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Large urban farm restaurant to take root in Windsor

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Restauranteur Van Niforos' plan for an urban greenhouse in Windsor was born of practicality.

"I just wasn't getting enough local produce," says the owner of The Penalty Box. "By the time it got to me it had travelled two or three thousand miles."

However, the more Niforos learned about urban farming practices, the more the idea appealed to him.

"Once you learn about it, once you see it, it becomes that much more attractive," he said.

Niforos, along with partners George Sofos and David Fields, is aiming to turn the old trolley warehouse on University Avenue into an integrated urban farm and restaurant. The historic building will host a second Penalty Box restaurant, as well as the Delightful Farm greenhouse.

Fields, an organic gardener, says the 3,000 sq. ft. (85 sq. m) greenhouse and 300-seat eatery will be the first of its size in North America.

New ideas need old buildings

"To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, 'new ideas need old buildings,'" said Fields, noting the availability and cost of real estate in Windsor make it an ideal place for urban farming to sprout.

As the project manager for the greenhouse, Fields is consulting with urban farms across the continent, including Lufa Farms in Montreal and Growing Power in Milwaukee.

"It's incredible what they're doing there," he says of the latter. "They produce one million pounds of food off of two acres every year."

At first, the greenhouse will focus almost exclusively on growing tomatoes, in an effort to satisfy The Penalty Box's demand for more than 600 kilograms of the fruit every week.

However, Fields has plans for expansion that include an outdoor farm, a rooftop orchard, and even a parking lot solar-thermal collector.

"We can collect heat from the parking lot and use it to supplement the greenhouse," he says.


The more than 600 kilograms of fruit used by Penalty Box every week

Letting nature work for you

Fields believes it's important to work with nature rather than against it. For instance, by tending the urban forest behind the trolley building, the restaurant will foster the bird population, which in turn reduces the number of insects in the greenhouse.

"You can let nature do the work for you," he said.

Although fruit and vegetables from the greenhouse will still cost the restaurant more than shipped produce, Fields says the price is worth it for the taste alone.

"Everywhere I go, people are complaining about tasteless tomatoes from Mexico, or garlic from China that spoils in two days," he says. "There are other choices out there and we're here to show people that we can take control of our food."

Assuming he can navigate "the two floors of lawyers in Toronto," Fields expects the farm to be up and running by March. Niforos said the restaurant will open in the summer of 2013.

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