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35 years ago ‘City Farmer’ began out of an interest in energy use in the food system

BobMike1979CF copy
‘In olden days’- 1979 – Photo of Michael Levenston and Bob Woodsworth working on an issue of City Farmer newspaper. Before the Internet, we sent written copy to a typesetter, then cut and pasted stories and black and white photos onto lay-out pages and waited for the printer to deliver our publication. Finally we drove about the city delivering copies to stores or we mailed them to subscribers.

‘City Farmer’ was born in 1978 at the Vancouver Community Conservation Centre (VCCC), a six-month project created by Canada’s Federal Ministry of Mines, Energy and Resources

Project Final Report about the VCCC
Report written by Dana Weber, project leader of the Vancouver Centre.
September 8, 1978
(Mike: ‘City Farmer’ related topics are marked in bold. Note that before ‘carbon neutral’, ‘greenhouse gas emissions’, ‘climate change’, and ‘carbon offsets’, environmentalists spent a great deal of time promoting ‘energy conservation’.)

A. Publicity and Public Information

The type of publicity and public information we used on our project falls into two general categories–that involving use of existing media (and its ‘use’ of us), and that involving the development of our own media. Following are examples of the first type:

1. An article by staff member Kerry Banks appeared in “The Columbian” on Esco Foundries industrial energy conservation program.

2. Publication in “The Columbian” at our instigation, of the ENERGY SAVERS columns supplied by Ottawa.

3. An article in two parts on Acadia House, also by Kerry, appeared in the “Vancouver Herald and Times”, a community paper serving the city’s west side.

4 Chuck Davis devoted about four column inches of his widely-read column in the Province to the first edition of our publication, the City Farmer, which we had sent him. This resulted in many requests for subscriptions.

5. An entire column by Lorne Parton in the Province about the Conservation Centre. The column was somewhat snarky and contained some left-handed compliments, as it was written in response to a letter to the editor from two of us who dared to disagree with a comment on greenhouses he had made in a previous column. Nevertheless, it resulted in many requests for information on solar greenhouses.

6. An unfavourable review of the Conservation Centre and government granting procedures in general by Barrie Clark on his CKNW open line show. No callers responded. (See media attitudinal change)

7. An article appeared in the YOU section of the Vancouver Sun about the conservation Centre and in particular about the City Farmer. Many more requests for copies resulted.

8. Three live interviews with members of’ the Conservation Centre staff by CFRO, Vancouver Coop Radio.

9. A pair of interviews concerning the City Farmer were aired on CBC radio.

10. We sponsored a free energy conservation film series that was listed in community newspapers.

Of the second type, the most obvious example is the publication of two editions of our-own newspaper, an eight-page tabloid called the City Farmer. Why urban food raising was chosen as the focus for this publication will be dealt with later. Topics dealt with in the first two issues include: allotment gardens, hydroponics, advice on slug control, beekeeping, chicken raising, the case for urban agriculture (from an energy conservation point of view), mushroom cultivation, use of sludge as fertilizer, raising winter vegetables, herbs, food preservation, and gardening as therapy.

We also produced a slide program and mall display. This will continue to be available to the community.

Also in the second category, we seconded one of our members to the Energy File to edit two issues. This is a joint publication of the Interchurch Committee on Energy and the Community Interest Research Group. This also is of course one example of our work with existing service and community groups. We also made one researcher available to SPEC to work on their presentation to the National Energy Board, and to do macro-economic modeling regarding the introduction of renewables as substitutes for conventional energy sources. We also worked with the Grounds and Maintenance Committee of False Creek Housing Co-op to introduce a recycling system there. This work included a garbage “generation rate survey” and the printing of a special edition of the Co-op’s newsletter explaining recycling and including a questionnaire to assess the potential rate of member participation in a collection system. Our other effort in recycling was not exactly “publicity” but is a form of media, which we hope will have lasting effect. It is a comprehensive directory of all recycling facilities in the Lower Mainland with a map keyed to the directory, illustrations, and instructions and information on recycling. The directory is in poster format and has been jointly financed by the Conservation Centre, SPEC and the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board. Ten thousand copies have been printed. Similarly, a pamphlet listing available resources for industry was printed for distribution to industries in the Vancouver area.

Lying somewhere between these two categories of publicity are our regular contributions to “Co-op Radio’s Sunrise” program. Although CFRO is not our own medium, it is open for use by the community, and we used it consistently throughout most of the project. As Sunrise is always looking for items, this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Terry Glavin was our regular contributor. Tapes of his reports and commentary on energy and related issues are included with this report. Some topics covered: Report and interviews with residents of Satsop Washinton, construction site of a twin nuclear reactor; Condemnation by B.C. Hydro spokesman Harry Lash of environmentalists as selfish and hypocritical in their opposition to power developments, and environmentalists’ responses, pocket documentary on new EMR programs for research and development of renewable energy sources. Tape includes local reaction of solar and wind proponents and an interview the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, Mr. Gillespie.

B. Community Awareness /Resulting Changes

(Quote Kerry’s log entry re: Western News of May 19)
Since Vancouver is the repository of all media sophistication in B.C., it seems unlikely that our humble little project would have anything to teach its grandees. However, it is through the media that one must reach the public, particularly in Vancouver, where they no longer gather at the general store to trade tips on energy conservation, as they still do in the interior. This is something we noticed early on in our project when we were feeling sort of grumpy about how other projects seemed to be having more effect than ours (I know the assessment comes later; this is just a technique we writers use called “foreshadowing.”). How could we have an effect if we were outnumbered 98,000 to 1 by the people were supposed to serve? We needed what my friend Stafford Beer calls a “variety amplifier” and in a place like Vancouver that almost certainly means the media: you write or say something once and it gets printed or broadcast 98,000 times. (If you haven’t read any Stafford Beer by the way, you really must. The relevant books are “Designing Freedom”, CBC Learning Systems, and “Platform for Change”, Wiley and Sons). The trouble with this particular kind of variety however, is the poor quality of its ‘feedback.’ We know our message got to people — that is, it landed on their doorsteps or the porches of their ears — but whether or not they did anything with it besides line the cat box we can’t know. Using our own medium gives us somewhat better quality feedback, and that is one reason we started City Farmer. The response to it has been excellent. Our subscription list after distribution of one issue stood at 70, so there will be future issues, continued funding or not, although we will have to start charging for them (2000 distributed). Alternate media have their own feedback problems though. If you try to use them as indicators of ‘change’ they preach to the converted. We don’t know that our excellent response indicates change or just the existence of an untapped market. Some people once thought rock and roll music was an indication of the former and it turned out to be only the latter. If people can be that wrong about something that big, how can you expect 12 people to tell you anything meaningful about the attitudes of their 1,171,988 fellow Vancouverites toward energy conservation now as opposed to six months ago?

Well, anyway, we did have an impact. We can safely say that and we can say too, that in many cases it will be lasting.

The False Creek recycling project is well under way and has the potential to spread to sectors of the development beyond the co-op. This signals a change in both attitudes and actual behaviour, which could be quite far-reaching. Our answers to regular requests, mall displays (see below), and use of both internal and external types of publicity have perhaps had similar but less measurable impact on people. Changes in the attitude of the media itself, however, are a different story. Since I’ve decided to ramble in this section, I’d like to say a bit about that.

‘The media.’ The very phrase conjures up something monolithic and objective. But, at the risk of sounding obvious, that monolith is full of actual people, albeit ones who are particularly adept at hiding behind the myth of media objectivity and using it to vent their personal fits of pique or spleen. I’ve already mentioned Lorne Parton in this regard. The same thing happened with Barrie Clark. The whole chain of events leading up to his condemnation of the CCC (Community Conservation Program) program is not worth recounting. The point is that the people on the project who had originally conceived of City Farmer, having been interviewed already on CBU and CFRO, decided, for what they felt were valid reasons, not to go on Clark’s program. They were firm but polite, and Clark decided to turn this perceived snub into an indictment of our ‘incompetence’ and the ineffectual nature of federal programs in general. Because this fellow has the advantage of mouthing off over the airwaves instead of down at the pub, people often assume that his mouthings have more validity than those of Slats Grobnik. In this case, however, nobody called in to respond to his diatribe, so maybe they recognized it for what it was. Perhaps this changed his attitude, but I didn’t ask him, so I have nothing further to report on that.

C. Commentary And Assessment Of Project

1. General — My first mistake as project leader was selecting a lousy office location. I had assumed that a busy street was necessarily a populated one. I should have known better. We had very little walk-by traffic and therefore few drop-ins. Our traveling display, which we used in malls, was built to compensate for this, and, in part, it did so. We would have liked to use it more often, but by the time it was built people were firmly committed to other, equally important activities, and they sometimes saw mall duty as burdensome — especially since it usually entailed weekend and evening work. Nevertheless, when it was used, the display was uncomplainingly and effectively staffed. It offered the opportunity not only to dispense written information but to converse with people at length.

2. General requests for information, not including those at malls or those for City Farmer probably numbered somewhat over 100. Most were routine. Others required considerable research, and still others (usually businesses or potential businesses) required us to be intermediaries for them with some other department or some other part of EMR (Energy Mines and Resources). Most of this was done by phone so objective assessment is difficult unless you consider expressions of gratitude, and one persons comment that they “really appreciated our attitude,” and would like us to get in touch with him after the project was over. (He had some jobs available marketing solar collectors). Recycling-Planned objectives in this area included a community recycling pilot project, and an office paper-recycling project. The first was successfully completed, the other was abandoned because 1) the person originally planning to work on it left the project 2) public works and Environment Canada were setting up and monitoring their own office paper recycling pilots 3) other work and random interference took its place. We might have done an office paper-recycling project had we been more tenacious in sticking to stated objectives. However, one project which ‘just came up’ and took its place–the recycling directory- -was equally valid and required a lot of research and painstaking graphic work. (Case study being prepared on False Creek. as per NRB request)

3. Solar promotion and workshops–In the early stages this took the form of ‘aid to existing organizations’, namely the Solar Energy Society in its promotion and staging of SUNday activities. This gave our people more practical experience with the subject, helped them make contacts and acquainted them with available literature in the field. Secondly, Patsi then produced two mimeo information sheets, one on tromb walls and one on solar energy particular to the Vancouver area. Finally she conducted two collector-building workshops in conjunction with the North Shore Centre. Materials for the collectors were supplied by Country Farms, an alfalfa sprouting business, which will be using them to heat water for their sprouts.

Assessment: there were times in the project when I felt this part of it was moving too slowly, and more could have been done. I think there were two reasons for this: judging from early meeting minutes, we never stated quite clearly enough what we wanted to accomplish in this field, and secondly, I think the worker involved wanted to feel completely confident of her knowledge of the field before passing herself off as an instructor of others. I think this is an understandable concern, and, of course, it became less of a factor toward the end of the project than it was at the beginning.

4. Urban food raising. Since this became, toward the end of the project, its highest-profile activity, perhaps it would be useful to set it in some kind of context. Urban agriculture, specifically, isn’t mentioned in any of our early plans. What we did realize from the outset however, is that Vancouver, is the province’s primary energy user, and it was pointed out as early as the project leader training session that rural areas bitterly resented the environmental costs they had to pay so that the metropolis could have energy. The Vancouver CCC, therefore, ought to concentrate on ways of changing end-use patterns in the urban area. We had originally thought of transportation as an area where significant energy savings could be realized. We talked of promoting bikeways, greater use of public transportation, innovative forms of ‘paratransit’ etc. Michael Levenston, who had worked on establishing a bikeway system in Peterborough, Ontario began to look into the possibilities for Vancouver. He discovered that several studies had been done and that bicycling interest groups had been lobbying the local and regional levels for some time with little effect. Furthermore, it didn’t seem a matter of these groups requiring our help or supposedly superior organizing skills. They had done a creditable job and received little response other than to have their reports and presentations accepted and filed away. As for converting people away from the automobile, well, we all know that it is sort of a religion for many of them. The City of Vancouver had had a project known as Turn Down Traffic Volume, which encouraged staggered working hours for downtown workers and provided a computer car-pooling service. The program was grossly underused, the City had decided to stop bothering to promote it, and one planner I knew who worked on it had been recently banished to Williams Lake. We felt it unlikely that we could produce much better results than the entire city Social Planning Dept in six short months, so we began-to look for other ways to encourage people to change their energy consumption habits.

At about this time Bob Woodsworth joined the project and had noted that one of his main areas of interest was energy use in the food system. In the course of exploring this issue, he and Michael Levenston assembled a fair amount of information about solar greenhouses. At this time California lettuce was selling in Vancouver for $1.19 a head. Lorne Parton wrote a column about growing your own all year round in a (conventionally heated) greenhouse. Bob and Michael wrote back extolling the virtues and economics of solar greenhouses, and the ensuing dialogue in the Province resulted in a great number of requests for information on greenhouses. They assembled a package of information, which included a bibliography, illustrations and a study and design booklet by Brace Research. It began to look as though food raising and related energy use was an issue that might capture public imagination.

15% of Canada’s energy is used to put food on our tables. Energy is used everywhere in the food system from preparing the soil with fertilizers to cooking meals on the stove. Urban agriculture, the raising of food in the city, by city dwellers saves energy used in the food system. Transportation costs are removed and labour intensive methods of cultivation conserve fossil fuels. Metropolitan Vancouver has a population of 1,172,000. Many of these people grow some of their own food, but many more don’t, though they have front and back lawns or balcony space at their disposal.

Note: We tried to use urban gardening as an entry vehicle for discussing the whole range of energy conservation (ie. Lawnmowers as unnecessary gadgets; labour intensive activity linked to bicycles etc.)

By July some of us at the Vancouver Centre conceived of a newspaper that would deal with the subject of urban food production from an energy conservation point of view. The first issue came out at the end of July and the second at the end of August (1978). Both received a very positive response. The paper attempts to interest the public by showing them examples of successful Vancouver city farmers. It also reports on political issues that affect the city farmers (there has been a great deal of controversy lately about a particular woman in Vancouver who raises chickens in defiance of city by-laws), and products and information that are of use to them. Vancouver has a unique climate in Canada for producing food and therefore, the articles are written with the use of local research. This is a point which Eastern Canadians, designers of federal programs in particular, might do well to note. City Farmer succeeded because it addressed issues which were relevant to Vancouverites and adapted the overall theme of energy conservation to meet local concerns. Certainly, people were also interested in things like home insulation, but in this climate it did not inspire people the way it might in Eastern Canada.

D. Employment And Continuation

Judging from past experience with projects of this type, I would say that staff turnover was relatively low. Most of the people who left the project did so early on and for reasons unrelated to the project itself. Total number of people employed over the course of the project was 16, including the PL (project leader), and the maximum number at any one time was 13, also including the PL.

Although no regular continuing employment was directly created by the project several activities will have continuing indirect economic and social benefits. City Farmer will continue and break even on the cost of production using volunteer labour. It may at some time pay an editor although this isn’t envisaged in the immediate future. During the last week of the project one of our members was asked to participate as a consultant in an architecture seminar at UBC dealing with conserver society issues. This will continue, and honoraria are being arranged. We will no doubt continue to be consulted on the development of the Prior St. fire hall site mentioned in our month-end report for July (see letter attached). On the weekend of August 11-13 a meeting was held to form a B.C. Energy Coalition. Representatives of various CCCs and citizens groups attended it. Several of the Vancouver-Centre staff will be working as volunteers at the central office of the Coalition, and planning its first convention to be held in early December.

Commentary On The Program

I certainly think it was a strength of the program that it was flexible enough to be, as I mentioned above, adaptable to local needs. On the negative side, this might have made us less productive at the beginning because it took time to find a specific focus and decide what to do with so broad a mandate. But in the long run, the fact that the program was enabling rather than prescriptive was probably the best thing about it.

My criticisms of the program’s administration and timing, I think are all recorded in previous reports, but I will offer a summary with a few examples. 1. Back up research should have been in place before the program started. The NRG (National Research Group) could have been at work 6 months before the CCCs, and the RRCs (Regional Resource Centres) perhaps 3 months before. When we wanted to deal with a topic and there were no background materials available, we had to do essentially the same research as the NRG was doing at the same time. And, in fact, after having completed our research we would often get a black binder from the NRC containing precisely the same materials we had bought or sent away for. One of these “Lightening Packages”, which were affectionately known in our office as “Molasses Packages,” actually arrived after the project was over. This poor timing in many cases made the work of the NRG useless or superfluous, whereas it would have been invaluable if we’d had it when we started. In fact, some of the frustration we felt with “the vagueness” I mentioned was perhaps not so much the result of lack of definition in the Program but the result of lack of information and materials which we could use to help define ourselves.

2. Our project officer was conscientious, and our relations with her were good, but the financial and administrative apparatus to which she was our link was abominable. It often demanded efficient performance and rigid adherence to arbitrary standards from us, while displaying only minimal competence itself and responding at a pace so slow as to make it a caricature of bureaucracy. Timing of contract instalments was a problem by now well known to everyone. In fairness, this was corrected in the last two months of the program but only after several centres created a crisis by nearly closing down for lack of funds. Workers Compensation payments were not made on time either, but that’s your problem, not mine. Spending 3 and a half months on a contract amendment, and then penalizing this Centre by withholding funds because the amendment was not yet completed should have caused someone in finance some sleepless nights. But it didn’t, no doubt; his pay cheques, after all, continued to be regular even though ours did not. This is not the end of the contract saga, by the way. Once the amended contract was completed, I countersigned it, sent it back to Ottawa and should have received a copy of the double-signed document back. I didn’t, so my project officer requested that it be sent. On the very last day of the project I received another copy of the old original contract. I still don’t have a countersigned copy of the amended one.

Why go on? These are inevitable parts of a job funded by government, and that job is over now, so I don’t care, at least not about these specific incidents. Last of all, I do not hold it against you, actual person who may be reading this. Because none of these problems has anything to do with the intentions–good or ill — of people. They are simply outputs of a system, which is designed to have them as outputs. To redesign that system so it has freedom as an output requires a thorough revolution in the nature of government itself. In my opinion, this sort of change is necessary before the notion of a Conserver Society can be taken seriously. Given that, this program was a contradiction, designed and administered as it was by bureaucracy in its present form. No doubt some people in the program have been trapped in that contradiction all summer. But did you really suppose it could be resolved in six months?