Meet Your Maker: Amy Cheng of Red Pocket Farm
Fresh City member farmer Amy Cheng is the owner of Red Pocket Farm , a small plot of land at Downsview Park that grows a whole lot of delicious, organic Asian vegetables. Originally not from a farming background, Amy is now in her 5th season growing food and 2nd season farming full-time. We talked to Amy and asked her to share her path to city farming, her inspiration, as well as her hopes and dreams for the future of her farm.
How did you come to farming?
I came to farming gradually over the past ten years - unlike some other first generation farmers who felt a calling to farm since childhood. I grew up a city/suburban kid in Hong Kong and Scarborough, and did not know of any farmers in my family. My family grew some tomatoes and Asian vegetables at the most, when we first immigrated here. But - I do remember developing a love for the outdoors starting in high school, and that is still one of the reasons I currently love farming. The main trigger for me was 10 years ago when I lived abroad in Costa Rica and saw all of the imported vegetables that I ate, growing in their natural environment. I was shocked at my own ignorance about where and how my food came to be, and I began reflecting on how important I think it is to know how to feed oneself, our food system, food education, etc. I remember thinking, since eating is essential to living, of all the things they teach in school, how can gardening not be one of them? Since then, a lot of self-teaching, gardening, and volunteering happened, and my interests and activities just became more and more serious over time. Finally, I took the leap and quit my job, interned a full season at Everdale Farm, and for the past two years have decided to test if I can actually handle full-time farming, make a living from it, and see if being an entrepreneur is for me. Hence the birth of Red Pocket Farm.
What do you love about farming?
A lot of things, including many of the obvious assumptions - things like being active, being outside, eating delicious food, sharing this great food with others - who wouldn't like these things? But other things that really motivate me to succeed at making a living from farming (and gets me through the tough days) are things like feeling empowered through knowing I can feed myself (and others) and developing what I consider an essential life skill. I love seeing people who are really grateful for the healthy food that you're providing them or are excited to try a new vegetable that you grew. I love living a life that is completely immersed in and linked to the patterns and cycles of nature (though this is also daunting as a farmer when the weather is not in your favour), the infinite learning, and finally, being surrounded by so much life and beauty in the plants, animals, insects, everything.
Why do you think city farming is important?
One of the most valuable aspects of city farming is being able to connect people who don't normally get to see a farm more closely to their food. The educational potential with city farming is huge, you can reach a much larger population and diverse demographic because of the geographical closeness. The more we educate people about why sustainable farming is important, the more viable sustainable farming will be. We need non-farmers to support our work by prioritizing food, buying it, advocating for policy changes, etc.
What was the inspiration for Red Pocket Farm?
Red Pocket Farm focuses on Asian vegetables, and that came from a natural interest in wanting to grow what I grew up eating, and what my family eats. The cuisine of my own culture is the inspiration. I started trying to grow Asian vegetables before I decided to start a farm business and I think that was just the natural progression. It was only after I started growing for myself that I started to reflect that there are probably others with the same food interests, but who are not able to source these varieties organically or locally. Then I began thinking about larger food security issues related to this, such as the availability of culturally appropriate foods.
What is Red Pocket Farm's mission statement?
To produce organic, high quality, Asian and Western vegetables using sustainable farming practices. Also, to be active in food education activities and work with others in the 'good food' movement to address cultural and financial barriers to healthy food.
What are your goals for Red Pocket Farm this year?
I’d like to hone my knowledge and skills, grow some of the same Asian staples as last year (bok choy, gai lan, choy sum), expand my Asian veg repertoire, do a really good job at my two markets, supply Fresh City bags on a regular basis, do more education work re: organics with my family and immediate community, host more farm tours, and ensure I take time off for family, friends, and non-farm fun :)
Where do you sell your veggies?
Two downtown farmers' markets (Sorauren and Regent Park), weekly "Red Pocket Veg of the Week" item through Fresh City bags, some occasional wholesale to Fresh City and other small distributors / other food businesses, informally to friends and family (in Toronto and Scarborough).
Hard to pick just one... how about my top four? Gai Lan (Chinese kale / broccoli), Hakurei Turnips, Chinese beauty heart or Watermelon radish, and any kind of squash.
I LOVE western style hearty soups, or brothy Chinese style soupy noodle bowls. My favourite quick and easy dish... miso or spicy soup with buckwheat noodles, mixed vegetables, topped with a fried egg over easy.
Can you share an anecdote/revelation from your experiences farming (an epiphany, a moment when things were tough or made you laugh, anything that stands out as a special memory)?
Several key ones come to mind. Imagine if you will:
1) Feeling thankful (and somewhat sad) towards a piece of land as you watch it get tilled in after the last harvest, prepping it for winter - wiping a clean slate after 6 months of blood, sweat, tears and joy - and the feeling of tucking in for a winter's rest.
2) Lying in a bed with a throbbing lower back or legs trying to fall asleep, or loading a car with coolers full of veg after a slow market day and wondering "will this all work out?"
3) Having a neighbour who normally buys imported Chinese vegetables for $0.99 / LB from an independent ethnic grocer, convert to a regular customer who now buys her weeks’ veggies from me in my driveway, out of the back of my car after market.