It's kind of bucolic if you squint. A stencilled tree stump announces your arrival at Trinity Reach Farm, which doubles as a rental house in Little Italy.
Paul Stewart, his older brother Dave, Jacob Wharton-Shukster and Chris Ioannou are roommates here. In their spare time and in their social hours, they dream up DIY food production projects using homemade contraptions. They're out there, they're stylish, and they might be the new heroes of local food.
It all started with a rooftop herb garden using blue bins as planters. When the landlord kicked them off the roof, she gave them the front garden instead. Then they took over the backyard, too, and last year grew cucumbers, hot peppers, carrots, beets. They took up the art of pickling and preserving. No botulism yet.
Then things got out of hand. They built a backyard meat smoker, brewed their own beer and cider, made cheese with a homemade press and cured their own meats and sausages in a converted wine fridge.
There's a mushroom log, too, a vermicomposter and a skylight greenhouse for their seedlings.
They call it a farm, but nothing's for sale. And there's no real agenda except to push the notion that food matters. "I don't see it as particularly political or revolutionary,'' explains Dave Stewart. "It's just showing people that they can produce things outside of the industrial food process."
Well, they do have one agenda: this week they became political dissenters when they began raising chickens.
They built a backyard coop and bought two pullets from a supplier in Elmira, Ontario. They're doing it for the eggs, mostly. Problem is, it's illegal to raise livestock in the city, including chickens, and getting caught could mean a $240 fine.
The unofficial rule is that if neighbours don't complain, chicken rebels are generally left alone. But Toronto lags behind other Canadian cities when it comes to progressive chicken policy. This month, Vancouver passed a bylaw allowing up to four chickens in backyards, and in March, Calgary dropped all charges against a man illegally raising hens in his yard.
Councillor Joe Pantalone, in whose ward Trinity Reach is located, recalls when Toronto banned backyard chickens in 1983 over health concerns. He opposed the prohibition then and would still support its reversal almost three decades later.
"The cycle has turned, and now we're all trying to figure out how to bring farming back into the urban area," he says. "Ethnic working-class people did it because that's what they always did," he says. "Now younger people are pushing for it because they envision a more holistic world."
Councillor Joe Mihevc would also like to see the practice legalized as part of the city's new food strategy.
"If council can't see its way to supporting it wholeheartedly from the beginning, and if they need a pilot project, than I'm sure we can find councillors willing to volunteer their ward, and I would be among them."
Toronto Public Health and Municipal Licensing and Standards are both looking into the feasibility of urban hens, and both departments will report their findings in the next few months.
"We couldn't get in trouble for anything else unless we were selling it," says Stewart. Still, they want to be able to share the fruits of their labour. "I want to do a co-op approach where we can find ways of making this more legal."
Or they'll just have a party. Says Wharton-Shukster, "We want to put a long harvest table in the backyard and then have parties with homemade beer and cheese, house-cured meats and a big pig roast."
Their activities recall the neighbourhood's earlier waves of Italian and Portuguese immigrants, many of whom still live there. One neighbour has been known to raise rabbits, and the woman next door is a fount of advice on everything from shade planting and sausage-making to how to prevent chickens from becoming raccoon food. Her own backyard is a chaotic jumble of food-bearing pots and planters.
"People are doing urban gardening as part of the green movement," says Paul Stewart, "but you see people who've lived here forever with these incredible backyards."
So is this phenomenon old or new? Wharton-Shukster invokes the new-ish concept of "maker culture," which he describes as "young people interested in creating something tangible with their own hands."
They're lucky to have good mentors. Three of them are servers in local restaurants, so food production is already part of their daily lives. Along with their neighbour, their crack team of informal consultants includes chef Jamie Kennedy and Vicki Emlaw, a ninth-generation farmer in Prince Edward County.
"I was really amazed at all the things he was attempting to do," says Emlaw of her first meeting with Stewart. "It shows what can be done in the city."