Manitoba farm moves to the inner city

Woman works to bring agriculture to a part of Winnipeg where residents have few opportunities to grow their own food

Louise May, owner of Aurora Farm, looks forward to helping Winnipeg’s inner city residents learn how to plant, nurture and harvest produce, and to possibly get acquainted with a goat or alpaca.

The inner-city area of Winnipeg can be described as a concrete jungle and a food desert, having virtually no opportunities for most residents to grow their own food. May is working to introduce part of Aurora Farm to this area and the people who live there starting later this year.

“They can’t come out here,” she said, because her farm lies a long way beyond the nearest city bus stop. “I need to go to them.”

Aurora Farm is located in St. Norbert, a historic Francophone area in southeastern Winnipeg. May grew up in St. Norbert and her land is situated on one of the long, narrow river lots first granted to Metis settlers. Although May’s 160 acres are located within the City of Winnipeg’s boundary, productive fields still surround her property.

May bought the property 16 years ago, and since that time, has turned it into what she describes as “an earth-friendly, animal-loving, solar-powered farm on the Prairies,” committed to sustainable farming practices and responsible land stewardship.

“I started out wanting to have a couple of goats and a dozen chickens for my food,” she said. Her alpacas were added for use as a natural fibre source, followed by horses because her daughter liked to ride.

She has obtained conditional-use variances from the City of Winnipeg to allow her to expand her animal herd, but in mid-March city council passed legislation allowing indoor and outdoor urban agriculture without residents having to apply for a change of land use. May was in favour of this change and spoke in its favour before a zoning committee.

The bylaw change will help pave the way for her urban agriculture project. May plans to work with inner-city social and economic groups, and hopes to announce the project’s site soon.

Aurora Farm has become a destination for people of all ages who want to learn hands-on natural practices, such as using goat’s milk to make cheese, soap and body-care products.

In the past year, she has transformed what were in-person workshops into online classes. Participants can get the necessary supplies from her on-farm shop through contactless pick-up. She recently finished a 10-week free workshop series.

May also offers day camps for youth, a three-day online goat camp for anyone who wants to learn about dairy goats, and short pre-booked farm tours for small groups (now a four-person limit).

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, May spent most spring, summer and fall weekends at her booth at Winnipeg’s largest farmers market in St. Norbert and at markets and craft sales in other locations. Her booth featured yarn and knitted garments made from fleece sheared annually from her alpacas, as well as soaps and natural body-care products containing goats’ milk.

While the pandemic changed how farmers markets operated in 2020 and cancelled craft sales, May said it was time for her to move on and offer her products and services to the public in other ways.

May said within the past year, Aurora Farm’s online shop was improved.

“The first thing we did was to switch over our sales. That was a bit of a stressful time.”

Instead of selling only products that she and her staff created, May opened her online shop to include other local growers. Shoppers are able to buy pasta made from organic grain, as well as honey, eggs, locally roasted coffee, and other food items. Beginning last fall, she also partnered with vegetable growers to put together themed food boxes containing locally grown ingredients.

Visitors to the farm can learn how to use goat’s milk to make cheese, soap and bodycare products. | Andrea Geary photo

“We’ve become a general store.”

One of Aurora Farm’s newest products can be attributed to a pandemic need — hand sanitizer made on-farm, which she sells and has donated bottles of it to Winnipeg non-profit organizations.

She also managed to market her natural soap to grocery stores, with Safeway and Sobeys in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario now stocking her products.

Recently, May reduced the amount of land she used for hay cultivation to offer would-be commercial gardeners larger plots of land. She said she’s seen Winnipeggers’ increasing interest in growing their own food. In 2020, she rented out seven garden plots and this year she already has 20 booked.

May acts as a consultant for the Clan Mothers Healing Village and Knowledge Centre. The Clan Mothers is an organization of Indigenous elders in the initial stage of creating the healing village and knowledge centre on 80 acres in Manitoba’s Interlake region. Its purpose is to become a sanctuary offering support for women who have experienced multi-generational trauma, sexual violence and exploitation, and human trafficking. The village’s plans include an agricultural component and May is providing her expertise to develop a food security plan.

May is realistic about her farm’s future. She knows the surrounding land will eventually be rezoned for residential use when the City of Winnipeg expands. Until then though, her goal of introducing agriculture to more people and boosting food equality continues.

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