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No Farm Is An Island
While Agriculture advocates lament a lack of agricultural zoning within city limits, Vancouver is also desperate for new commercial, industrial and social and market housing. It’s a tough puzzle to solve and worth a quick look at other jurisdictions for potential lessons, as Vancouver is not the only place facing tough decisions on urban farming and land use. In British Columbia, it’s currently a bit of a hot potato, in limbo between local jurisdictions, the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Agriculture Canada. On the rest of the continent, stories differ from place to place:
Metro Vancouver is keen to build a database of farmland in the region to get a clear picture of how it’s used and how it could be used for agriculture
Nanaimo is abuzz over bylaw changes proposing legal grounds for urban food gardens on city lots. These would allow farmers to sell their produce on-site, as well as at farmers markets. Urban agriculture captured Vancouver Island headlines before, when a farmer in Lantzville, a coastal community in the Nanaimo Regional District, was told to shut down his 2.5-acre farm because it didn’t fit with the local bylaws.
Farming is already a legitimate home business in Victoria, after councilors in that city approved zoning changes to allow city dwellers to grow fruit and vegetables on their properties.
Edmontonians are pushing staff and council in that city for a strategy on urban agriculture, buoyed by the recent triumphs of Vancouver gardeners and bee and chicken keepers, but also calling for policy on commercial urban food-growing operations.
All across Canada and the US, backyard sharing portals are looking to skip government intervention altogether and simply connect landowners with landless would-be farmers.
South of the border, Detroit is the poster child of the new homesteading movement, where depressed land prices and a shattered economy have ushered in a new era of urban farming. Long peppered with startup food-growing operations, the city could soon be home to the world’s largest urban farm, which promises to use green-collar jobs to rebuild a booming local economy.
Greenest City 2020
Andrea Reimer is a longtime food security advocate and now city councilor on an administration hoping to transform Vancouver into the world’s greenest city by 2020, a mission that includes increasing the city’s food assets by 50 percent over the next nine years.
“Our efforts have been around community gardens, community kitchens, things in the public sphere, farmers markets being another one. We have another grant that we approved to do a food incubator in the Downtown Eastside, but that isn’t so much about growing food as it is about processing food.”
Farmers understand the city is not in the business of supporting private for-profit food producers, but advocates argue those farmers are providing an essential service and should at least be able to do it in a supportive environment. Reimer doesn’t argue with that, but says it’s too early for policy changes.
She says the city, under the Vancouver Charter, doesn’t have the authority to give tax incentives to residential property owners who choose to donate their land to urban farming, an idea advocates would like to see officials entertain. The calls for appropriate zoning might have more success, but not before holding community consultations and finding solutions to worries about urban marijuana grow operations piggybacking on bylaws meant to make help food producers.
“Help us learn what sort of bylaw changes we’d have to make to be able to prototype what successful agriculture looks like,” she says. “Having a tolerance for pilots and tests to find out where the barriers are would be the phase we’re in. It’s a 10-year action plan we’re on, not a 12-month action plan.”
The Future of Food
At best, the time will be used to experiment, observe, report and think about commercial farm operations in the city. But 2020 is still a number of growing seasons and civic elections away. In the name of posterity, urban farming advocates around the world are organizing into food policy councils, which aim to be forums for policy development for sustainable and economically viable food systems.
Author and agronomist David Tracey is a member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council. He is calling for greater collaboration between different levels of government to build a peri-urban food system serving larger regions, modeled on the province’s embattled Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
“We didn’t have that sprawl that every other North American city had because we had this thing that said, no, farmland is important and we have to save it. What I’d like to see is the equivalent of the ALR in the city. So the city would say, growing food is important, we have to have a public that is involved in this thing, for food reasons, also for health and fitness and the environment and education. We could actually create zoning for food protected areas. We do it for parks; we do it for playgrounds in parks. Well, we also have to have room for food.”
In the interim, Tracey is an advocate for participation in food production, from balcony growing and community gardens to guerrilla vegetable plots on abandoned lots, laneways and rooftops.
“Even though urban farming has this cache of being the cool thing on the block right now, it’s actually an old thing we’re doing. So it is bringing new people into the game, new technologies, new attitudes, and new aesthetics. What it’s going to be like in 5-10 years, nobody knows, because we haven’t done it this way before. That’s why it’s exciting to see the entrepreneurs get into it. It’s such an interesting blend of people.”