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Grow Calgary sets up farm animal sanctuary in Balzac

Grow Calgary founder Paul Hughes has wanted to include animals in the Grow Calgary operations for some time, but under current bylaws in Calgary, said it wasn’t possible within the city.

Without power or running water, Grow Calgary officials are experiencing their first winter after expanding their operation to include an animal rescue sanctuary at their Balzac location.

After a morning of dealing with frozen water lines, Grow Calgary founder Paul Hughes said growing vegetables has proven to be a lot easier than raising animals. 

“Winter comes with a lot of challenges because we don’t have power and we don’t have running water,” Hughes explained. 

There’s a lot of carrying straw bales, hay bales, and water buckets going on inside their newly built barns, but he said, at least the activity provides a good workout.

“It keeps all of us farm-fit, we call it the farm-fit program. Come out and do the farm-fit program,” he joked.

The Grow Calgary organization is Canada’s largest urban community farm, growing fresh produce for social agencies in the city with food access programs.

The non-profit organization was founded in 2011 and saw its first harvest in 2013. Their goal is to ensure all Calgary residents, especially those who are vulnerable and living in poverty, have consistent access to healthy, local food. All the food is grown at their Balzac farm with the help of 40,000 volunteers since their inception.

Hughes has wanted to include animals in Grow Calgary's operations for some time, but under current bylaws in Calgary, said it wasn’t possible within the city. The City of Calgary prohibits any livestock within city limits, though it is introducing an urban hen program through a livestock license program expected to launch in spring 2022. 

“We just couldn’t do it in Calgary because of their very myopic approach to urban agriculture,” Hughes said.

When Grow Calgary moved operations to Balzac in June, Hughes said he jumped at the opportunity to rescue their first farm animal – a 19-year old paint mare called Dally.

“We bought her for $1, she needed a new home. A lady was looking for a home in Lethbridge and she brought Dally up,” Hughes said. “She’s been the cornerstone, the anchor animal for the whole farm animal rescue mission.”

Hughes said there could be thousands of animal rescue organizations to save animals in Alberta, and claimed Alberta has a dark underbelly when it comes to horses and factory animals.

“We slaughter hundreds of horses in this province every day,” he claimed.

Rising prices of hay and age also factor into more animals going to market. Instead of ending up in slaughterhouses, animals like Dally, Popcorn the lamb, and several chickens named Henrietta and Ann Coulter are just a few among the roughly 50 animals that now call the Grow Calgary farm home.

“One thing leads to another. We got a couple chickens, a couple ducks, a horse, some pigs, some goats, and a little lamb and next thing you know we’ve got about 50 animals,” Hughes said.

Altogether, there’s space for another 100 animals on the farm, he said. The intention is for the animals arriving at the farm to live out the rest of their lives there.

Animals on the farm are also a great addition for the small scale farm management course run by Grow Calgary, according to Hughes.

It’s one thing to grow vegetables, but raising animals on the farm adds an entire learning opportunity for volunteers, he said.

“Each animal has its own unique challenges, we’ve always wanted to embrace our animal buddies, our animal friends on the farm,” he said.

The growing season for crops is over right now, and without the animals, there would be minimal work to do.

While raising animals doubles the work and the responsibility for Hughes and the volunteers, he said it has also added a lot of joy.

“It’s super cool, I’ve got so much respect for people who deal with animals, farm animals,” he said.

“They all have such unique personalities and these are the animals that we consume.”

In particular, he mentioned two rescued pigs named Snowball and Old Major who wag their trails and are excited to greet visitors. 

“Snowball is crazy, he does 360s, he runs around and rolls and is always so happy when people show up.”

Hughes said he’s very happy with his new venture, and added the energy of the animals isn’t something that’s matched by vegetables.

“[Vegetables] can’t give you that smile or head-butt and come over to see what you’re doing,” he said. “There’s all kinds of quirky little things that we’re learning about with these animals. 

“You can’t get that from a cherub tomato, not that I don’t love cherub tomatoes, but it’s the animated part that is just really neat.”

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