Sustainable Urban Farms in Vancouver BC

Amidst the concrete and skyscrapers of the city sprouts a determined group of folk who are turning backyards, balconies and vacant lots into a green oasis of food. Growing food in the city is not a novel idea, but with concerns about food security, food systems and people wanting to connect with the land – urban agriculture is a “growing” movement. Our Solutions – Urban Food section highlights some of the urban agriculture initiatives and ideas that are playing a role in regreening the urban landscape. This series of articles includes Vancouver’s Urban Farming Census, Sharing Backyards mapping project, youth guerilla gardening, community trust farming, myths about backyard chickens, how to turn lawn into garden and container gardening. 

by Marc Shutzbank

As winter melts into spring, and mushroom hunters spot their first morels, the growing season begins anew. Yet, it’s not just large farms in Burnaby and Delta starting their crops. New farmers across the City of Vancouver, the North Shore and urban areas of Richmond are transforming their urban food environment one backyard, public plot, or privately owned parcel at a time. Though there are many instances of urban agriculture and peri-urban farms across North America, urban farmers are a relatively small group that primarily grow food for sale on plots less than an acre in size.

In 2010, nine of these urban farms grew and sold their produce in Vancouver and its surrounding communities. In 2011, those numbers grew, with two new farms growing in the City of Vancouver and one new farm in the City of North Vancouver and Richmond. In 2010, eight urban farmers participated in an Urban Farming Census I administered through the University of British Columbia and the Urban Farming Network. In that year, 117 families were provided weekly boxes of produce through community shared agriculture (CSA) programs. Including farmer’s markets, restaurants and retail sales, urban farms sold $128,000 of produce from just 2.34 acres of inner city farms. In the first year of business, urban farms did not return large profits, but they provided 21 jobs through farm sales and grants at $10.40/hr to $25/hr for hourly employees. 

So far ten urban farms have participated in the 2011 census. Those organizations shared produce with 139 CSA members weekly. On just under four acres, urban farmers sold $180,000 worth of produce through CSAs, farmer’s markets, on farm sales, restaurants and retailers. These budding businesses, most of which are in their first three years, hired 29 employees at similar hourly wages to 2010. Sean Dory of Sole Food, an urban farm employing downtown East Side residents, is preparing to make fourteen new hires for the 2012 growing season. “We have people that beg us for our arugula and we need the people to grow and harvest for our customers,” says Dory. “Our goal is to grow fantastic food. It just so happens that in doing so we provide opportunities for employment in the downtown east side. We’re helping those in this community invest in themselves.” 

While urban farming is popular in many circles across North America, many criticize urban farm development because urban farms cannot support the total urban demand for food. Dr. Wendy Mendes, a Social Planner with the city of Vancouver, counters, “Even producing ten or twenty per cent of our food makes a difference. Urban farmers can produce a portion of our food, all while building multifunctional garden space that can provide a place for the public to connect with the food system.” 

Finding new ways to grow even a portion of our own food is critical in an environment where food prices are at the highest level ever recorded. High oil prices, combined with increased biofuel demand and a changing climate, put strain on our food systems. In British Columbia, 90,193 individuals used food banks in 2011. Not only are people not getting enough food, they are not getting the right kinds of food. Just over 50 per cent of Canadian adults are overweight or obese, as are 26 per cent of our children. 

One of Vancouver’s urban farms, Farmers on 57th, works with United Way through Growing Eden, a program designed to provide healthy produce for families. “We all sit down and enjoy a big lunch together. Then we prepare the harvest for families to take home. It’s so fun to watch the children explore the peas and beans,” explains Jen Rashleigh, project coordinator for Farmers on 57th. “In addition to providing food through the season, we’re helping to teach these little three year olds to think differently about where food comes from. It doesn’t just pop out of the grocery store.” 

People are often passive consumers in our commercial food systems, buying only what is available at retail stores. There are few instances where consumers can act as active food citizens, working with producers to provide healthy food for their families. 

An average North American chooses to spend just 67 minutes a day on food: preparing, shopping, cooking, eating, and cleaning. That’s just 22 minutes a meal. What kind of food can you prepare, shop for, cook, eat, and clean up after in 22 minutes? Wendell Berry puts it best, “Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty knows how to produce a baby, but by the age of 30 does not know how to produce a potato.” We are disconnected from the food that we eat and the processes and people who produce it. 

Urban farmers and their allies are facilitating new connections with the food system on a whole new level. Ilana Labow of Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society builds working urban farms on schoolyards, providing outdoor learning classrooms for teachers to teach BC curriculum. “It’s amazing to watch children arm wrestle for the last of our purple sprouting broccoli,” Miss Labow says. “Our vegetables are in demand from the students, first, and then the parents. We are helping create new opportunities for school communities to participate in the growing and eating of fresh produce.” 

As these urban farmers invest their time, labour, and money into their land, they do so knowing it is not explicitly legal. Though municipalities around the world have continually embraced urban agriculture, many cities in North America moved agriculture to a rural agenda over 100 years ago. There are no zoning or licencing allowances for entrepreneurial urban farming in Vancouver, but a fruitful relationship between urban farmers and the government is helping to change that by re-thinking how to include food in a municipal agenda. 

“As an organization, the city is still learning about these businesses and the differences between community gardens and urban farms,” says Dr. Mendes. “We’re reintegrating our food systems into our urban environment. It’s important to recognize that this is not new around the world and we have a lot to learn from other cities, particularly in the Global South.” Armed with a mandate from the Greenest City Action Plan, and city council’s call for a just and sustainable food system, the City of Vancouver and urban farmers are rebuilding a framework for urban farming. 

The wheels of the city have been turning quickly in the past four months. Already a technical team has been assembled. City officials are meeting farmers to determine how to move forward. The city, in consultation with stakeholders such as the Urban Farming Network Society and others, is learning about the different types of urban agriculture, the needs of these organizations and residents. “Ultimately, we have the kind of society that we demand,” says Julia Smith of Urban Digs Farm. “We need more of our neighbours to point out how important urban farming is to them and help the city develop these policies.” 

Urban farmers are ready to plant their seeds and provide healthy, organically grown local produce for families in the Metro Vancouver region. “We’re building sustainable businesses,” says Chris Thoreau of the Urban Farming Network Society and owner of My Urban Farm, a sprouts business. “It’s about building socially, environmentally and economically sustainable organizations. We’re in this for the long haul.” 

***

Marc Schutzbank is a MSc. candidate at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, and a founding board member of Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. For more information on The Urban Farming Census, email: mhs12@interchange.ubc.ca.

[From WS Summer 2012]

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