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Urban ag grows up in Vancouver, even creating some political backlash

The urban agriculture movement is gaining strength across B.C., enthusiastically adapted by everyone from businesses to backyard growers to pot-growers. So why is it being used as a wedge issue in Vancouver's latest election?

Dirk Becker's urban farm (left) in Lantzville, B.C. conflicts with neighbor's preference for the manicured look (right).

Dirk Becker's urban farm (left) in Lantzville, B.C. conflicts with neighbor's preference for the manicured look (right). Peter Ladner

Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson, poses with his bike.

Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson, poses with his bike. Solar BC

A water barrel helps keep plants hydrated in an urban garden.

A water barrel helps keep plants hydrated in an urban garden. UGA College of Ag via Flickr (CC)

Unlike bike lanes, urban agriculture is pretty widely supported in cities across North America. 

Any movement that improves public health, balances diets, reduces health care costs, alleviates poverty, gets people outdoors and exercising, creates local jobs, builds community, excites people, makes cities safer and more beautiful, helps integrate immigrants, reduces our carbon footprint, creates resiliency in the face of peak oil, water shortages, and soil erosion, and provides environmental education, with no downsides — has to be all good. You’d think.

Not in Vancouver.

As the Nov. 19 municipal election deadline nears, the struggling right-of-center Non-Partisan Association (NPA) has been challenging the ruling Vision Vancouver party’s misspending through its Greenest City Action Plan. The one project singled out for high profile ridicule is the “wheat fields” — a modest $5,000 grant to the Environmental Youth Alliance dedicated to planting enough wheat in numerous front yards to harvest 100 pounds, redefine the notion of the “city farm,” and teach young people how bread is made. It’s definitely a stretch of taxpayer dollars, but hardly significant for a city with a $1 billion budget.

In another attempt to create a wedge issue, NPA has challenged Vision’s approval of urban chickens. Candidates for the party make public appearances with a chicken mascot, holding up a sign that says, “Chickens for Gregor” — a reference to Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson. 

“Chickens. They love the mayor,” NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton wrote in the Vancouver Sun last summer. “Their chicken brothers, sisters, and cousins can all retire to Vancouver. And if they wear out their welcome in somebody’s backyard, they can always move to the mayor’s $20,000 shelter for homeless chickens.”

She’s referring to the $20,000 Vancouver's City Council approved to be spent on a shelter for homeless chickens. And who wouldn’t cluck about that?

Except — it was never spent, the shelter doesn’t exist, and the only backyard chicken handled by the city’s animal control officers so far this year was a wayward backyard rooster found wandering in Stanley Park.

This gets personsl: the NPA is the party I led as a mayoral candidate in 2008. Today it is struggling for something, anything, to chip away at the runaway approval ratings of Robertson, Vancouver’s telegenic, teflonic mayor. Characterized as the “Happy Puppet” by some (a play on the Happy Planet juice company he and his wife Amy helped start and sold before he got into politics), Robertson says little, does little on his own, and offends little. But he sincerely carries aloft the banner of “the greenest city in the world.” What’s not to like?

It’s a risky policy to be against urban agriculture, because there’s a surging tide of support for it across North America. (For more on this see my new book.) Maybe Vancouver voters will chose to turn back the clock on urban ag, but I doubt it.

Ironically, urban ag is a lot about “past forward,” or “back to the future” — recreating lost food-growing systems that were abandoned in our complacent shift to dependence on imported, oil-dependent industrial monoculture food. Still, there is certainly resistance from some quarters, from those against going back to messy, dirty, pest-attracting backyard food production. Can’t we just agree that modern food comes from grocery stores? Not anymore.

From the show of public support for Dirk Becker, the zany poster boy of urban ag persecution in Lantzville, B.C., it’s hard to see that reactionary stance as a winning strategy. Hundreds of people have been showing up to public meetings to support him and his partner, spurred on by national petitions.

Becker and his partner Nicole Shaw live on a 2.5-acre residentially-zoned lot in this small Vancouver Island town, where they make $20,000 a year selling produce grown on their property. While Becker has lovingly restored the property by piling up sawdust and compost to replace its original soil, which was mined and sold by the previous owner, his neighbor prefers the manicured estate look of the golf course that abuts both their properties. The neighbor has the ear of the local council, which last fall ordered Becker and Shaw to “remove all piles of soil and manure” from their property and boulevard and “cease all agricultural activities,” based on a bylaw that says, vaguely, that residentially-zoned properties cannot “grow crops.”


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 7, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Marijuana Growers will have a large impact on Urban food production--intensive gardening. Urban Farming is primarily a political activity, while marijuana cultivation a economic activity. entirely different outlooks. further, Urban Farming is rooted in the organic farming movement more suited to uniform conditions. Yet the Urban environment is fragmented into postage sized properties and are variable in conditions. hence, organic farmings low input methods are less productive than marijuana growers approach--born of the Drug War--of small, intensive, high output gardens. I thank the author for sharing this bit of unconventional wisdom from Vancouver's experience.

The author is also correct to point out a opposition to urban food movement, but doesn't actually put his finger on the pulse in my opinion. The act of growing ones own food suggests in some minds a type of poverty. To quote a favorite philosopher, William James:

"We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life...When we of the so-called better classes are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put of marriage...and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank-account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion."

Note how the "so-called better classes" fall over themselves to raise up the "poor". Perhaps, also note how such attempts go a great deal further to make the "so-called better classes" non-redundant, rather than do much to raise up the poor. In Seattle, it is more likely to be the "poor" who grow and EAT their own food, while the trendy and "so-called better classes" allow their over priced "raised beds" to spend most time in seed or weed. Meanwhile, the largest objection to urban food production--the tainted nature of the Urban environment--is largely ignored.

Most will be poorer in the future--that is the nature of debt. Some will be less willing to make the transition gracefully and will actively oppose those who do make alternative choices simply for what it portends.

Posted Mon, Nov 7, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

The author's example in which one neighbor attempts to use by-laws and the local council to halt his neighbor's activity on his property is about identity. namely, how the poor and the markers of the poor reflect the cultural lie of the "so-called better" classes. It brought to mind a passage from Ernest Beckers "Escape from Evil." The chapter "Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology":

No wonder economic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols. Or, put another way, if a black man moves next door, it is not merely that your house diminishes in real estate value, but that YOU diminish in fullness on the level of visible immortality--and so you die...specialness is so much a fight to the death: man lashes out all the harder when he is cornered, when he is a pathetically impoverished immortality seeker.

Posted Mon, Nov 7, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

"One acre of hydroponic greenhouse can produce 600,000 pounds of food per year. That's 10 times what a one-acre field could produce, with no wasted petroleum-dependent fertilizer."

Not necessarily. The plants still need to be fertilized. Those nutrients may come from a variety of sources, including fossil fuels or purely organic sources. But simply because a system is hydroponic instead of soil based says nothing about the source of the nutrients that are moving through the system. And unless the residents are disconnecting their flush toilets (possibly not a bad idea), then the nutrients will have to be continually replenished.

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Nov 7, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Though neighborhood conflict between vegetable gardeners and status-seekers is an old story, this is the first time I have seen it mentioned in print. Once again, Crosscut appears to provide genuinely cutting-edge journalism.

The clash, as indeed – g implies, is between those who regard their dwelling and neighborhood as proclamations of material success versus those who believe their house and its environment is truly their home – the realm that facilitates the greatest fulfillment of their individual personhoods.

One group, the 21st Century version of Vance Packard's “status-seekers,” is made up of malicious conformists, each a devotee of trinket materialism, all fully committed to capitalism – infinite greed as ultimate virtue – and every one responding with typical capitalist vindictiveness to any perceived threat.

The other group, the 21st Century incarnation of homestead gardeners, view their neighbors with live-and-let-live tolerance but find the aggressive and sometimes violent hostility of the status-seekers to be initially astonishing and eventually intolerable.

Conflict – including violent conflict (as in home gardens wantonly destroyed by status-seeking vandals) – is inevitable.

What we're witnessing is a new manifestation of the Class War – on one side those who would impose any measure no matter how draconian to preserve the capitalist paradigm of absolute power and limitless profit, on the other side those of us who understand how vital home gardening is in our resistance to the subjugation and genocidal poverty by which the capitalists ensnare and enslave us.

The struggle will thus provide innumerable teachable moments, the side local politicians take giving us definitive proof of which side they themselves are on: ours (the 99 Percent) or the capitalists' (the One Percent).

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