Heads in the Dirt
Article about City Farmer by Leslie Gillett.
Vancouver’s City Farmer has been dishing up dirt for 30 years now, first through a newsletter and workshops, now through classes and its extensive website.
The dirt – as befits a society formed to encourage urban agriculture – is often about just that, things of the earth and compost and worms.
In fact some of long-time environmentalist and City Farmer executive director Michael Levenston’s favourite repeat questions are about composting with worms. “What do I do? I think my worms are escaping from my bin?” was a recent query – setting up wonderful mental images of dozens of red wigglers making a run for it with little flashlights and very small backpacks.
Levenston laughs. “It’s what we are all about – dirt, the wonderful never-ending cycle of growth and lots of questions. It’s important to remember that though we may have been doing this work for 30 years, it’s always new to someone.”
“That’s a good thing, it’s as exciting as it’s ever been,” he adds, “because it means we are constantly reaching a new audience. Urban agriculture is a concept people are increasingly familiar with now.” When City Farmer launched their website in 1994, they were the first ones on the web to deal with urban agriculture. Now, there are dozens.
The circle of environmental awareness and corresponding action is a never-ending process. There has been a lot of turning of that same wheel since Levenston was working on a six-month project for the Vancouver Community Conservation Centre in 1978. That was during the first rumblings about an “energy crisis,” though the 2008 idea of carbon tax was still 30 years away.
“Back then, the federal government put together little groups to teach people about energy conservation because we were just starting to talk about this new energy crisis. There were three main areas of study – energy use in homes, transportation and food.”.
Along with Bob Woodsworth – now owner of The Naam restaurant – and a few others, Levenston helped create City Farmer, Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture.
The Lower Mainland group has labored for years encouraging urban agriculture – an upscale name for backyard city gardens. “We really got excited when we realized the possibilities. We wanted a way to celebrate city people who grew some of their own food and encourage and educate anyone interested in the whole idea.”
The ever active demonstration garden at 6th and Maple, carved out of their office parking lot, has been their living experiment since 1981. Their office contains countless volumes of information on gardening, recycling, composting and Levenston has a new website he is very happy about. “It’s allowing us to reach out all across the world.”
“There’s a guy from Mongolia who wants to come over to shoot a video of the garden because they want to show people in their city that it can be done. That’s just so wonderful. Young people around the world are re-awakening to this urban idea of a back-to-the-land movement.”
This generation has a different view of the environmental movement, Levenston says. It’s much more just a fact of life – recycling is a habit now, not a strange idea from the left-wingers. “There’s more support and understanding of the goals now,” he says, though economics has made some things more difficult The cost of land in the Lower Mainland makes finding vacant land to be used as new community gardens almost impossible, though many more schools have gardens now and there are dozens of allotment gardens including the well-know Strathcona Gardens in Chinatown started by City Farmer in 1985.
Whereas planners and politicians were not so sure about the “garden hippies” of 30 years ago who seemed to want to turn every vacant lot into a corn field, now urban agriculture is a buzzword with a positive spin. Looking up urban agriculture or city farmer through a web search engine will turn up thousands of hits. Science magazine just did a full article on Urban Farming, and in 2007 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization decided to encourage, city gardens in developing nations. CBC’s The Current just did a show on city farming.
It remains a fascinating subject to me,” Levenston says. Amidst all the hyper talk of global warming, melting ice caps, carbon taxes etc. etc., the idea of simply growing some of your own food, no matter where you live, is powerful and timeless.
“Our ancestors have been doing this all around the world, forever. For us, it’s simply about education and doing what we speak. I sit in the same seat and say the same thing. And do the same things year after year. We are an action-based group.”
The idea of encouraging a tomato plant on every city porch is both powerful and possible. It’s not naive to think small changes made by millions of people can ultimately change the course of the world, Levenston says. It’s the down-to-earth truth.