Farming in the city
I’ve always considered myself a city girl. Even though my parents decided to move from Vancouver to the suburbs when I was 10 years old, we still came into the city often to shop and enjoy its beaches, parks, arts and culture - those were some of my fondest memories.
Oh yeah, and I hate driving. I spent my teenage years driving everywhere and now the idea of living in a house where I would have to rely on a car just to have access to groceries, work, friends, etc. makes me feel slightly helpless and claustrophobic.
For these reasons, country life is definitely not for me. Or so I thought. When I was in Wales a few years ago taking part in a summer school with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (I wrote about it here), we spent a week learning traditional building techniques at a manor called Ty Mawr. The estate is home to the Gervises, a family of five who operate a business on the property - developing natural plasters used in traditional building while providing workshops in thatching, timber framing and building drystone walls.
At Ty Mawr with Alan (left), who taught us how to thatch a roof, then used the wheat to make us bread. Nice. He thatched the roof of Prince Charles’ barn.
The Gervis family’s 427 year old property overlooked a lake, had a lovely garden where they grew their own food and was crawling with farm animals with crazy personalities (a chicken that thought it was human, dogs that played soccer, a territorial goose, etc.).
This got me thinking about my exposure to farming in my own life – or lack thereof. When I was a kid, I loved the Stanley Park Petting Zoo because it provided access to farm animals (it sadly closed a few years ago due to budget cuts), but my education and home life never really involved learning where my food came from or growing produce.
See? Totally not kidding about the soccer-playing dogs.
20 some years later, urban farming has moved to the top of Vancouver’s agenda (and many surrounding cities) - we now have farmers markets, chickens, community gardens and wheat plots in the city’s urban core. One person helping promote the urban farming movement in Vancouver is Troy Barrie, who I heard speak at the last Pecha Kucha event in Vancouver.
Troy Barrie with farm-fresh cucumbers (Photo: Shifting Growth website)
Troy is an engineer who started Shifting Growth, an organization that transforms private vacant lots into community greening/growing spaces. Prior to that, he completed a 16 month placement with Engineers Without Borders in Ghana, West Africa, working for Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Here are his responses to my questions about urban farming:
How did you get involved in urban farming?
My connection to farming came from growing up in farming communities and during my time in Ghana. When I was there, the farm to food connection was an essential part of people’s every day life and culture. As sustenance farmers, they understood the critical relationship between a society and its local food supply - both the benefits and the hardships. Many Canadians romanticize farming, but the vulnerability and hardships are real, which is why food security and maintaining a local connection to farming is vital. I was amazed during my first-hand experiences with farmers in Ghana. I lived on their land, worked with them, and visited for weekly follow-ups for a year. It was a beautiful country, culture, people and it all was centered around agriculture. The entire experience got me hooked.
What is your organization, Shifting Growth, trying to achieve?
Shifting Growth is about finding those opportunities to permanently establish a food system in the city. Our business model focuses on finding vacant lots and old service stations and helping the landowners develop community gardens on those lands. We focus on these spaces because vacant, non-revenue generating lands represent an opportunity for community use.
Our long-term goal is to establish permanent urban agriculture spaces in Vancouver and cities across Canada and maintain a community connection to these lands, so we’ll always have public access, education and community gardens; however, it is also in our interests to provide permanent growing space to urban farmers at some point, because this is what I really believe will create that farm to food connection.
A thriving community garden in an urban Vancouver neighbourhood. (Credit: AndreCarol / Flickr)
Do you think Vancouver has a thriving urban farming/local food scene? What more needs to be done? What is missing?
The focus on the community gardens aspect of urban farming is strong, but there is a growing movement pushing for urban farms to contribute to food security. This is where there can be improvements. The city has definitions for what a park or community garden should look like, but not many guidelines for urban farms. It’s unclear how produce can be sold. It’s unclear what the tax system is for urban farms that are not on Agricultural Land Reserves. It isn’t a problem. Urban agriculture is new, so there is a little lack of awareness about the need and benefits. Wouldn’t elementary school tours of a local urban farm be cool? Kids would understand the system. We need to increase the public understanding of how vital the local food system is to our economy and the social benefits of that connection.
Vancouver has the right seeds. There is a dedicated community of gardeners that wants this to happen and are in it for the right reasons. They are willing to do the work. We’ve also got strong voices from the city itself. City planners and staff are putting time towards this and its fits the Greenest City campaign.
Why do we need more local food in the city/urban core when we can still source food locally from places like the Fraser Valley?
The direct answer is that there are so many educational benefits when we connect people in the city to local food production. I think it’s important to realize that much of Metro Vancouver is INCREDIBLE farming land. And it’s mostly underneath urban areas, like Richmond’s strip malls. We also have unused space, like rooftops. It’s about not wasting opportunity. The social benefits of a family, a community, or even individuals enjoying their time in the garden is also a major motivator to promote urban farming.
A chef at Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront hotel harvests apples ripening among skyscrapers. Hotel accountants say the roof garden produces fruits, vegetables, herbs, and honey worth about $16,000 annually. (Photo credit turkeyjaws)
What spaces in the city do you think would be great locations for urban farming?
I like high profile areas that would increase public awareness. I like areas where lower income families can have access to fresh produce. I like areas with high immigrant populations, since many cultures place high value on producing their own food. And, for urban farms intent on serious production there are hidden, less-visible areas within industry where a farm can quietly do it’s business in the city.
Hotels, tourism locations could promote these ‘locally produced’ food sources. Also, there’s an incredible opportunity for restaurants to do the roof-top gardens. Finally, cultural institutions such as parks, schools and churches all have land. As urban farms, these spaces could provide great social opportunities for communities that would add value to their lives and provide social interaction.
If you are interested in learning more about urban farming, former city councilor and Business in Vancouver columnist, Peter Ladner, just wrote a book about it called the Urban Food Revolution. The authors of the best-selling novel, Hundred Mile Diet, are also from Vancouver!