be his main green salad.

“There’s something about a well-tended garden that is so appealing. So the fact that Omelnisaa’s here, and interested, and teaching, and just engaged all the time, they can come to her, and that just opens the door for any other thing, like “Omelnisaa, what do I do if this happens”, and she’ll say “Oh, well we have the Health Centre and the Shelldale Centre and there are so many community resources. Creating those connections is key for some people who are finding themselves—when you find yourself in crisis, how far you fall really depends on who your supports are. And as a new Canadian, it’s really hard to create those supports. Having immigrated myself, it’s hard to build up everything—everything from who should I get my haircut with? I need a mechanic, I need a doctor, it’s a challenge! There’s a lot of new Canadians here…you need that local support.” - Angela Picot

Community gardeners at Shelldale Farm Park.
Community gardeners at Shelldale Farm Park.

The impacts altogether create a beautiful space of diverse community members coming together to grow accessible, nutritious and fresh food—and not just food, but food that they love to eat from back home, food that they know came from their own love and care, and food that would provide them security, belonging and a feeling of home.

Who knew that simply a community gardening space could provide this much value to the community members? Well, the whole planning, design and implementation team certainly did. 

Challenges for Shelldale Farm Park

With any project, there are challenges to overcome. Right now, the biggest challenge for Shelldale Farm Park is produce theft at the community garden. Omelnisaa shared with us that she often hears her community gardeners’ sorrow after noticing missing crops. Each bean, corn, zucchini and tomato was grown with love, so it is perfectly understandable that each missing vegetable or fruit would be mourned—even if there were no ill intentions from a potential passerby who thought it was a public garden and picked it. An idea to overcome this challenge is to build a small fence around the garden, to just show passersby that the raised beds and its crops are owned by community members, and to give a second thought before picking anything.

Community member watering their plants o
A community gardener watering the plants in their raised bed.

Another challenge, which is both a challenge and something to be thankful for, is the demand for garden plots from the community members. When the Shelldale Farm Park community garden was first designed, they had planned on giving families with over 5 members two garden plots. However, after receiving an abundance of demand, they were only able to offer one garden plot per family. While there are plans to build more raised beds, the challenge of having more demand than they can supply will likely stay. Let’s hope that in the coming years with collective programming and activation of spaces for urban agriculture throughout Guelph, there will be sufficient spaces for everyone who wants to garden in a community setting!

Next Steps for Shelldale Farm Park

Considering that this is the biggest GUWAC award of 2021, you bet that there is still a lot to be done to fully realize the Shelldale Farm Park vision. 

Some of these next steps have been mentioned previously, but allow me to re-introduce you to them, because they’re worth a second, more detailed look. Indeed, this is what the team is working on:

  • Completing the outdoor community garden with raised beds (including accessible ones) and micro-fields to provide community agriculture opportunities
  • Completing the community kitchen that focuses on using local ingredients to prepare and teach about food for the community
  • Building a four-season commercial greenhouse for year-round farming and community programming
  • Renovating the compost pile into a new 3-bin composting system
  • Setting up a year-round hydroponic growing container
  • Creating a rooftop apiary
  • Building a Market & Picnic Pavillion where farmers markets, summer camps, community dinners and social gatherings can take place as well as another large outdoor pavilion with picnic tables for large gatherings
  • Creating a walking trail that surrounds the Farm Park
  • Creating little gardens around the Park, such as nature therapy gardens, rain & rain-harvesting demonstration gardens, planters and pollinator gardens
  • Putting up shade sails that can host group activities in the Spring, Summer and Fall seasons
  • Building a naturalized playground that allows children to play, socialize and learn within natural architecture
  • Completing their Little Free Library alongside a Seed Sharing Station

All of these steps, of course, will be advanced with ample community-planning. Just in October, the team at Shelldale Farm Park gathered community members to share their visions for the project, and what would best suit their needs. 

“[We’re] gathering community members here to tell us what they envision for this property, for them. It’s fundamental community-based planning. I’m gonna supply the food and the soups that we make will come out of the beautiful goods that we have here. So it’s a lot of layers of connection.” - Angela Picot

The Shelldale Farm Park Vision Board from their website is included below, depicting all the proposed plans in detail and on an illustrated map:

Shelldale Farm Park’s vision board, detailing all the components of the project.
Shelldale Farm Park’s vision board, detailing all the components of the project.

My takeaways

Talking with Omelnisaa and Angela, experiencing the Shelldale Farm Park community garden first-hand, watching the children and community gardeners integrate themselves into the daily activities of the space, hearing about the future plans and envisioning them onsite, and taking closer looks at the fruits, flowers, herbs and vegetables planted was all a breathtaking honour. I couldn’t help but feel so lucky to have not only the opportunity to talk to these trailblazers, to touch and feel the beautiful growing kale and zucchinis, to witness the laughter and smiles of the community passing through—but to also be able to share this story with you all.

Green chilis at the Shelldale Farm Park community garden.
Green chili peppers at the Shelldale Farm Park community garden.

Thank you so much, Omelnisaa and Angela, for inviting me into your community space, and sharing with your hearts and passions about the joys this space brings. Shelldale Farm Park is such an incredible example of community-focused space, and I can’t wait to see it grow into the beautiful Park it will become.

A summary of the GWUAC Shelldale Farm Park project.
A summary of the Shelldale Farm Park GWUAC project.

This is the final installment of the “ Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge” series. All installments of this series can be found here. The eighth installment was on Ignatius Farm’s “Diversifying Peri-Urban Food Production and Experiential Knowledge Transfer Hub” project. Thank you so much, dear reader, for coming along with me though these incredible stories.