Monday, December 7, 2009

Riverdale Farm - Saturday November 21st, 3:00 pm

Riverdale Farm is located at the corner of Winchester and Sumach Streets, just west of the Bayview extension. In front of the farm is a large park. Although Riverdale farm does not have fields in which it grows food to sell, it does have a variety of farm animals which live in small-scale versions of their “natural” farm habitats (I do not know what the farm does with the milk and eggs its animals produce). A path leads through a gate attached to the original farmhouse, and past two barns that house pigs and horses. There is a large pen where two horses are eating. As you walk further down the path, there are several small pens on a hill. Goats and sheep and can be seen eating and relaxing. A couple of chickens roam freely. There is a pond full of ducks, with a viewing platform for children to observe them more closely. Across from the pond is an indoor hall where a few children are working on crafts. Past this is a small museum. There are street lamps in the park and scattered through the farm, but these have not been turned on yet and it has just begun to get dark. Most of the noises at the farm are the sounds of children shouting and laughing, and a dull buzz from cars on the Bayview extension. The animals themselves are almost silent.

All of the visitors to the farm today are families with very young children, and many seem to be tourists. The day is overcast and fairly chilly and many families are packing up to leave. The animals are relaxing in their pens, eating and watching the people who are watching them. A father points out a goat to his young daughter and picks her up to get a better look. Most of the children are straining to get closer to the animals. In the indoor hall, children are drawing while an instructor talks about the farm’s animals. Outside, most parents are picking up belongings and calling to their children to hurry up. In the park next to the farm, people are jogging and walking their dogs, and children are playing tag.

What struck me immediately about the farm was how small it appeared. I visited Riverdale several times on field trips in elementary school, but had never been back. The farm did not meet my expectations on this trip. It was much smaller than I remembered, and seemed less vibrant. There also seemed to be fewer animals, although this could have been related to the weather. As such, most of my observations disappointed me. I noticed that there were “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs placed prominently throughout the farm, and I wondered how effective these are.

What was obvious was the dichotomy between access to and protection from the animals (and their protection from us). The barriers between humans and the animals are clearly mutually beneficial. Policies about feeding protect the animals from harm, while chest-high wooden fences prevent animals from escaping or children from getting too close. However, chickens wander loose around the farm and seem oblivious to children’s attempts to touch them. For kids growing up in downtown Toronto, Riverdale farm is arguably the closest one can come to animals (other than domestic pets). Visitor’s experiences at the farm are mildly scripted – almost everyone follows the asphalt path from barn to pen and back again, observing the same animals in the same order as everyone else. The visitor’s role is primarily one of observation; interaction with the animals is fairly limited.

Riverdale farm can be considered a fairly literal interpretation of Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a “town-country magnet”, an alternative to the isolation of the country and the immorality of the city. The “town-country magnet” was a happy medium that combined the benefits of rural and urban life, creating a mix of nature and social opportunity. As a farm set in the middle of a busy urban area, Riverdale has most of the benefits of rural life. It is fairly peaceful, family-friendly, and allows people to feel close to nature. It also shares the advantages of its urban setting – it is easily accessible and free of charge. William Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis”, can be used to analyze the farm from a different perspective. Cronon debunks the perception that agriculture is pure and organic, describing the farm as a “small artificial ecosystem” that “undermined the prairie ecosystem”. Personally I am glad that the farm exists, because it increases awareness about animals and about our food sources. Riverdale Farm is an excellent venue for children in the city to learn about animals, and to experience a taste of farm life that they might otherwise be unable to access. At the same time, the farm’s small scale makes it an unnatural microcosm of an already unnatural ecosystem.

Riverdale farm is constitutive of a human/nature connection, but it is not an entirely authentic relationship. Although the animals are themselves “natural”, their placement within built structures (pens, barns, etc) is incongruent with their natural desire to roam free. The experience of watching people watch animals, who are in turn watching the people, brings to mind the image of a fishbowl. The animals serve an educational purpose and have entertainment value. The fact that they are serving these scripted purposes, in addition their natural ones (reproduction, food production, etc), is evidence that the farm’s activities are artificial at their core. As a sort of “mini-farm”, Riverdale farm is doubly unnatural – an imitation of an imitation of nature.

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