When you think about farming what comes to mind? Endless rows of corn? Cows grazing? Maybe a barn? How about rows of lettuce growing along Vancouver's East Hastings Street? Or carrots sprouting at Davie and Burrard? Maybe some chickens in your backyard and some beets where there was once a lawn?
In an effort to renew our connection to the food we eat and to confront an increasingly unsustainable global food economy in the most neighbourly of ways -- the urban farming movement is gaining popularity in Vancouver.
Not only does urban farming cater to people who are becoming increasingly invested in knowing where their food came from and what they're putting in their bodies, but a pleasant side effect of the movement is community building. We tend to see cities as places where people are all at once shoved together in tight quarters while simultaneously isolated from the world around them. We eat tomatoes from Mexico and kale from California -- admittedly, I don't know any of my neighbours.
Camil Dumont and friends see their work with Inner City Farms as community building and find that rewarding in and of itself. "Everyone has a relationship to food so it makes for really easy connections."
Inner City Farms began when a group of friends realized they wanted to be able to have their own gardens and to grow their own food, but didn't have access to the land needed to make it happen in an expensive city like Vancouver. "We figured well, let's just ask people who do have space if we can grow food at their house," said Dumont. People loved the idea and the business has grown since then, connecting the landowners with the people who buy the food as well as to the farmers.
"We're all connecting face to face and building relationships and it's all happening in communities and neighbourhoods in Vancouver. It's the definition of community building -- increasing those ties and bonds between people while helping each other through mutual reliance and mutual co-operation," said Dumont.
In fact, it was Julia Smith's neighbours who inspired her and her partner to start Urban Digs Farm.
"I had no idea I was a farmer," she told me. "We were interested in sustainability, becoming more self-sufficient and taking more control over the food we ate, so as a family we started growing food." It turned out they grew a little too much food and began to share it with their neighbours.
"There was so much support for what we were doing and the next thing we knew we had an urban farm," she said. "It's been completely market driven."
Both Inner City Farms and Urban Digs have grown because of interest and support from the community and the city.
Anelyse Weiler of UBC Farm, a 24-hectare teaching, learning and community farm, says she is excited to see how popular urban farms have become. However, she worries that we aren't focusing enough attention on local farmland preservation.
"If we were serious about producing enough food to feed cities we really need to look at farmland protection in order to get a reasonable amount of food to be able to feed ourselves," said Weiler. The loss of local agricultural land preserves to development initiatives never gets as much attention as the opening of new community garden, she adds.
Smith identifies one of the biggest challenges she faces is growing and selling local food legally. Right now, Urban Digs Farm does not have a business license and has had to move all commercial production to Agricultural Land Reserves.
This is one of the challenges faced by local urban farmers: it isn't yet legal to get a business license for their ventures. Still, the city is doing their best to make policy work for urban farmers. "There's been good communication between urban farmers and people in the food policy council and it seems like it's just a matter of time," said Dumont.
City Councillor Andrea Reimer said: "we're very supportive of urban agriculture and of pilots through funding and through providing land but actual bylaw changes are a big step for a city. It's something we do pretty mindfully."
While the City of Vancouver has made a goal of becoming a global leader in urban food systems, they haven't yet been able to change policy around urban farming businesses. "We're just kind of in limbo right now," Smith added.
Dumont points out that this is all pretty new so people are really just learning as they go. "It's one of those situations where urban farming is ahead of policy on urban farming."
Official policies aside, increasingly locals are reaping the benefits of these local farmers and making it a priority to learn more about what they are putting in their bodies. Growing food locally can be a way of challenging a global food system that currently does not make sense in terms of sustainability, energy use, health and social welfare.
"Shipping lettuce and perishable crops requires a tremendous amount of energy just to keep cool. If I can grow lettuce in my neighbourhood and you can just come and get it right out of the ground and take it home and put it in your refrigerator, that makes a lot more sense economically and environmentally," said Smith.
As far as small, joyful revolutions go, the urban farming movement is an easy one to get on board with.
"Food is a really important thing and our food system is really screwed up," said Dumont. "Urban farms are overtly and calmly resisting and questioning what is a very destructive industrial complex."
Meghan Murphy is the host and producer of The F Word radio show and the editor of www.feminisms.org.
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