Looking back – a brief history of City Farmer written in 2003 for our 25th anniversary
City Farmer Society from 1978-2003
By Michael Levenston
City Farmer – 2003
In 1978, a group of young environmentalists working at the Vancouver Energy Conservation Center stumbled across a book called The City People’s Book of Raising Food by William and Helga Olkowski. It described in everyday language how the authors grew all their own food right in the middle of the city of Berkeley. This inspiring book led us on an exploration of urban food production, which continues today, twenty-five years later.
Working at an energy center, the first thing that struck us was the amount of fossil fuel used to transport food from far away farms to our supermarkets. We quickly realized that there were real savings for people who grew food at home. Such a simple act struck us as revolutionary, especially when we saw that there were other environmental and social problems that could be addressed as well. The urban farmer became our new-found hero!
For someone like myself, who grew up cutting the lawn with a push mower, edging it with a shovel and digging out dandelions by hand, urban farming was a revelation – by pulling back a carpet of grass and planting a vegetable seed, I could put food on the table.
Bob Woodsworth, a founding member of the group, took us to his grandmother’s house to see her tidy steaming compost and then drove us to see the garden of a family friend, who cultivated fruit and vegetables in his very large yard. Bob’s philosophy of making change in society through ‘information sharing’ rather than aggressive confrontation became one of our main strategies.
On a stroll down the back lanes of Chinatown, we marvelled at an elderly Asian woman planting bok choi and growing water vegetables in an old bathtub with feet. A few blocks over an Italian immigrant grew figs, bay leaves and kept chickens. These ‘mentors’ were all old people and our sixties’s generation philosophy of ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ was given quite a jolt.
Every garden was a surprise, and our interest in all things to do with farming in the city grew. What exactly were organic fertilizers and were they really safer than synthetic ones, would car exhaust affect the crops we planted next to a busy street, and how could we change those ancient anti-livestock by-laws?
Sitting in a small co-op bakery, we reinvented ourselves by starting a non-profit society named, City Farmer – Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture. The first part of the name, was a catchy, easy to remember moniker, the latter part expressed the serious side of our work – feeding people, social justice and environmental awareness. We joked that the bureaucrats in Ottawa might mistake us for an official government department and send us funds, but that never happened. However, I was once introduced as “Canada’s Unofficial Minister of Urban Agriculture”.
Eager to get the word out, we put together an eight page newspaper using the skills we had learned working on university papers – typesetting articles, pasting them onto layout sheets of cardboard and shipping them off to a printer. We loved writing the stories and seeing our names in print, but the arduous task of mailing out and delivering 2000 copies of the paper was more than we’d bargained for.
Although most people loved the idea of producing food in the city, we were surprised to see opposition. Our first story titled “Chickens in Soup” was about a woman fighting City Hall to keep a few hens in her back yard. One alderman was outspoken in his attack, saying that allowing livestock inside the city was like “going back to the dark ages”. His vision of a modern city included skyscrapers, lawns and asphalt, a place far removed from the farm where so many of our Canadian ancestors grew up. The divide between the country and city was large.
It was just that divide that City Farmer wanted to end. While many of our generation dreamed of going “back to the land”, to some idyllic rural setting, we chose to bring that image of country to the city, in miniature if you like, in our gardens. We were hooked on the metropolitan lifestyle of museums, theatres and a multitude of ethnic restaurants, and wanted to add another fashion to the urban mix, both laid back and productive, something that could recycle our wastes, help cleanse the air and soil, and keep us healthy.
Our newspaper was just the beginning of our efforts to promote urban agriculture. In 1979 we invited the California guru of small-scale food gardening to town and put him on national radio. John Jeavons, the author of (a mouthful of a title for a book), How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, received a huge and immediate response from his interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). Letters and requests for information poured in from across the country.
Seeing the reach of the larger media made a strong impression on our tiny organization and we added another tenet to our list of strategies – create interesting stories and share them with the press. By 1981 we were eager to get out of the office and get our hands black with soil rather than ink, so we created a Demonstration Food Garden on a parking lot behind a new environmental center at 2150 Maple Street. Lead by head gardener Catherine Shapiro, volunteers used a jackhammer to open the backyard hardpan, which soon turned into a lush organic plot. Our urban Eden showed the public what a garden looked like in every season. Reading about gardening was one thing, but seeing seedlings planted, finding a pest under a cabbage leaf, tasting blueberries picked fresh from the bush and unburying sweet kale in winter, these were a transformative experiences.
And so we added another strategy to our wisdom list – start demonstration projects and get hands-on experience so that we know what we’re talking about. Over the next decade we undertook several major urban agriculture experiments.
Close to where we lived in Chinatown was a large empty field. Using a year-long federal grant which paid for an organizer, we were able to help a group of interested community members get a lease from the Park Board for use of the 3 acre piece of land so that they could start a garden. Today, Strathcona Community Garden, is the most written about allotment garden in Canada and is visited by thousands of tourists as a destination point.
Dr. Gary Pennington, a University of British Columbia education professor, asked us to be part of his project, to transform the asphalt school yard of his old elementary school (Lord Roberts) into a model ‘green’ playground. City Farmer put in the food garden and hired instructors to show the kids and teachers how to grow food right in their schoolyard. One Grade 7 girl was shocked to learn that we’d spent $200 on a truck-load of smelly manure, which she thought could be better spent on a couple of attractive outfits for herself.
The highlight for the kids was making a salad for their teachers using their own garden produce. The Province’s Director of Nutrition was so impressed with the project that she organized a garden contest to judge the best school garden in all of British Columbia.
But how could we involve the elderly, the sick and the disabled in urban agriculture? Volunteers built a small ‘Ability Garden’ in our Demonstration Garden using raised planters, which gave access to wheelchairs. We then put a tiny job announcement in the newspaper to find staff -“must love gardening, must love people”- (the fewer words, the cheaper). The response was overwhelming and three big-hearted ‘horticulture activity coordinators’ were hired to take care of visitors.
Local care facilities were thrilled to have a fresh air destination and brought disabled children from a local hospital, 100-year-old residents from seniors’ homes and the sick from care centres. The kids, who couldn’t use their arms or legs, were fed fresh-picked strawberries and ice cream, old people plucked flower petals to decorate their hats and the more agile visitors in wheelchairs leaned into the raised beds and delighted in getting their hands in the soil. The day concluded with a civilized, afternoon tea under the shade of our large cherry tree.
In 1990, the provincial government began a program urging citizens to cut the amount of waste they send to landfills and suddenly composting was recognized as a useful technology for everyone, not just organic gardeners. The City of Vancouver and the Regional Government asked us to use our teaching garden to promote backyard and worm composting which we were happy to do because making rich soil is the foundation of urban agriculture.
Ironically at the same time that a local performance artist was being chased out of town for planning to crush a rat named “Sniffy” between two canvases, we introduced a rodent-resistant compost bin to prevent rats from dining out on compost piles. The bin was designed with both a top and bottom and no holes larger than 1/2 inch, and was adopted by cities across North America.
The new sustainable city involves more than just having a job and being a good consumer. It demands that we become resource conservers, protectors of the environment and producers. One of our early mentors summed up his economic reason for planting a food garden by reminding us that people pay taxes on both back and front yards as well as the house they live in, so why not make the vacant land pay for itself in food.
‘New hats’ are added to our teaching garden every year as we show residents what they can do to help solve urban problems. Technologies such as rain barrels to collect water for the garden, composting toilets to save thousands of liters of water used by flush toilets, and mulching lawn mowers to help cut yard waste trucked to the landfill are demonstrated at the site.
But perhaps the biggest change in our work has taken place away from the garden soil in a mysterious part of the environment named ‘cyberspace’.
In 1994, City Farmer went on-line publishing, “Urban Agriculture Notes” the descendant of our paper tabloid. The World Wide Web (www) was in its infancy, but already the promise of what was to come was clear. New countries connected to the Internet weekly, faster than anyone expected, and people from around the world discovered that they could read reports, share stories and put questions to an audience, the size they’d never dreamed of before.
In barely ten years, that promise has proved truer than we expected and the virtual world is part of the day-to-day life of millions of people. It is perhaps no coincidence that the concept of urban agriculture has been accepted so quickly.
The City Farmer web site is visited by hundreds of thousands of people – 4 million hits in 2002, 186 countries visiting. But more telling then these indicators is the “site visibility”. According to ‘Marketleap .com’, ‘Cityfarmer.org’ ranks in the same category as ‘Coke.com’, a brand name, which is known around the world, and which spends millions on advertising. The Web has evened the playing field and allowed tiny groups, who do not have the huge resources available to corporations and governments, to place their ‘product’ in front of people.
Because of the Internet, our backyard now includes the global community. City Farmer’s work involves traveling ‘virtually’ via the computer from country to country, documenting, communicating and networking. This is a long way from delivering a few thin newspapers to corner stores.
In 1999, City Farmer was honored to be made a partner in the Netherlands’s based Resource Center on Urban Agriculture and Forestry (RUAF). Funded for five years to “facilitate the integration of Urban Agriculture into the policies and programs of national and local governments and international funding agencies”, the RUAF has already set up regional focal points in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia.
Twenty-five years ago we could barely find a single reference to the term ‘urban agriculture’. Today, whether it’s at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, or at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, development specialists are talking about city farming as a strategy to address rapid urbanization and growing poverty.
Recently, in an attempt to better document the urban agriculture potential within metropolitan areas, we purchased the latest aerial photos of the City, and, using GIS software, discovered that 1/3 of the total area of a typical residential block is landscaped and has the potential for food growing. At the same time we hired a market research company to poll residents and found that 44% of people in Greater Vancouver live in households that produce some of their own food.
It has been said that the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it. In our tiny office greenhouse next to the garden, City Farmer staff dream up never-ending lists of exciting ideas, which they then turn into reality.