Urban farming gives city folks a connection to food and each other

Opportunity As science increases our ability to bloom indoors and without 
soil, so does our opportunity to provide food for the city from within it

When we think of agriculture our minds drift off to fields, bins, cages and pens. Ask an urbanite what they think of when it comes to the production of food from the earth and they dream of gardens, herb boxes and paper bags of “fresh” produce from the farmers’ market. 


Although at first glance the two may seem miles apart they are actually country cousins — farming on different scales for the purpose of creating great food. The movement to green cities includes both environment and plants. 


Now more than ever we can grow a lot of food in a little space without soil. In a recent visit to the Netherlands I was touring a glasshouse selling $40 million of micro-herbs a year. Not bad considering that there was not one ounce of soil in the place. And as science increases our ability to bloom indoors and without soil, so does our opportunity to provide food for the city from within it.


In Vancouver, a proposed 150-point city policy will make that city as “pretty as it is delicious” and provide work for those who love to be out- or indoors. The country’s first-ever vertical garden will be functional this fall and producing veggies by the tonne for city residents. In Toronto, active agreements between the city and special-interest groups such as The Urban Farm have allowed for expansion of the “golden horseshoe” inward rather than outside of city limits. 


While Winnipeg may be colder than a banker’s eye in winter, it nurtures several strong initiatives in urban agriculture. And in Montreal the famous LUFA was the first in the nation to introduce hydroponic glasshouse foods on the top of the town. Their vision of a city of rooftop farms is becoming a reality as the technology of capturing heat from roofs is shared worldwide.


Green initiatives are not always easy or straightforward. A recent study indicates that in most Canadian cities up to 44 per cent of people grow a little something to eat. It could be as simple as a pot of parsley or a row of carrots among the carnations but there is always something growing. It may be that mankind was born to plant seeds and feed animals, or it could be that there is something spiritual and miraculous about plant and animal life. Either way, urban agriculture, although small in stature has woven its way into the very fabric of the majority of the lives here on Earth.


A chicken or two


Sometimes, it gets a little dangerous as cities follow Vancouver’s lead and introduce legislation to allow barnyard birds in the backyard. That proverbial headache will someday land squarely on CFIA’s shoulders and is only going to get worse. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver house the most voters and the greatest percentage of foreign-born Canadians. In Toronto alone, 45 per cent of the 2.6 million residents are foreign born and many would appreciate having a chicken or two just out the back door. That would be a cultural norm from many homelands. 


Other entrepreneurs have used the green movement to profit on the backs of urban landowners. One creative company in Vancouver has folks donate their yards for gardens and the company sells the produce at farmers’ markets. Those same markets are the main focus of many expansions of the local food movement. 


The idea of the farmers’ market, which is no longer functional in Europe, was borrowed from those old traditions, and was once the centre of urban commerce. They fell out of favour in the early 20th century in Canada and were almost lost when the urban elite abandoned the open-market concept.


Today, cities like Vancouver have policies in place to double farmers’ markets and urban farms as folks return to buying from the grower. Why? Choice, variety, connection and occasion. It is more than taste, colour and freshness that draws folks to the market — it’s the social aspect and the interaction. In Canadian studies, consumers were as interested in the experience as much as the produce. Although there are a variety of goods at the farmers’ market, most folks in Canada zoom in on vegetables, then fruit and baking. 


The road to the edible city is paved with education and experience. Cities such as New York offer Farm Schools where urbanites can learn how to farm. The audience is varied but the focus is often on youth so that they have an opportunity to work and to understand where food comes from. In some areas, city farming is done in highly raised beds so seniors can be active foodies without having to bend down or in tiers of hydroponic pots, or includes trees for shade and the introduction of good bugs and bacteria.


While it is true that city fields will not feed the whole of the population, they contribute to a colourful and healthy life for Canadians. Agriculture is the cultivation of plants, animals, fungi and other forms to sustain life. It has also been called the science, art and business of producing crops by cultivating soil or raising animals. Science, art and business — is that not beautiful? 


Agriculture is farming without the restraint of border, class, location, income, culture or politics. It is the greatest freedom known to man. No wonder our city cousins are so excited about meeting farmers and learning about farming. How else will they grow their lovely, green and edible city?


Brenda Schoepp is a Nuffield Scholar who travels extensively exploring agriculture and meeting the people who feed, clothe and educate our world. A motivating speaker and mentor she works with young entrepreneurs across Canada and is the founder of Women in Search of Excellence. She can be contacted through her website www.brendaschoepp.com



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