Regenerating the city with fresh soil and people power

Crguk-Culinary

Even if you have the address programmed into your GPS, it’s easy to miss Calgary’s Highfield Farm as you’re driving through the city. Nestled in an industrial area between Blackfoot and Deerfoot Trails, just down the road from the Calgary Food Bank and Village Brewery, from the road Highfield doesn’t look like much of anything. Once visitors get onto the property though, they’ll find a regenerative growing space unlike any other in the city.

The landscape at Highfield might look vaguely familiar to long-time Calgary food enthusiasts. The 15-acre City-owned lot the farm sits on what was once the Blackfoot Farmers’ Market (a.k.a. the Farmers’ Own Market), though it’s been vacant for almost a decade after the market shut down. The City earmarked the land for agricultural use and opened a call for proposals in 2017, eventually awarding the lease to a group of community-minded growers. Since the plot was essentially a giant parking lot with a wooded area buffering the traffic from Deerfoot Trail, it took a lot of work to turn it into anything resembling a farm, but by 2021 fresh food was sprouting out of Highfield’s gardens.

Urban farms, be they technically savvy vertical farming or aquaponic operations or large backyard gardens, tend to focus on commercial food production, but that’s not Highfield’s core reason for being. The farm operates on three pillars — land revitalization, regenerative food, and community building — with some extra weight put on the revitalization piece. About a third of the land is dedicated to a composting area and the farm’s long-term plan is to eventually get the certification to compost waste from nearby businesses and serve as a mid-scale composting facility.

“Highfield Farm is a project of the Composting Council of Canada,” says Heather Ramshaw, Highfield’s Operations Manager. “Everything we do here is from that focus of soil building. That’s why land revitalization is our very first pillar, because we’re taking an industrial site and reclaiming it as a green space where we can create food.”

That said, Highfield Farm absolutely does produce food and will produce more and more of it as the years march on. Another third of the property is used as growing space, including a large garden that produces 50 different varieties of vegetables with enough output to sustain a small CSA program as well as donations to organizations like the Calgary Food Bank and the Mustard Seed. Creating the garden was a challenge — Highfield is not permitted to grow into the ground (not that the soil in a long-neglected empty lot is any good anyway) and needed to build above-ground beds, all without the advantage of having any running water or much power on the property.

In addition to the main garden and greenhouse, Highfield also works with local grower members like Basil Ranch, ABC Bees, and Hands-On Growing, which use a small portion of the farm’s land and in turn, help to activate the farm and showcase different ways of farming. This year the farm also built a greenhouse that will contain equal parts growing and community space, with the goal being not only to grow food, but to invite people in to talk about it.

“In a city like Calgary that continues to grow out eating up farmland, we need to utilize spaces in town to grow food,” Ramshaw says. “We’re showcasing that even if you only have an eighth of an acre, you can grow a lot of food to feed your small community for the summer or at least supplement your diet to make sure you’re getting high nutrient food.”

That third pillar concerning community is apparent throughout the entire farm. Save for Ramshaw and a couple of farm interns, Highfield Farm is almost entirely powered by volunteers, with plenty of opportunities for members to get their hands sufficiently dirty. The third of the farm that is not earmarked for growing or composting is taken up by that forested area that leads to the Deerfoot, where there are trails to walk through and an opening big enough to host events.

The rest of the farm has plenty of areas for sitting and hanging out and Highfield also hosts fitness classes, a kids’ forest school, various workshops, and a slate of annual events. This all results in a community of like-minded people, but the motivation for the community-building goes further than creating an outdoor clubhouse for environmentalists and natural food growers.

“We’re trying to create a model where people can come and learn about growing food,” Ramshaw says. “They can learn those skills here and then bring that back into their own communities and grow something similar or help out with their community garden. This is a space for a community to come and connect with the local food system and engage in knowledge sharing.”

Highfield Farm is in Calgary at 1920 Highfield Crescent SE. For more information or to become a member of the farm, visit highfieldfarm.ca.