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Matchbox Garden and Seed Co. owner Hanna Jacobs, right, shows Emily Minthorn, centre, and Kevin Smith where to begin harvesting beets on their 4-acre farm on conservation land at the Kortwright Conservation Centre in Woodbridge, Ontario Wednesday, July 13, 2011.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

National and provincial parks bordering Canada's most populous cities are making an innovative addition to the list of activities allowed on protected land: farming.

Once elbowed off the land by ecologists bent on locking up massive tracts for the restoration of waterways, woodlands and wildlife habitats, farmers are now being invited back by conservation agencies that have come to view growing food as key to their sustainability. Momentum is particularly strong among parks near urban regions with strong local-food economies.

"We see, in the city region, a different kind of farming bubbling up. It's small-scale, high-intensity growing of vegetables. It's chickens, it's goats," said Gary Wilkins, a watershed specialist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). "We have thousands of acres of some of the best farmland in all the country here. Yes, we have been planting trees on it. But we recognize … perhaps we should be looking more seriously at agriculture."

Farmers are happy to be eyed for the job. As appetites for local food have grown, so has the economic viability of small-scale farm operations. That is especially true near populous regions where market opportunities are plentiful enough to keep transportation costs low.

In the Greater Toronto Area, for example, some vegetable farmers can grow intensively enough on small plots during the summer - selling to nearby restaurants, market customers and small distributors - that they don't have to take off-farm jobs in winter. Instead, they concentrate on building up their market base.

But that kind of success hinges on one crucial factor: access to land. Finding affordable farm space amid sprawling urban hubs is a nightmare.

"There's no way a new farmer would buy land in a near-urban area to farm. You could never get that kind of capital to lay out," said Christie Young, executive director of earth- and community-friendly models.

"They won't be big commercial family farms or large commodity farms," said Wendell Joyce, Greenbelt portfolio officer for the National Capital Commission, which has 5,400 hectares of agricultural land near Ottawa and 50 farm leases slated to expire over the next five years.

- the park's size and proximity to urban density makes it a North American anomaly - recently joined the movement by adopting an agriculture strategy. Alan Wells, chair of the Rouge Park Alliance, said 1,000 hectares have been earmarked for farm arrangements. A significant portion of those will involve innovative partnerships that provide access to farmland for community gardens and small growing operations designed to feed local markets.

The alliance is also in talks with Ms. Young's group, FarmStart. In 2008, the group signed an innovative lease with the conservation authority to work what is now the incubator farm, a 20-hectare plot of protected land bordering a subdivision in Brampton, Ont., that now hosts 21 growers. They learn to farm without the use of harsh pesticides, heavy chemical fertilizers or destructive practices. Farmers in the program can remain on the land for five years before going out on their own.

For many, leasing conservation lands is an attractive possibility.

"Farmers don't need to own their land to be able to steward it properly," Ms. Young said. But they do need long-term leases to safeguard investment in the property and provide an incentive to take care in building up soil quality. One U.S. national park in Ohio is offering farmers 60-year leases, but Canada's more innovative programs offer terms that hover around five years.

Hanna Jacobs, co-owner of

Aside from allowing the company to grow more than 100 varieties of vegetables, the plot, connected to a conservation learning centre, also allows Ms. Jacobs to educate children and other visitors on sustainable food and farming.

"Those of us that are just coming into farming, we have a different approach. We do want to be in the public more," she said. "We're not just farmers."