Down the highway southwest of Canada’s capital, the Neighbourhood Tomato Community Gardens project is all about growing food and building community. It says so on the graphics that adorn rain barrels, community garden signs, event banners—you get the picture.
Think you know tomatoes?
Maybe. But what’s the tasty fruit saying about community and food security in Lanark County, Ontario, and way up in Iceland?
The project germinated in 2011, when a local agency in the town of Mississippi Mills, Mills Community Support, wanted to encourage the growth of community gardens. “It’s about stimulating a community of people to build a vision for the future around food security,” says Jeff Mills, coordinator of community development. It’s about “celebrating the strengths and gifts in our community.”
Picture the Augusta Street Park garden, all 6,000 square feet of it, five years old and rooted on donated municipal land. Many know it from the Wednesdays in July music series, where Master Gardeners offer up tastings, tours and tips. On one August morning, the sunflowers held court over veggies, herbs and fruit-bearing shrubs; in the wood shed, garlic dried beside donated tools; outside, black plastic bins groaned with green beans, yellow beans, pattypan squash, cucumber, dill and basil. In 2017, 28 allotment gardens were used by the community and 10 were designated for the local food bank. Volunteers are the life and challenge of such projects, but gardeners are coming.
In Carp, municipality of Ottawa, Neighbourhood Tomato Garden West Carleton is located on land donated by the Anglican church. Building on shared experience and being part of a fun brand has proved successful. “This community of people within our garden provides people of all ages and abilities to get out and build new connections with each other, learn about growing their own food and allowing for the opportunity to work together to give back to the community by growing food for those in need,” says program coordinator Michelle Rehkopf.
Over at the Mississippi Mills Youth Centre, “It’s amazing how many kids don’t know where food comes from,” says manager Janet Morrison. “The garden beds let them see a seed become food.” Raised beds on the concrete parking lot face a main road into Almonte, down the street from a high school and next door to a pizzeria. A workshop and the launch of the Great Veggie Grow-Off, an annual, friendly competition between municipalities to benefit the four food banks in the region, were held on-site, raising awareness and providing the opportunity to share gardening techniques. Master Gardener and local columnist David Hinks visits regularly. Morrison is thrilled. “He rolls with whatever the youth are interested in doing, [which is] very helpful to us, especially to staff who are learning about gardening themselves.”
Community building also means the Friendship Oven project. The first oven is now outside a local library, directly across from the farmers’ market and where a proposed recreational trail will pass by. “The Almonte library is delighted to support and participate in these initiatives,” says chief librarian Pam Harris. “The community garden behind the library and the Friendship oven helps strengthen our own initiatives. It provides a drop-off for community garden veggies to be taken to the food bank, our seed library, our related education/speaker series and fun spin-offs like the Tastiest Tomato Initiative or the Great Pumpkin Grow Off.”
And at the finale of the Great Veggie Grow-Off held in Carleton Place, Ed Lawrence, CBC garden guru, former chief horticultural specialist to six governors general and stalwart volunteer promoting sustainable food communities, turned up. “If we have a core group that’s working hands-on and spreading the word about seed-to-table initiatives, then citizens will see that things are going on and it will spark interest,” says Lawrence. “The most important footprint is that the owner’s footprint is there.”
And in that northern country of Iceland, evocative of northern lights, heated lagoons and immense stretches of incredible landscapes, there too is the mighty tomato. Roughly an hour outside of Reykjavik, the tomato is a star at the Friðheimar cultivation centre.
Established in 1995, the centre includes greenhouses, a shop, a restaurant and an equestrian centre. Run by agronomist Knútur Rafn Ármann and wife Helena Hermundardóttir, a horticulturalist, the centre educates on an eco-integrated process where veggies are grown all year round.
Harvesting over 370 tons annually, Friðheimar is now an educational stop on the Golden Circle tour and last year hosted 160,000 visitors from around the world—equivalent to roughly half the overall population of this northern nation.
Visitors arrive and see lines of tomato plants under glass: plum, Flavorino and Piccolo. They watch bees conducting their duties and learn about local techniques that support food security.
“We believe that Iceland should be as sustainable as possible regarding food production” says Rakel Theodórsdóttir, marketing and quality manager. “Iceland is an island, with fewer insects and diseases than other countries, so by importing less and growing more domestically, we can both protect our ecosystem better and leave less carbon footprint in the world.”
The centre is pesticide-free, drawing on biological pest controls, using geothermal energy for heat and electricity, and watered arguably with the freshest water in the world. At the end of the tour, visitors are handed a cup of steaming tomato soup and a deeper, delicious appreciation of green production.
“In the rush of modern daily life, one may think that food is provided in the shelves of the shops and one doesn’t think too much of the value of the daily food,” says Theodórsdóttir. “We hope that our visitors will have a new experience of tomatoes grown in a sustainable way, and value the labour behind the tomato next time they pick them up from the shop.”
Surreptitiously creating community networks in Ontario and Iceland, tomatoes demonstrate that food need not travel great distances to our plates. Tomato soup with new friends has never tasted so good.
Heather Phaneuf lives in Mississippi Mills, Ontario, in the creative company of Pete and Furgus, the great grey cat. She turned a cultural anthropology degree into an international development career within both non-governmental organizations and the federal public service. Now completing studies in creative writing and in horticulture, she’s primed to enjoy community life, learn from the garden, and tell a tale or two…or three.