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

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

Becker’s case has attracted national attention, positioning Lantzville as a gross aberration of a sustainable town, a caricature of petty partisan process trumping common sense. Why would a town on an island where 95 percent of food is imported not want to do everything possible to encourage local food production? The mayor counters that he and his council are concerned about manure and woodchip deliveries to the property, encroachment on the neighbor’s property, traffic, and water supply contamination.

Last summer I drove down the dead end road to the semi-rural property. I found it to be neatly kept, odorless, and totally alive with squash, beans, chard, raspberries, carrots, potatoes, and a myriad of other foods. To consider it a blight on the neighborhood would require a massive stretch of imagination and a healthy sprinkling of bad blood between neighbors.

Back at the grassroots level, the urban food revolution is well under way. New York just passed legislation that will, like Seattle, exempt rooftop greenhouses from height limits. New York is also requiring city officials to make data publicly accessible that show whether city-owned property is suitable for urban agriculture, and it’s mandating city jails and health centers to buy more locally grown food.

In Canada, Victoria has joined a growing list of cities that allow commercial sales of produce grown on city lots, as entrepreneurial residents cash in on a supplementary income opportunity.

Citizens, schools, community centers, senior centers, hospitals and neighborhood groups, architects, planners, and a new breed of commercial urban farmer are jumping into local food-growing with a vengeance. Even in a city as developed as New York, urban farming is growing at what one city councilor there described as “an astounding rate.”

Vancouver now has 20 urban farmers making some kind of a living from commercial farming in the city. Farmers’ markets are expanding, attracting more customers, and becoming more institutionalized. Urban ag is expected to be accommodated in new development proposals in Vancouver. City Hall now has its obligatory community garden on the front lawn. The city is home to some of the 450 new community garden plots added across the city in the last three years. The West End Community Centre will have a community garden on its new roof.

Even more interesting is watching serious business people rising out of the underground pot economy and the Fraser Valley greenhouse industry to put investment capital into small-scale indoor growing systems.

When Choices grocery store customers pop a $4.98 clamshell of Ecospirit spinach into their cart, they’re helping nurture a new enterprise. Licensed by the Squamish First Nation (an early investor), and partly owned by Boston-based Converted Organics, the spinach is produced by Terrasphere Systems in a prototype automated greenhouse in Surrey, B.C. It uses indoor-growing technology developed by those dedicated horticulturalists in B.C.’s marijuana industry and it churns out 600 pounds of greens a day for Choices and IGA grocery stores.

Terrasphere isn’t alone. Long-time hydroponic grow-op sellers B.C. Northern Lights have developed an in-home herb and micro-green grow-box (“the kitchen cultivator”) that can fit under the counter and is like a small fridge that just keeps replacing what you take out of it: “a living spice rack.”

Coming from the more conventional side of the field, Stephen Fane, former CEO of locally-based Hot House Growers, is now CEO of Valcent Products. It’s a Vancouver-based company that’s taken over technology developed in the UK, where a Valcent vertical greenhouse has been successfully growing lettuce for the animals in the Devon Zoo for two years and is now setting up with a major food processor. Christopher Ng, former Lululemon Supply Chain Officer, is the company’s chief operating officer. They’re still raising capital for a roll-out of installations, but Fane says the interest in his technology is “spectacular.” Time magazine named it one of the 50 top innovations in 2009.

And why not? Every time oil prices go up, imported and exported food becomes more expensive. The average food item is shipped about 1,245 miles, making growing close to home a guarantee for big savings on shipping — as much as $1 per head of lettuce. The other attractive societal benefits created include less traffic, lower emissions, less waste, and decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydroponic growing uses about 5 percent of the water needed for field crops, at a time when critical water supplies for agriculture are dwindling in volume and rising in price. 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.

There’s another advantage to fresh-picked produce. It has far more nutritional value, which is one reason why local food was the number one trend in the Canadian restaurant industry last year. Fane says a leafy green loses more than half its nutritional value within four days of being picked. With no chemicals or pesticides involved in hydroponic growing, food safety is also improved.

The Forbes 2020 team of experts and authors predicts that by the year 2018, 20 percent of all food consumed in U.S. cities will come from rooftop and parking lot farms. All the major supermarket chains are looking at this now, with four rooftop greenhouses already under construction in the U.S. A one-acre rooftop farm costs around $2 million to set up, and can gross over $1 million a year.

On a do-it-yourself scale, one calculation shows that most of a family’s fresh vegetable needs could be met by a 50 square foot indoor hydroponic garden. One 600-watt light could cover the tomatoes and peppers, and two 400-watt lamps could cover the lettuce and herbs.

For architects and planners aimed at the new post-LEED Living Building standards, food production is a natural. Harnessing technology and dodging seasonal variations in production removes the biggest barrier to commercial local food production — unreliability.

Metro Vancouver’s constrained land base and — let’s admit it — extensive experience with illegal indoor growing, make this a great fit for this region, one that would put real meaning into the Vancouver Mayor’s dream of making his city the Green Capital.

Regardless of who wins the next municipal election in Vancouver, there’s no stopping this tide.

Peter Ladner’s new book The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities is available exclusively at Barbara-Jo’s Books for Cooks, 1740 W. 2nd Ave. Vancouver until Nov. 7; then it’s everywhere. Order online here now. 

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