Scarborough Urban Farm - Farewell to Fink's Farm
By Nancy Lim
March 30, 2005
Twenty years ago Mike Fink and his family lived on an 85-acre farm north of Kennedy Road and McNicoll Avenue. A single country road separated the property-to the west side, a two-storey farmhouse stood in the sunlight, overlooking the fields; to the east, a smaller stretch of fertile crops. The Finks grew corn, tomatoes and peppers, and sold directly to the public. People came for the freshness of the pick-your-own experience and left with bushels of their favourite vegetables. However, this is only a memory.
Now, tall condominiums, a factory, plaza and high school stand coldly on the corner. Only 35 acres of Mike's Pick Your Own Vegetables remain on the east side, hidden amongst the blockade of urban development. It is one of the last farms in all of Scarborough, though the farmhouse is gone. Today the only structure left on the property is a small shelter for selling vegetables, made of aging, stained walls and topped with a rusted metal roof. Giant trees with thinning leaves are shaken by the wind. A tractor is hibernating for the winter, blanketed by a large black tarp. It may be the last season Fink will use the tractor on this farm. "Our days are numbered," he says.
A sign posted by CB Richard Ellis real estate reads "Available"-a looming death threat to Fink's farm. Fink has leased it since 1973, but the owner, a land speculator, is considering other offers. To counteract urban development, the Ontario government recently declared a greenbelt plan protecting almost two million acres of land in the Golden Horseshoe. However, opposition critics say the value of farmland will decrease, leaving landowners with no financial compensation. On March 9, 500 farmers drove their tractors to Queen's Park in a demonstration against the plan. The week before, thousands of protesters were at the legislature.
"Farmers subsidize the public," says Fink, a fourth-generation Canadian who learned how to farm from his father-in-law. "You have cheap prices because farmers are willing to do all the work." Cathy Bartolic, executive administrator of Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association (OFFMA) feels that until cheap food policy changes, there won't be a bright future for general farming in Canada. "Agriculture is at a crucial stage. It's definitely never faced a crisis [like] it's facing right now. In the worst-case scenario, we're losing more and more farmers. There are more regulations around food safety and nutrient management. Farmers need to pay for it and these costs are going up."
OFFMA promotes the direct sales industry of Ontario farming. Bartolic says pick-your-own farms peaked in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and "it's been harder to get people to come out since then. More women are in the workforce, people have less time to pick bushels and bushels of vegetables like they used to. It's hard for farmers to sell to the public."
Michael Levenston is the executive director of City Farmer, a non-profit organization in Vancouver that promotes urban agriculture-the growing of household fruits and vegetables on balconies, in backyards or community gardens. As a non-farmer who teaches horticulture to urban dwellers, he says, "Everyone in a city is stressed and crowded, living in concrete. Green is good for the urban person's soul." Levenston emphasizes the educational component of pick-your-own farms. "The urban person goes as far as the shelf in the supermarket. [People] should be aware and appreciate the whole process of food. You don't get the whole process by picking, but at least it's one step closer." According to a Statistics Canada study, farm population decreased by 2.6 per cent between 1996 to 2001, while the urban population increased by almost 8 per cent. "In an ideal world, there would be more farms in urban areas," Levenston says. "Toronto as a megapolis is out of control. It reflects the desires of the business community and builders and real estate."
David Bruce McCowan, who has written several articles and booklets about the history of farming in Scarborough, comes from a farming family himself. In fact, McCowan Road was named after his great-great-grandfather whose farm stood near the Scarborough Bluffs. This road is one of four others in Scarborough named after farming families: Neilson, Littles and Kennedy. In 1949, McCowan's family farm was subdivided, a business decision made by his grandfather and great-uncle. They developed the farm, roads and water mains themselves, and sold land lots to builders for a good profit.
"A hundred years ago, farmers were politically the most influential group in Ontario," McCowan says. "That's radically changed. There's very little farming right now." However, he admits that such a decline was bound to happen. "We should continue farming, but it's less and less economically feasible. If someone wants to start a farm, you have to either inherit it or have a lot of money to buy equipment and land." In fact, numbers from Statistics Canada show that farming is an aging occupation. In 2001, Canadian farmers under 35 made up approximately 10 per cent of the farming population, the median age being 50. To McCowan, the closing of Fink's farm is "philosophically a loss" to society in general. He believes the farm itself is a symbol. "Farming as a way of life is a noble profession. People should appreciate that farming is a lot of work and what it takes to be a farmer, and that is going to be missed."
Fink now lives in Stouffville with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law. He prefers the rural life of the quiet town, taking a 30-minute drive from his home to his farm every day. During the spring and summer, he arrives at work by 7 a.m. to plow, plant and sell. With pride, he describes the farm as a "true fresh market." For over 30 years he's never advertised, and despite nearby grocery stores, he still makes a profit-thanks to word of mouth and loyal customers. He admits that losing the farm will be a difficult transition for him. There is resignation in his voice as he explains his plans. "The most important part now is to find a good location with good land to farm on." Farming is how he makes a living, so he doesn't intend to give up what he does best. He speaks of land prospects near the Rouge River Valley, east of Highway 48. Unfortunately, nothing is certain. Nothing except that the days of farming in Scarborough are about to be a memory.
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