When I tell people I grew up on a farm, they imagine something out of Charlotte’s Web, a storybook barn full of cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses, a sweet-smelling haymow with mewing kittens. Then I tell them that I grew up on a real farm, with one crop (corn), beef cattle, a thousand acres and a $100,000 combine. The storybook farm they imagine—the one that lingers in our citified consciousness—does still exist, but not in the Prairies or even in rural Ontario. It lives in a leafy corner of downtown Toronto.
Riverdale Farm is set on seven and a half acres overlooking the Don Valley, at the corner of Winchester and Sumach, site of the old Riverdale Zoo. When the zoo closed, the local residents association proposed a Victorian farm to replace it, part of a bid to have Cabbagetown designated a historical neighbourhood and save it from slumlords and redevelopment. To visit it now is to step back into a 19th-century Canadian family farm, with a red-brick house, a rare 1858 Pennsylvania bank barn and heritage breeds of livestock: the Canadienne cow, Horned Dorset and Shetland sheep, Alpine and Toggenburg goats, the Large English Black Pig, and the only true Canadian-bred chicken, the Chantecler (a good winter layer, with a small comb that reduces the chance ”of frostbite).
But the past is not just on display here; this is a working farm and very much part of the community. You can buy eggs laid the previous night, or fresh organic produce at the Tuesday farmer’s market during growing season. In spring, wool shorn from the sheep is used by spinning and weaving groups at the Meeting House, which functions like a small-town community hall. Kids take crafts classes, and local artists offer painting, pottery and gardening courses for adults. Each year, young farmers—city kids—help plant black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers in the butterfly garden. Last summer, a group of children from Regent Park volunteered with such zeal they became known as Roger’s Rangers—finding purpose in bottle-feeding orphaned goats and, one suspects, a father figure in farm attendant Roger McClure.
Sometimes it seems as if Riverdale has always been here, the legacy of a stubborn farmer who refused to sell out, but it only dates back to 1976. In a tidy little reversal of “progress,” while the small family farm was falling victim to urban sprawl and modernization, the creation of Riverdale Farm helped to preserve a neighbourhood’s history.
I recently moved into a 127-year-old cottage a block from the farm. My favourite time to visit is before closing, when the animals come into the barn to eat and bed down. The other evening, Dolly the Clydesdale greeted my whistle with a whinny, and Bailey the goat was up to his usual hijinks, jumping on top of the gate as soon as his pen was closed. But they were upstaged by the farm’s newest resident. Under a heat lamp, struggling up on spindle legs to suck at his mother’s teat, was a rare black Cotswold lamb, rarer for being born in the heart of the city, and just a day old.