In March, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, a document the Independent labeled an "official prophecy of doom." Among other things, the report predicts that global crop yields will decrease by two per cent per decade over the next 100 years. The predictions of this report are already a reality in many places. California, which exports $5 billion in food to Canada each year, is currently experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record, and it's estimated that if conditions continue food prices in Canada could rise by 20 per cent this summer.
Even though local food has seen an increase in popularity in recent years, we still rely largely on food imported from California and other warm places in many parts of this country where it's impossible to grow food through the colder months.
But if climate change continues to affect crop yields (and the IPCC report is positive that it will) then building locally based and resilient food systems makes more and more sense. Having multiple small systems in place might be less economically efficient from an industrial standpoint, but it makes the system as a whole less vulnerable to extreme weather events.
This is where urban farmers come in. Small-scale urban farm operations are becoming more common in Canadian cities. I spoke to two farmers in B.C. about how urban agriculture can help address the perils of our food system.
SPIN farming in Kelowna
Curtis Stone is the owner of Green City Acres, a multi-location urban farm in downtown Kelowna, B.C. He started farming in 2009 using Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) principles, an economic methodology that involves growing high-value crops in small urban spaces (which allows the farmer to earn what Stone terms a "good middle-class living"). Stone grows food on several front and back yards and sells his produce to Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) members and to local restaurants. The homeowners whose land he farms receive a weekly food box in lieu of rent.
Stone only grows about 15 crops, such as spinach, kale, rainbow carrots, radishes and herbs. Most of these are highly perishable, which is why it makes sense to grow them in an urban centre close to where they will be consumed. "When you harvest a crop like spinach or lettuce, from the time you harvest it to the time you eat it, it starts to deteriorate," Stone says. "When you have a perishable crop, it makes sense to grow that crop close to where people are."
While Stone has a solid customer base, he believes that the local food market in Kelowna is now "oversaturated" because there isn't enough consumer demand for it -- yet. But this might change if extreme weather (like the aforementioned drought) causes imported food prices to go up. If food prices increase this summer as much as predicted, Stone says, "farmer's markets will raise their prices because it makes sense to. But if there's sort of a stabilization, where grocery store prices meet where the farmer's market prices are, then I think more people will go to the farmer's market because it's a better product." This will, ideally, create more demand and encourage more people to get into urban farming in Kelowna.
Stone has also seen that having a multi-location farm offers protection against extreme weather events. Last August, one of his plots was destroyed by a freak hailstorm. "We had $35,000 of crop damage at one place," Stone remembers. "But none of our downtown plots were affected. So we were able to bounce back because we still had cash flow from the crops that were producing weekly harvests."
Stone sees the urban farmer as the nexus of a local food network. He sells his greens through his CSA but brings in less perishable items (like potatoes and squash) from more distant farms. Since he's in the city, he's able to connect with chefs and customers and link them to farmers who live father away. This might be a model for the way food systems can function in the future, where farmers don't compete, but collaborate in order to grow crops more efficiently.
"The future role of an urban farmer is not just a farmer, but a connector."
Transforming yards in Vancouver
Katie Ralphs and Ruth Warren are the women behind City Beet, an urban farm in Vancouver that grows 50 different crops on 14 yards in the city's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Ralphs says she and Warren got into urban farming because they wanted to grow food but could not afford to rent or buy farmland. Like Green City Acres, City Beet leases back and front yards from homeowners in exchange for a weekly supply of vegetables. They sell the rest of their yield through a 65-member CSA.
City Beet's practices demonstrate, almost to an extreme, how environmentally friendly urban farming can be. They grow all of their produce in the same 10-block radius, get around by bike and members pick up their weekly produce share at a local café.
Ralphs admits that she and Warren struggle with the question of food accessibility. Local food is expensive and remains out of reach for many, especially in a stratified city like Vancouver. "We only really interact with people who can afford to join our CSA or own a house that we can farm on," Ralphs says.
Unfortunately, extricating oneself from the global food system by opting in to local networks is still a choice made on financial grounds. Ralphs would like to eventually start offering subsidized boxes at a discounted rate so that lower-income Vancouerites can take advance of local urban agriculture. But this will only be possible in a few years, when their business is financially sustainable.
Like Stone, Ralphs thinks that the value of the urban farmer lies in her ability to forge connections. When she and Warren are working on a front yard in Mount Pleasant, passersby see them and want to know what they're doing. "We're doing the exact same thing that rural farmers are doing, except every day we get to have 20 conversations with different people about what we're doing and how we're doing it. Especially during mid-season when we've got a hundred broccoli growing right against the edge of the sidewalk. People are always completely amazed that broccoli grows, that it doesn't just come to the store as a piece of broccoli."
This level of visibility, for Ralphs, is where the potential lies for urban farmers to change the food system. "I have no doubt that the more people see food growing and become more interested in where it comes from and who their farmer is and the communities that it creates, they're going to become really passionate about these issues too."
So what comes first -- the farmer or the customer? Urban farmers can help foster local food systems that render consumers less subject to the whims of climate change and international markets. But in order to become viable players in the food system, they need support from consumers. "If people are concerned about food security, they should be shopping at the farmer's market and buying into a CSA," Stone tells me, emphatically. "Because if you want to have the food system expand and diversify to be more resilient, you have to support farmers."
Image: Christina Turner