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This is a story about food, land and money and how a healthy dose of civil disobedience could help create a new green economy in Vancouver.
The city is no stranger to green ideas. The stage was set by local environmentalism in the late 1960s, which launched Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation, among others. The 1990s brought the ecological footprint, a brilliant bit of land use research supervised by UBC’s Bill Rees. Some eight years ago, a pair of Vancouver writers carried out a wildly popular lifestyle experiment known as the 100 Mile Diet, a book that added to modern literary conversations about food, in the vein of Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan.
Today, the City of Vancouver is chipping away at its ambitious Greenest City 2020 plan, which includes food security as one of the pillars to hold up a green economy and a sustainable future. Discussions of food politics are now commonplace, sparked by rising food and fuel prices and legion other threats to global food security. The goal is a food revolution. It’s still too early for sweeping policy changes, but a diverse group of urban farmers is already at work, experimenting with growing and selling food in the city while testing the elasticity of local bylaws.
Growing out of Poverty
“We’ve got lettuce, Tyee spinach, bunches of arugula, French Breakfast radish, rainbow chard. We’ve been selling for two months now, mostly greens. Our tomatoes and peppers just went in,” says Seann Dory, project manager at SOLEfood Farm, a social enterprise in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that employs neighborhood residents to build, plant, maintain and harvest what’s become a productive urban farm on a half-acre parking lot outside the Astoria Hotel at Hawks Avenue and Hastings Street.
The farm started under the umbrella of United We Can, another non-profit looking to build a path out of poverty through green-collar jobs and sustainable economic development. SOLEfood secured startup funding through grants from the City of Vancouver and private companies looking to fund community projects. It then struck a deal with the landowner to pay property taxes on the lot in exchange for being able to farm it.
Last year, the farm hired two full-time and five part-time workers. Their wages were paid with market sales of some 10,000 pounds of food they grew through the season. The project is still far from profitable, but saw $40,000 in revenue in 2010, mostly from produce sales at the city’s farmers markets.
“If it wasn’t for the farmers markets and people buying local, I don’t think this would be viable. They give the farmer a direct-to-consumer contact. Otherwise, you get middled. This way, small-scale agriculture works because we’re actually getting a retail price for our products.”
SOLEfood hired seasoned farmer and author Michael Ableman, who helped design an aggressive growth strategy for the farm.
“We’re projecting a fourfold increase this year. Because we didn’t get more space, we’ve decided we would interplant all our stuff. And we’re starting to take advantage of the vertical space. This year, our returns are going to be a lot better than last year,” says Dory. “We won’t see profit until after year three. We are on a growth path and will continue to take on capital expense until, and possibly past, year three. We hope to have six acres in production by year four and we think we can model the sites to attain similar returns.”
The plan is to employ 50 to 100 staff once the project is moving at full capacity. Dory says part of the illusion that urban farming isn’t profitable comes from the community garden movement.
“Production is not the number one goal for most urban agriculture projects. Ours is [about] employment creation, which makes high production our top priority.”
SOLEfood’s goal to improve life in the Downtown Eastside is in line with the poverty elimination focus of City Hall, so the farm gets support in the form of cash and land donations, but the long-term goal is profits without perennial inputs.
“If you put the means of production in the neighbourhood, it kind of turns the charitable food paradigm model on its head,” says Dory. “It’s going to be patient capital, it’s going to be long-term, but there is a business case for it for sure.”
All Together Now
Elsewhere in East Vancouver, agronomist Ward Teulon follows a different model of urban farming. As an entrepreneur with no ties to the non-profit sector and no sources of start-up funding, Teulon forged his business through community-supported agriculture (CSA). He approached home owners one by one and offered them a share of the vegetable haul he wanted to grow in their backyards. They became his first customers. He then found would-be buyers and charged them up front for weekly shares of whatever he would pull out of the ground.
It been working well for five years. One year, before he scaled back, he tended 15 backyards for a CSA of 40 members. Last year, he grew and sold about $28,000 in produce. This year, he has nine backyards within a five-kilometer radius, where he grows some 25 different crops using organic methods and charges $580 for a weekly share of the growing season’s harvest to be picked up every Thursday.