PHOTO GALLERY: Farming for the future

When Toronto artist Amy Cheng couldn’t find local and organic varieties of the vegetables she ate growing up, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

By Erica Rae Chong

Amy Cheng

Amy Cheng was an artist. As a young girl her parents often found her, pencil or paintbrush in hand, working on her next masterpiece. Her passion eventually landed her a job at a museum building art exhibits, but that was seven years ago. Cheng hasn’t stepped into a museum since 2011.

Cheng quit her job of four years at the Western Development Museum in Saskatchewan to become a farmer, opening Red Pocket Farm in Toronto’s Downsview Park and growing organic vegetables, most of which were Asian varieties.

The name Red Pocket Farm is a nod towards Cheng’s Chinese roots. Red Pockets, small red envelopes containing money, are traditional gifts during the Chinese New Year as a symbol of health, happiness, prosperity, and good luck. All of which are required for successful farming, she says.

Cheng says her decision to ditch a steady paycheck and leap into farming was the result of an idea that had been incubating for over a decade. She traced the beginning of her journey back to 2001, during a summer spent volunteering in a rural Costa Rican village where agriculture was a major part of the local community.

“I guess it just started with me being surprised and amazed at what an avocado or banana tree looked like and it just made me realize how ignorant I was about food,” Cheng says. “It made me realize I didn’t know where my food came from. I didn’t know anything about the different crops I ate so often. It made me question why I didn’t know these things.”

Her realization sparked a hunger to find out more. By day, Cheng taught art, painted theatre sets and built museum exhibits, but by night she read about food and farming.

“My interest grew more and more serious and it just evolved over a long time until it got to a point where I was spending so much time on it that I felt like maybe I could try to make a part of my living from it,” she says.

In 2011, Cheng decided to put her paintbrush down and get her hands dirty.

She left her job and took on an internship at Everdale, an Ontario farming organization, where she spent the next eight months living on a farm and farming full time.

“I knew I had to do it, I couldn’t put it off any more. It was something I had been thinking about for six years… and I was tired of always thinking about it,” Amy says. “I thought if I was still curious about this experience after six years then I really needed to try it.”

STARTING A FARM

Cheng launched Red Pocket Farm in 2012 to the surprise of her family and friends.

“Working as a farmer, the income may not be stable,” says Sylvia Cheng, Amy’s mother. “It depends on the weather and the harvest of the produce so financially, we were a little bit worried because we want her to have a good life, a future.”

Sylvia also worried Amy wouldn’t be able to cope with the physical demands of the job.

A soft-spoken woman with an average build, Amy doesn’t look like a typical farmer but a few small details give her away: soil-stained jeans and heavy-duty boots, her hair swept up in a no-nonsense ponytail and cheeks dappled with freckles from long hours under the sun.

“Working as a farmer, it’s a very hard job… so we worry it’s too hard for a lady. For a man, it’s okay. But for a lady… I wasn’t sure Amy could handle it physically,” Sylvia says.

But Amy put those worries to rest as she single-handedly cultivated 30 types of organically grown vegetables on her 8,000 sq. ft. plot.

“I’m trying to really develop my knowledge of Asian greens because that’s a staple in every Chinese household. I noticed that for most of the vegetables that I grew up eating and that my parents still eat, there are no organic and local versions anywhere,” she says.

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

Her leap of faith took not only courage, but also a small fortune. Amy spent about $10,000 in savings on seeds, farming equipment and a car for her commute to the farm as she lived in Scarborough and had to commute to Downsview before daybreak each morning.

“I was shocked that that’s what it came to and I remember double checking and triple checking my book keeping at the end of they year!” Amy says

After two successful farming seasons, Amy is ready to take the next step. She’s looking for more land to expand her production, but it’s not without challenges.

“Your biggest investment as an organic farmer is your soil and it takes multiple seasons to build. It’s not something you can just pick up and take with you and it affects everything,” she says. “There’s a lot of planning and a lot to think about.”

ORGANIC FARMING

Today, Red Pocket Farm is taking a break from production as Amy works out the kinks in her plan.

Despite this, her focus hasn’t shifted and she continues to grow organic Asian vegetables out of a small plot of land in Black Creek Community Farms. One is a series of Chinese cabbages for a seed variety trial in connection with the Bauta Family Initiative for Canadian Seed Security (BFICSS).

“We want to help farmers in Ontario grow more regionally adaptive seeds that are suitable for organic production,” says Aabir Dey, Ontario’s regional coordinator for the BFICSS.

Aabir has known Amy since working with her at Everdale Farm and invited her on board the project this year.

“She is very skilled in organic agriculture and has an excellent knowledge of how to grow Asian crop,” he says. “It seemed like a no-brainer to give this good opportunity to such a good farmer and a friend.”

Amy says organic farming is important for a variety of reasons, but the most important is ecological. “Dousing the soil with chemicals kills off a lot of natural biodiversity and it’s not really sustainable,”she says as she gently tucks a measuring tape around one of her cabbages to measure its diameter, a requirement of the variety trial she’s conducting. She is growing 90 cabbages, evenly spaced out in three neat rows.

“There’s a common saying― if you feed the soil, the soil feeds your plants and the plants feed you.” She falls silent for a moment, looking at her cabbages, before letting out a small laugh. “I’ve never measured a cabbage before. This is very strange.”

The cabbages will be harvested and sold at farmer’s markets along with other organic vegetables harvested by her fellow Black Creek farmers. Although she has many loyal customers, Amy admits at times it can be a challenge convincing people to see the value of organic food.

“I feel that food is undervalued and taken for granted. People don’t blink an eye at buying a $4 coffee every day from Starbucks, but look surprised when a bunch of carrots are $3.”

But organic food is quickly becoming a staple in the Cheng household.

“Because of Amy we’re trying to change our diet and our lifestyle, trying to eat more organic vegetables and less meat,” Sylvia says. Lowering her voice, she adds, “But sometimes I’ll still eat some potato chips.”

Between selling the idea of organic vegetables and dealing with the recent unpredictable weather, Amy looks forward to getting Red Pocket Farm up and running again as soon as she obtains more land.

”Farming is very demanding, there are a lot of factors that you can’t control and these factors affect your livelihood,” she says. “It’s also all-consuming. I know most farmers work 50- to 70-hour weeks. If you add up all your gross income and divide it by the total number of hours you’ve worked, it would be less than minimum wage. But it’s also incredibly satisfying and rewarding like no other job.”

Click on the images below to launch photo gallery.