Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Urban farming and food security

The public keeps on moaning about the danger that agricultural land is being lost in BC. In the Victoria area there is this desire to keep small bucolic farms in place.

I believe that this is mainly because people want a pretty landscape and not because there is any real interest in agricultural production. I assume this because when a farm in the ALR is used for modern farming, there are constant complaints about the farming. Be this propane cannons to keep birds away, manure smells, opposition to pesticide spraying or the construction of green houses. The public is not keen on modern farming. They want their green belt.

I think it is fundamentally unfair of people to impose their desire of more green spaces on the farmers of the province. If it is important to people, then there should be a move to buy up the land and make is park lands with some 'scenery' farming.

Another argument for local agricultural land is the new trend to food security. The basic concept being that we are in danger because we do not produce enough food for local needs and will suffer when the oil economy collapses.

What people keep forgetting is that the public is quite capable of producing a lot of their own food at the moment but do not do so. The average property in greater Victoria has about 4000 sq feet of land that could be used for growing food. That is about one tenth of an acre of land.

This is enough space to produce about 2000 lbs of produce. Over a 20 week harvest, that is 100 lbs a week. Now I now that we only use about 25 pounds of produce in a week at the most on the weeks when I have the boys. This means that an average house could grow enough to feed 20 people a week for all their produce needs for 20 weeks. There is a surplus one can make use of here.

In Oak Bay there is a couple making use of this sort of surplus. They asked people if they would allow them to plant their yards in exchange for produce. They are doing this in Oak Bay - here is the article from the TC

Urban farm unwelcome in Oak Bay

'Acres and acres' of land offered but bylaw prohibits growing plants for sale

Kim Westad, Times Colonist

Published: Saturday, August 04, 2007

The organic produce you pick up at a local farmer's market might have been grown in your neighbour's front garden.

Dozens of people have offered up their land to an Oak Bay couple who practise urban farming on residential land usually filled with ornamental flowers and shrubs. It's the first business of its type in B.C., and is modelled after a similar urban agriculture project in Saskatoon.

But Paula Sobie and Martin Scaia have run into an unusual problem in their own municipality: An Oak Bay bylaw bans growing plants for sale.

Four-year-old Morgan Scaia and two-year-old Seamus Scaia walk through tomato plants as Paula Sobie and Martin Scaia work an urban farm in the front yard of a house in Fairfield yesterday.

Four-year-old Morgan Scaia and two-year-old Seamus Scaia walk through tomato plants as Paula Sobie and Martin Scaia work an urban farm in the front yard of a house in Fairfield yesterday.

Darren Stone, Times Colonist

It was introduced in 2001 after waterfront Beach Drive estate "Riffington" was given farm status because owner Annabeth Black sold more than $2,500 of the plants annually.

Farm status meant the taxes of the estate at 3175 Beach Dr., were slashed. So Oak Bay tightened up its definition of agriculture to deal with the problem. But that's created a bit of an issue for Sobie and Scaia, whose City Harvest business sells the organic vegetables and produce grown on urban land at several markets. "We understand why the bylaw is there but we hope it can be changed," Sobie said yesterday.

She learned of the bylaw after planting several gardens in Oak Bay with vegetables. There was no complaint, and Oak Bay doesn't plan to have the gardens uprooted. Sobie simply stumbled on the bylaw when she did some checking of her own after a few people asked whether they were allowed to have their front garden as a vegetable patch.

Coun. Nils Jensen plans to bring it forward at council's next meeting later this month. "We'd have to tweak the bylaw to permit this kind of smaller, more focused approach," said Jensen, who supports the City Harvest approach to farming.

Sobie and Scaia, the parents of two young children, wanted to create work that allowed them time with their family and also helped them put their beliefs about sustainable living into practice.

They started City Harvest in February, advertising on the Internet for people who wanted to use all or part of their city property for an urban garden. In return, the homeowner receives a portion of the organic vegetables, while the couple sells the rest at markets, to restaurants and through the Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD) program.

The couple has no interest in farm status for their home, and neither do the owners of the dozen properties where they have urban gardens planted, they said.

"Our diet and the choices we make about it are excellent opportunities to express our ecological values three times a day," Sobie said. "Instead of bringing up lettuce from California, we can literally have it in our backyard."

The couple also want to deal with food security, and let people know how easy it is to grow their own food. There's nothing like gardens and sharing their bounty to create a sense of community, Sobie said.

Not many people walk by a house and comment on how much the grass has grown in a week. But plant a garden in a corner of that lot, and some people make it part of their walking ritual to check out how high the beans have shot up in the hot weather. And it can be an amazing sight when the 10-year-old next door who thought all carrots came out of a cellophane bag pulls one from the dirt.

Sobie thought finding land to plant would be the challenge. Not so. They had "acres and acres" of land offered up, but focused in on 12 homes in Fernwood, Fairfield and Oak Bay.

The gardens vary from 46 square metres to 279 square metres, and grow dozens of types of vegetables. They plan on planting year-round using an intensive organic-based growing method.

This is from the August 1st edition of Monday Magazine

Urban Paradise


Angela Moran (left) and Jennifer Freeman at home on their range


Fernwood’s city farming

leads to food security

Just a block away from a fast food outlet, a stone’s throw from a grocery store and tucked between houses and apartment buildings sits Up from the Ashes City Farm, a productive quarter-acre urban farm. Through the bicycle wheel gate on Balmoral, between Cook and Vancouver streets, lies a lush paradise with tall corn, gigantic zucchini plants, greenhouses full of seedlings, artichokes, greens, carrots, beets . . . the list goes on. Children play on a rope swing that hangs from an apple tree, while their mother, Jennifer Freeman, and her business partner, Angela Moran, tend to the massive gardens.

Moran and Freeman are the most recent caretakers of this four-lot piece of land which first became referred to as an urban farm back in the late 1980s, when it was being cultivated by Brett Black.

“Someone has always been growing on this land, whether for personal use or for selling,” says Moran. Even before Black, there were people growing on the land—the fruit trees were planted by a Portuguese family who owned the land in the ’40s

Moran became involved with the project at the end of 2005. “I had just finished a horticulture gardening course and felt I had the skill to take on a sizeable piece of land,” says Moran. Asking around, she discovered the previous caretaker was planning to leave. She got involved and took over the lease in September, 2006.

Freeman heard through the grapevine that Moran was looking for a partner. “I was always attracted to this piece of land,” says Freeman. “I needed space to grow and when the opportunity came, I went for it.”

Both women work in Fernwood-based food security jobs outside of their work at the urban farm. Moran is site manager at the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre and Freeman runs the Good Food Box Program—bulk-buying fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms and distributors—and grows garlic to sell commercially. Both women went through Lifecycles’ Youth Community Entrepreneur Program. “We see the value of generating our own income and the value of being an entrepreneur,” says Moran.

The produce they grow at the farm goes to a few local restaurants and serves 12 families in Fernwood. Any excess gets sold at the Tuesday night market in Fernwood Square.

“Twelve families get to truly experience food grown locally, and the community at large gets to see an example of food growing in the city,” says Freeman.

The pair has also done farm tours with local schools, teaching kids about growing food in the city. If they had more time and funds, they would like to organize a workshop series. “It would be unreal what we could do,” says Moran.

The organic gardening techniques Moran and Freeman use are a blend of both of their approaches. Freeman emphasizes a minimum input approach, with less time devoted to seeding and watering, her two least favourite aspects of gardening. “It’s about honouring what the mother gives us,” says Freeman. “If you can survive off the food that is just given, you have more time for personal pursuits.”

Moran adds that instead of seeing bugs and weeds as problematic, you can just let them be and recognize the stories they can tell about soil condition or deficiency.

The different plants that volunteer (that is, grow unseeded) tell stories not only about the soil condition, but also about the history of the land. “The history pops up through the soil every year,” says Moran. “Different seeds lie dormant, waiting for the right conditions to grow. You could plant no seeds at all and still be laughing.”

From crap to crops

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the farm was run by Brett Black, it produced hundreds of pounds of potatoes, onions, apples and other crops, along with chickens, turkeys, and, says Black, “the occasional pig slipped in when no one was looking.”

When he first moved in, the place was a disaster. But Black, obsessed with producing his own food, looked at the old dilapidated house and the yard full of junk and saw a perfect spot for urban regeneration.

He hauled away tons of garbage and used sheet composting and mulching, along with chickens, to build up the soil.

“The chickens did most of the work,” says Black. He brought in 120 of them to clean up the area and create compost. Plus he paid the rent by selling the eggs.

It was the chickens that started the “mini-political thing,” says Black. One day, a police officer was passing by, saw all the chickens and decided to check out the legality of having so many in the city. But according to the bylaw, as long as you didn’t have a rooster, you could have as many chickens as you like, providing you had the space. Next the SPCA came around, but they also found nothing wrong with the huge fenced area the chickens lived in.

As Black was not breaking any codes or regulations, city council decided to rain on his parade by changing the bylaw, limiting the number of chickens a person could keep in their yard to six.

“The decision started a tempest in a teapot,” recalls Black. The community turned out in full-force to support him, signing petitions and lobbying council, until, in the face of strong public pressure, council rescinded the bylaw change.

There were also a couple of moments when the city tried to rezone the lots to be apartments, but public pressure won out. Black remembers one redevelopment meeting where 500 people showed up. “Everyone was all riled up. Old ladies were shouting at the mayor. People were really passionate about it,” says Black. “It was a great spot, and the whole political storm was fun, but you always knew it was a losing battle. You knew eventually it was gonna be developed.”

The land is leased from someone who owns 10 adjoining lots, and, presumably, is waiting for when it is worth enough to sell. “It would be great if the city could make a decision to protect areas that could be used for food production,” says Black. “There are not huge areas, but soon there will be nothing. There’s all this yapping about food security and not doing anything about it. . . we’re supposed to be a garden city.”

Black farmed the land alone for a couple of year then was joined by Steve Reynolds. Later, more people got involved and they took it over once Reynolds and Black moved to a farm in Saanich. Soon Black will be moving to Swan Lake where he’s going to start working on the 100-yard diet, a more intense version of the 100-mile diet. And since they don’t allow chickens in Saanich, he plans to farm fish.

Next generations

Jonathan Pulker has lived in a house on one of the urban farm’s four lots since 2000. When he arrived, Black had been gone about four years. “The place was a shambles when I moved in. The Youth Empowerment Society were living there and the lot was a huge dog yard rather than gardens . . . There were a few last desperate tenants [in Black’s old house] and then the house was condemned,” says Pulker.

“I had always admired what Brett had done here, so I resurrected it to a certain degree.” Pulker began cleaning up the garden and once Black’s old house was condemned, he turned it into a chicken coop for four or five years. Too busy with work and family commitments to give the farm the time it needed, Pulker has encouraged and facilitated others to keep it going for the last three or four years.

Pulker is both a chef and a huge advocate of growing your own food. “It would only take a very small blip in the oil supply to realize that we only grow about 10 percent of our food. The average thing we eat travels at least 2,000 miles. I am not an extremist or anything, but I definitely think we are completely out of touch.”

Pulker says that our reliance on cheap oil makes it hard for local produce to compete in the marketplace. “We only spend nine percent of our income on food, and in other parts of the world it’s more like 22 percent. We live in a state of extremely devalued food.”

The recurrent theme among all the people who have lived and worked with this land is a hope that it would inspire people in the community to see how easy it is to grow their own food and what a tremendous range of options there are.

“There are so many blank canvases that food can be grown on. If we want to cut down our food miles, we can use spaces in the city to grow greens and stuff that doesn’t travel for long distances,” says Freeman. “A surprisingly large amount of food can be grown on a plot, food that is high in nutrients and vitamins like dark greens, kale, swiss chard. Almost all year round you can have high quality nutritious food growing right here in the city. M


Anonymous said...

My girlfriend at the time and I lived at the Urban Farm on Balmoral in 1997 when it was being run by Paul Wintanley, a visionary who invented a light show better than anything Pink Floyd ever had, and president of the "Solar Spectral Vision Society" which aimed to bring an electricity-free version of his light show to third world countries. At that time, we had 99 chickens, five ducks, a turkey and a cat named Smoozle. The birds feasted on regular wheelbarrow loads of old produce from Wellburns Market, day-old bagels from the bakery on Cook Street and at least two garbage pails of compost from the community. the chickens regularly roosted 20 feet up in the laurel trees in front, but also had a nice chicken coop made from scrap wood and transparent tarps. There also was a greenhouse made of transparent tarps where grew a South American vision vine, which we were afraid of trying.

Paul's concept in a nutshell was to demonstrate Urban Farm techniques of food security, and how poultry could be well-loved members of an anarchist commune because they loved to eat and scratch compost which sped up the process of producing great soil that allowed for incredibly successful organic gardens.

Paul had a huge heart, and often we had street kids and rough-looking urban natives as guests, in various states of distress and trust. Paul would often feed folks and give them money, and entertain them with his amazing light show. Paul gave away most of the eggs the chickens produced, on a donation basis. Most folks gave a few quarters or a buck, but one old Russian guy came every day for a half-dozen and never gave us anything, smiling and chuckling as he left. We also bagged up the black soil and gave it away on a donation basis.

My job while I lived there was to feed the birds in the morning, as I was usually the first to rise. Morning was a wonderful time, the birds anxious for their bagels and compost. Wearing chicken-shit stained coveralls, rubber boots and rolling down Downtown Cook Street with a wheelbarrow load of veggies was a precious daily experience. Then I'd go into the chicken compound with a cup of coffee and a day-old bagel egg sandwich for breakfast, sitting with a chicken on each knee.

One day, a young man came knocking on the door. He explained he was a worker in an industrial meat hen facility. His boss wanted him to kill a box of surplus chicks by stomping on the box with his boots. He told me he just couldn't, and had run away . . . with the box, which he had smuggled out and brought to our place. So we adopted these meat hens to add to our flock of urban chickens. Soon enough, in a matter of weeks, these genetic mutants had swollen up plump and barely able to support their own weight. We had to dispatch them by hand which we did as humanely as possible . . . the first and only birds we had to kill. Our other egg-laying birds were well-loved, trained to come on command, socialized to be picked up, and often shared in our meals. The only thing that ended their lives was the occasional racoon attack.

I learned a lot about the nature and intelligence of chickens and about life in general . . . and we had some great times. During that bad blizzard of 97 we made chicken trails and sat back and watched them following each other around the trails. The chickens were hypnotized by the shovel because they knew with the shovel they would be seeing lots of worms! The turkey loved men and would follow us around, and if we moved toward her, she would present herself.

Time came to move on from the Urban Farm and Victoria, but I always missed the place and would visit from time to time whenever I was in town. The experience radicalized me and prompted many thoughts that have led to me to where I am now, living off-the-grid and building a cob house.

Anonymous said...

I also lived on this farm in the early 90's. Paul and I were partners at the time and I had the privilege of tipi-sitting for a friend that was away. Paul and I erected our own tipi the next season and many people found refuge and solace in its rounded walls.
We called the farm The Rural Wedge back in the day.

Brett and Paul are the most generous-spirited unintentional farm gurus I've come across.