Farming the Greenbelt: five Ottawa farms to visit this summer

Celebrating urban agriculture in Canada’s national capital region

  • Published Jun 30, 2023
  • Updated Jul 17
  • 1,410 words
  • 6 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
Photo courtesy National Capital Commission
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The National Capital Region is the symbolic heart of Canada. Encompassing the cities of Ottawa and of Gatineau, Que., and surrounding exurban communities on either side of the historic Ottawa River, it is the centre of Canada’s democracy, a place that welcomes people from across the country and around the world to discover our collective heritage, culture and natural features.

Building on more than a century of experience, the National Capital Commission provides unique value in the capital region by fulfilling three specific roles: long-term planner of federal lands, principal steward of nationally significant public places, and creative partner committed to excellence in development and conservation.

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An example of this third role is the National Capital Greenbelt. The Greenbelt protects some 20,000 hectares of green space within and surrounding Ottawa, including forests, sand dunes and wetlands, with many public trails accessible within a few minutes’ drive. It also boasts some of the most fertile agricultural soils in the region, which is why the National Capital Commission rents 5,400 hectares of land to farmers. The quality of the land and a favourable climate mean a wide variety of crops can be produced locally, feeding many of the National Capital Region’s families.

From farm to table

Farms in the Greenbelt are a symbol of Canada’s rural traditions, while also providing an example of how to practise viable and diverse agriculture in a near-urban setting. The efforts of these hard-working farmers are helping to feed our communities.

A quick overview of the Greenbelt shows farms west, south and east of Ottawa. And so, on a pleasant summer day, we set out to visit some of these farms to see what all the buzz is about.

Foresight in planning for sustainable agriculture 

In 1903, Frederick Todd, the first professional landscape architect in Canada, outlined a plan to the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the National Capital Commission’s predecessor, to ensure the public ownership of many of the capital’s green spaces, including what is now the Greenbelt. Then,
in 1950, planner Jacques Gréber recognized the value and importance of both natural and agricultural lands adjacent to cities and proposed the creation of a greenbelt for the capital region.

If not for the foresight of these visionary planners, urban sprawl would long ago have ravished most of the region’s green spaces, including valuable farmland. Today, more than 1.5 million people in the region reap the benefits of locally produced, sustainable agriculture.

Mādahòkì Farm

New to the Greenbelt since 2021, Mādahòkì Farm is a place where Indigenous Peoples can reconnect with the land through healing and wellness programs. Mādahòkì means “to share the land” in Anishinaabemowin, reflecting the farm’s goal of fostering greater understanding and reconciliation with all Canadians by sharing traditional teachings and the gifts of the land from an Indigenous perspective.

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One of the ways Mādahòkì Farm does this is by inviting the public to celebrate the changing of the seasons the Anishinaabe way, with events held on the moons of Pibòn (winter), Sīgwan (spring) and Tagwàgi (autumn), as well as the annual Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival. These immersive festivities offer farm-to-table food and cultural experiences such as crafting, music, fashion, dance and storytelling. 

Trina Mather-Simard, founder of Mādahòkì Farm, is a status member of Curve Lake First Nation and a trailblazer in Ottawa’s Indigenous tourism community. As we chat with Mather-Simard, we learn more about her mission to share traditional knowledge with people from all lands.

She shows us the farm’s newly sown garden plots, where they teach the Indigenous way of planting and harvesting berries, corn, strawberries, beans and squash, as well as how to prepare and serve these alongside meats like elk and bison.

The farm is also home to a herd of Ojibwe spirit horses. The Ojibwe
spirit horse is Canada’s only known Indigenous horse breed, with a small stature and adaptations that helped it survive in cold northern forests. Nuzzling in on our conversation, sweet and curious Migzi and Kitagokons join our group for a little attention.

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The Gees Bees Honey Company

Along the Rideau River south of the Ottawa International Airport, the Gees Bees Honey Company’s farm teems with the sound of more than 10 million bees working alongside Marianne and Matthew Gee to produce sweet, floral honey for the lucky residents of the region.

Since settling on this land rented from the National Capital Commission over five years ago, the Gee family have been pursuing their passion for bees and apiary farming. They stumbled upon their newfound love by accident when they found a bee colony in the walls of their old home and chose to save it, in the process learning how to care for the bees. This unexpected rescue stirred in them a passion that would transform their lives.

The Gees’ bees forage a variety of trees, herbaceous plants and wildflowers, from maples and asters to dandelions and clover. This floral diversity creates a range of unique honey flavours that vary with the seasons. Marianne Gee offers us a taste right from the honeycomb and notes that the comb itself, made of beeswax, can be enjoyed as a sweet snack.

Orleans Fruit Farm 

With its proximity to the urban core, the Orleans Fruit Farm is a busy place.

Paul Henrie grew up on this land near Green’s Creek east of downtown Ottawa, and for over 30 years, Paul and his wife, Françoise Michaud, have been progressively diversifying the fresh produce grown here.

Henrie’s parents grew only apples, pumpkins and corn. But today, the family’s farmland has doubled to 28 hectares, allowing them to grow over 25 different crops such as seasonal greens, asparagus, rhubarb, berries, cucumbers, squash, peppers, tomatoes and over 21 varieties of apples. At the farm stand, colourful fresh-picked produce offers a mouth- watering welcome to hungry commuters looking to pick up the ingredients for their next meal.

The Henrie family’s dream continues with next-generation farmers Alexandre and Caroline, who tell us about their plans to create a vineyard, a honey house and a cider mill.

Ottawa Farm Fresh

“Life is too short for grocery-store vegetables.” That’s the motto of Jonathan Bruderlein, Jolianne Demers and their son, Milo, who take pride in producing a variety of fresh, healthy, organic vegetables right in Ottawa’s backyard. Ottawa Farm Fresh, located in the Mer Bleue area of the Greenbelt, started in 2021 and has grown considerably through the family’s continued dedication and enthusiasm.

When they first looked for farmland, they wanted to be within city limits, close to the region’s residents. After a year and a half of visiting several farms and analyzing the soil, the land and the locations, they settled on this leased property 10 minutes from downtown Ottawa. Today, the farm runs a community-supported agriculture program, a popular farming model that partners farmers with residents to support the future success of the farm.

Demers also creates a slew of seasonal programming at the farm, such as yoga and culinary experiences featuring some of her most tantalizing recipes. Milo’s favourite event is their annual carrot pulling festival, where residents come for a fun-filled day of fall activities and help harvest the seemingly endless rows of carrots.

Photo courtesy National Capital Comission
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Photo courtesy National. Capital Commission
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The Beetbox Co-op Farm 

Sustainable farming includes growing with communities and passing on agricultural knowledge and practices. Many Greenbelt farmers offer community programs, including some aimed at youth, to foster the next generation of local agricultural production. The BeetBox Co-op Farm, in the west end of the region in Shirleys Bay, is one example. We begin our tour with Angela Plant and pass by the community- supported agriculture basket pickup location, which is bustling with people coming to get their weekly fresh produce. At the farm stand’s entrance, shoppers chatter and laugh as they browse the fresh produce and preserves and sample some farm-fresh cider.

Inside the greenhouse, fresh cherry tomatoes are being picked. And out in the field, we join a community group learning how to cultivate their own plots onsite with BeetBox farming experts. Not surprisingly, many people seek this connection to the land, and farming lets them get their hands right into the soil, an unparalleled sensory experience.

Our agricultural tour of the Greenbelt concludes with a sunset on the Ottawa River behind the farmstead. We leave feeling inspired to visit more local farms, and with a new appreciation for everything the National Capital Greenbelt has to offer.

Photo courtesy National Capital Commission
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Photo courtesy National Capital Commission
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This story is from the July/August 2023 Issue

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