Cheyenne Sundance walks slowly along a row of newly planted collard greens and sprinkles them with water. Lovingly, she tends to the bok choy, cilantro, kale and mustard greens, the romaine and rosemary, sorrel, Swiss chard, tomatoes and turnips that fill her greenhouse in Toronto’s north end.

In September, the 23-year-old set up this small farming operation in Downsview Park. Already, Sundance Harvest has flourished beyond her wildest dreams: In a single day recently, she sold 100 bags of greens online. “The COVID-19 pandemic is helping people understand why small farms matter,” Ms. Sundance says. “They see long lines at grocery stores now and get scared. There is a big demand and a heightened need for urban produce. It’s ridiculous.”

Ms. Sundance, who grew up in a lower-income family in west Toronto, started her business with a $5,000 grant from a non-profit group that supports projects around food security. She hauled wheelbarrows full of soil, built the garden boxes herself and dug in the dirt to plant the seeds that turned her 1,600-square-foot facility into an emerald oasis on the edge of Canada’s largest city. “Food and land are the basics of independence and freedom,” Ms. Sundance says. “I want to allow people to see farming as a choice. Urban agriculture could be a solution.”

She decries the scarcity of allotment and community gardens in Toronto, which is what inspired her to launch a unique project last week called Liberating Lawns. Through it, Ms. Sundance plays the role of matchmaker, connecting people who want to have a garden but don’t have the space with those who have the space but not the inclination.

Already, she has hooked five sets of prospective growers with homeowners. She’s also in the process of recruiting representatives in neighbourhoods across the city who will help identify willing partners. The gardeners get to grow organic produce; the property owners get part of the yield.

Danielle Goldfinger saw a notice about the program on Ms. Sundance’s Facebook page and agreed to allow a garden in her front yard on Toronto’s west side. “I’ve tried to grow food many times, but I’m not good at it,” Ms. Goldfinger says. “My friends’ bounties were bigger, and their food always tasted better than mine.”

She believes it’s important to use as much space as we have to grow food – including her own decent-sized patch, most of which isn’t being used. “I am excited to have somebody come around who knows what they’re doing,” Ms. Goldfinger says. “Hopefully, I can watch and learn from it.”

Liberating Lawns paired her up with Nikita Wallia, who lives in an apartment with a balcony unsuitable for gardening. An aerial surveyor, Ms. Wallia has never had a garden but is excited to get started. In her travels to the United States, she noticed a growing movement toward urban agriculture. “In the U.S., it’s much more ingrained in the culture,” she says. “Cheyenne’s energy and her robust approach to this attracted me. It’s a great idea.”

This isn’t where Ms. Sundance expected to end up. She nearly dropped out of high school – in Grade 12, she says she attended school an average of three days a week. “I didn’t get into any trouble – I was a good kid,” she says. “I just didn’t want to go.”

She graduated, but her grades weren’t good enough for college. Instead, she went to visit a friend who was working on a peasant farm in Cuba. There, she learned to drive a team of oxen and to farm using only hand tools. (She also worked in tobacco fields and now grows a bit of it in Toronto.)

Her Cuban adventure was the catalyst for starting Sundance Harvest. “I saw how gardening was a community effort there,” she says. “It’s a place where urban farming is considered normal. It made me understand what it means and how important it is.”

Back in her greenhouse, Ms. Sundance is busy transplanting tomatoes into a row of bok choy. She still does everything by hand, just like she learned in Cuba. She estimates she could feed 80 families a week from her greenhouse today. “I’d like to grow more, but there’s only so much room,” she says. Recently, she and some partners secured a 6,000-square-foot tract of land where they’ll grow produce to sell at farmers’ markets.

She sniffles. She’s allergic to ragweed, but it doesn’t slow her down. “A few years ago,” she says, “I would never expect myself to have a functioning farm operation.”

The Globe and Mail, May 10, 2020