Structures & Equipment
Urban farm and greenhouse effort aids Calgary communities
Sixteen-acre industrial landscape finds new life as agricultural hub
October 6, 2023 By John Dietz
A year-round greenhouse, without a foundation, is one highlight of social-and-environmental efforts to regenerate a damaged, 16-acre industrial landscape in Calgary into an urban farming hub.
It’s messy and it’s complicated, but that’s how life can be in a big-city, heavy-industry, zone. Highfield Regenerative Farm (HRF) is on “underutilized space” on the western heights of the Bow River Valley (highfieldfarm.ca).
Highfield Farm is on a high, rough, and torn piece of once open Prairie, about a kilometre east from the river, now surrounded by concrete, warehouses, and manufacturing. Neighbours are a major steel company, a motocross dragway, and Calgary’s high-traffic artery, Deerfoot Trail.
But, there’s a remnant of Prairie trees here and a desire for much more. The name captures the purpose: Highfield, Regenerative, Urban, Farm. Given success, one day it will be an urban refuge and landscaping icon.
Back in 2017, City of Calgary officials issued a call for proposals for the underutilized and degraded land. The farm was established in 2019. Today, in partnership with the City of Calgary and Compost Council of Canada, slow transformation is underway.
Approximately 15,000 sq.-ft. of garden space is available. It has more than 900 members. The majority of food production is donated to organizations such as the Calgary Food Bank and the Mustard Seed.
Three “value” pillars guide the project: land revitalization, regenerative food production, and community building.
Much of Highfield Farm’s approach is based on education and involvement – offering extensive opportunities for volunteering and for experiential learning combined with environmental action like composting, soil health focus and crop selection.
This year (2023) as the HRF was getting ready to renew its five-year lease, it received a “Shared Footprints Award” from the Emerald Alberta Foundation. Presenting the award, Calgary said:
“The HRF strives to create a vibrant, creative and inspired urban community hub, centred around biodiverse land, regenerative local food, compost and soil health, education, and contributing meaningful work.”
In 2022, the farm attracted 637 individuals and approximately 1,400 hours of volunteer work. Other highlights included:
- Creating 7,048 yards of compost for use on-farm in 2022.
- Diverting 720 cubic yards of arborist/ landscaping waste from landfill sites.
- Helping community groups explore regenerative agriculture, composting and land revitalization.
Meet Heather Ramshaw, operations manager.
“I came from a community development background with a focus in food security and experience in organic farming,” she rattles off now.
Ramshaw came to 1920 Highfield Crescent SE, Calgary, in early 2021, after earning an environmental degree at the University of Waterloo. She found herself looking at a space of 79,000 square feet (about 850 feet square,) about the size of a long city block in each direction, without water, gas, or electricity, and with a 0.6 km walk to the closest transit stop.
Her farm’s founders, Mike Dorion, Jeremy Zoller, and Jay Fish were there for moral and administrative support as well as limited onsite labour. The three own and operate their own businesses today. They hired Heather to run the site year-round, from an office trailer.
“One of the four original members stepped back in 2022 to pursue other opportunities, but Mike, Jeremy and Jay are here for the long haul,” Ramshaw says. “We are operating the farm on a hundred-year plan. Our primary five-year lease has an option to renew and, at the ten-year mark, if the city is happy and we’re happy, there should be no issue staying for the long term.”
For now, 16 activity areas have been identified and about eight groups from surrounding communities have established special interest centres on the urban farm.
“Funding is probably the biggest struggle. It takes a lot of financial capital to make a project like this happen. Without having the large financial capital required to put in running water and power to the entire site, the missing infrastructure holds us back,” she says.
The water supply, for instance, is a fire hose attached to a nearby hydrant for the summer. It stretches across the site. It’s used daily to fill holding tanks to water the crops and operate an overhead sprinkler irrigation system. Gas and electricity are only available in her office and, on limited basis, in the greenhouse.
Cash flow comes from a few product sales, registration fees, memberships, donations, private grants and government grants.
“It’s always tough relying on grants,” she says. “We apply for grants from different levels of government. We have revenue from selling the mulch. We throw some events, and we charge for classes. It all helps.”
Fees range from free, allowing access to get your hands dirty and discounts on fees, to as much as $3,000 per year for companies, groups, or organizations to be actively involved in a healthy local food system and have large group access to a shared growing space.
Small groups of volunteers dot the farm daily, spring, summer and fall. Whole classes can be found there, learning gardening principles, in spring and fall. Tuesdays, the Compost Club shows up to turn about ten barrels of composting organic material. Every second or third week, all summer, groups are setting up and running special events like workshops with fees of $25 to $35 per person.
August events included Garden Club Saturdays, Alberta Open Farm Day, ABC Bees Field Day, Yoga on the Farm, Experience Metis Land Relationships, Farm-to-Table Dinner with The Basil Ranch Flower Tunnel, Seed-to-Table Fall Soil building, and the Compost Club Talk-and-Turn.
Across central and east Calgary, home calendars already were marked for the 2023 Soupalicious event on the first day of October. It’s become a popular, high-profile taste-off with soups built from the harvested produce plus vendors and music as a fall celebration.
Work on a farm is never done. Ramshaw says, “We have a great community that works hard to maintain the space, but we always need more folks coming out to do the hard labour. It’s never done.”
Sprung foundation-free greenhouse
Building a commercial-size greenhouse on site was a key component for long-term development, says Heather. It will extend the growing season at both ends by a month to six weeks, enabling significantly more production. It also could be used to generate revenue and hold classes.
Federal approval for a $227,000 grant to purchase and build a 4,800-square-foot greenhouse was announced in 2022 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The greenhouse is intended to support Calgary’s community-based local food system. It will enable Highfield Farm to expand Calgary’s usual short growing season to a year-round effort, supporting the goals of this local urban farming hub to provide Calgarians with fresh, locally-grown, nutrient-dense food while also providing an exciting community gathering place.
The rib-and-membrane, energy-efficient building is 40×120-feet and supplied by Sprung Structures of Aldersyde, Alberta. The aluminum substructure is rated to outperform steel; the tensioned and translucent architectural membrane has a longevity of approximately 15 years.
Still, if required, the rapidly built structure can be relocated to a second location in a few days. Aluminum doesn’t rust, and retensioning of the membrane panels is not required for the life of the structure.
City and federal stipulations are tied to the greenhouse.
Permanent buildings are prohibited on the urban farm. Instead of resting on a foundation, the greenhouse has a weather-resistant earth-anchor system. Each aluminum rib is attached to two duckbill-shaped anchors about 12-feet below ground. In turn, steel-cable in the ground connect the anchors.
“It’s a pretty solid system to hold this building down,” she says.
Sprung, founded in 1887 in Calgary, is one of Canada’s oldest family-owned companies. It has built more than 12,000 rib-and-membrane structures worldwide, resistant to hurricanes, sandstorms and blizzards. According to CEO Tim Sprung, the company only returned six years ago to building greenhouses.
A second stipulation, from the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, is that half of the space must be used for community gatherings and teaching.
“We turned the greenhouse on for the first time in April this year,” Heather says, after internal setup and city permits were completed. “Already we’ve seen a huge jump in our ability to extend our season and produce more. We won’t have an idea of the full impact of the greenhouse on our ability to produce until probably the end of next season.”
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