Guerrilla Gardeners

NDG-Based Cycle AlimenTerre Brings Produce to Food Desert

  • Photo courtesy of Cycle AlimenTerre

  • Photo courtesy of Cycle AlimenTerre

  • Photo courtesy of Cycle AlimenTerre

Saint-Raymond is a food desert. No produce is available within a range of 500 metres in the Upper Lachine neighbourhood. But residents have access to a pizza parlour and corner stores stocking processed products.

From this produce-barren landscape emerged an unusual sight last summer. Every Wednesday, a normally unremarkable street corner was hijacked and transformed into an impromptu farmers’ market by little more than a bike trailer and some fresh produce.

The culprits? Cycle AlimenTerre, a group operated by four friends who hail from academic backgrounds as diverse as aerospace engineering, urban planning and permaculture design. Max Godber, a lanky and bespectacled urbanite of Australian origin, set the project’s wheels in motion.

Godber grew up on an organic farm and studied permaculture design in Thailand before moving to Quebec, where he was surprised by the amount of people who had never grown food.

“There was not such a great disconnect between food and people [in Australia],” he said.

His experience in permaculture, which entails growing more than one crop in the same plot, helped him conceptualize the urban agriculture initiative.

“Permaculture is looking at natural ecosystems, looking at how they thrive […] and mimicking these same symbiotic relationships that exist in nature,” Godber said, adding that permaculture can be implemented not just in rural areas, but also in backyard plots and even on city blocks.

“In permaculture, we’re always looking into the future, and looking to make as many links as possible within one system,” Godber said. He cited as an example multi-functional plants and perennials, plants that will grow back year after year.

The system is the opposite of monoculture—vast farms where only one crop is grown—which is how most food is produced in North America.

“You ask any permaculture designer and they’ll say that the monocultural industry is the most evil, wicked, genius [initiative] that has been created, and it will be the most difficult to override,” he told The Link.

What he would like to see is “decentralization” and more of a culture of subsistence farming, where families and communities grow food together.

Cycle AlimenTerre aims to introduce food to the urban environment, literally bringing it to residents’ backyards. The group farms the lawns of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, keeping its food production hyper-local—its five plots are within a range of two kilometres of each other.

The initiative follows a small-plot intensive, or “spin,” model of farming, which allows crops to be grown in relatively small spaces. Godber was inspired to put the method to practice after attending a presentation on the subject at a conference on food sovereignty at Concordia last year. There, Curtis Stone, a farmer from Kelowna, B.C., explained that he was driven to use people’s gardens when confronted with the high cost of land.

Residents receive a share of Cycle’s harvest in exchange for the use of their backyards. Providing fresh produce to residents, however, is just one facet of a broader goal. The members are focused on fostering a sense of community among NDG residents, explained Iman Khailat, one of the group’s founders.

“Most of Cycle AlimenTerre is based on this human relationship,” she said. Some landowners felt so comfortable they handed over their house keys to the gardeners to allow them access to their backyards. “We’re just members of the community and we want to involve people in the community,” she said.

The importance of connection wasn’t lost in the transition from soil to sale. The plots are harvested with the help of volunteers to reduce the food’s cost. Rather than being charged prices based on typical locally-grown produce, Cycle AlimenTerre sells its vegetables at supermarket prices. If someone couldn’t afford the cost, they would bargain.

“I was so dead-set on people walking away with produce that was growing around the corner from their houses, if someone couldn’t afford it I’d say, ‘Well, what can you afford? What do you think this carrot is worth?’” Godber said.

Attempts to keep the group’s costs low are the reason why it hasn’t been certified organic. The process is very costly, and requires each swath of land that is used to be certified. As Cycle AlimenTerre has multiple plots, it would be too expensive to certify them all.

Godber posited that while organic certification may have been started with good intentions, many companies have a line of organic produce not for ethical reasons, but simply to charge a higher price for it.

“Not only is it not worth it for [Cycle AlimenTerre] to certify all the plots, I also think it’s not necessary, because [there’s] such a close relationship between the source of the food and where the food is being consumed,” he said.

Equally paramount to providing fresh food to the community is re-conceptualizing the urban environment.

“You have to redefine the way you look at space. You have to start questioning, ‘why is the space there and what is the use for it?’ Or, ‘why is it not being used for something else?’” Mauricio Buschinelli, group founder and graduate student at Concordia, explained.

“I’m a big fan of re-appropriating public space to serve better functions,” Godber said, mentioning that de-paving cities and growing gardens in their place is a possible way to create an “edible streetscape” in Montreal and other cities.

“This is where guerrilla gardening can really help,” he said. “We really want to get this idea of growing food out in front of people’s faces where they can’t ignore it.”

Cycle AlimenTerre is looking for volunteers to help with the harvest and for more backyard space. They’re also having a harvest party Wednesday, November 19, at Coop La Maison Verte. You can reach them at lecyclealimenterre@gmail.com.

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