by: Melanie Green

First, he had to find the space to grow his veggies. But with land in Vancouver “far too expensive,” Dumont and friends decided to bike around the city going door-to-door asking who would be willing to grow food instead of grass in their gardens.

Before long, there was a wait list.

Eight years later, Dumont is the executive director of Inner City Farms, a non-profit sprouted from the desire to grow food locally.

“New farmers tend to be chomping at the bit to get in the sustainable food game,” Dumont said. “But that mountain of enthusiasm is not always a mountain of realism.”

Dumont is part of the rising urban agricultural movement, where there’s been a spike of millennials and first-generation farmers getting their hands dirty. Unlike other Canadian cities, Vancouver is the one urban centre with a younger farming age, according to the 2016 Statistics Canada census.

What Dumont described as a labour of love started on 400 square feet and jumped to almost an acre sprawled across 11 yards in the city. The veggies are traded for leased land in addition to being sold to local restaurants.

The upsurge in interest comes from social and environmental concerns, a desire to understand where food comes from and find better ways to manage our agricultural systems, he added.

“We grow right in the city in spaces where people constantly see,” he said. “We are all complicit in a destructive global system…. It would be nice to reduce that impact somehow and do something more direct.”

Vancouver’s population is ready for this movement, Dumont continued, calling the city “Canada’s California.” Small-scale resilient models are a good start, he added.

Much like Dumont, Marc Schutzbank hungered to better understand food production.

For his master’s thesis, he conducted the first census for urban farmers in 2010 with the Vancouver Urban Farming Society and funded by the city of Vancouver. The second census, from 2014 to 2016, surveyed 13 self-identified urban farms who described themselves as operations with positive ecological and social contributions as their core.

The census found seven acres of land producing food representing $750,000 in sales (more than five times than three years earlier) and $1.9 million in economic benefits.

Schutzbank sits on the Vancouver Food Policy Council and is director of Fresh Roots, an educational urban farm. He was also instrumental in a two-year project to review Vancouver’s urban agriculture guidelines.

Prior to the guidelines, there wasn’t clarity over the legality of selling food and cost of permitting or building codes. Schutzbank heard farmers confused over how to sell their produce. Some were not incorporated and some were charities, which he noted is different than sole-proprietorship.

“The city thought having business licenses would make it easier,” Schutzbank said. “The reality is urban farmers are making so little money that any additional expense made it difficult.”

There’s a tangle of bylaws when it comes to growing in the city, he acknowledged, and many farmers are moving to other municipalities to find land. He expects the amount of land farmed to reduce significantly for the next census.

“The regulations are older than what’s happening on the ground,” he explained. For example, shipping containers or greenhouses require development or irrigation permits. “We need to figure out what specific changes we want and advocate for them this election year.

“We’ve done a good job of articulating goals but what we’re learning is that we have to put more resources into them.”

But Michael Ableman, author and co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms — where they turn parking lots into farms— said the city policy review is “simply window dressing.” According to Ableman, his farm, which is the largest in the city, had zero benefit from the current policy.

Meetings during the two-year review process were in the middle of the growing season, he added, making it nearly impossible to hear from “actual farmers.”

So few have been asked to grow for so many. And that is at the root of challenges, Ableman said. “When 2 per cent of the population is growing for the rest, it creates numerous problems,” he explained. “We really don’t have a food crisis as much as we have a crisis of participation.”

For the 63-year-old farmer, the romance is gone. “We’re not gonna feed our cities from growing in them and we need to get over that idea,” he said. “(Urban agriculture) may not be a major production role but it has huge social and educational potential.”

Getting experience running a farm also needs to be addressed to set budding young farmers up for success: It takes complex training, time and dedication, Ableman added.

Dalia Levy, a first-generation millennial urban farmer, knows all about the back-breaking skills necessary to grow food. The Vancouver resident has been trying to secure a lease on Agricultural Reserve Land (mostly in Richmond because of its nutrient-rich soil) to have heritage sheep and build a permaculture system.

But urban farming remains a hobby, she said, since it’s almost impossible to find plots that are “farm ready.” The librarian has been looking for over two years and said the barriers are many.

“It’s speculative investors that won’t lease because they flip property, or ones that want all kinds of conditions, or land without water and road access, or land that would take years to repair the soil,” she explained. “At the end of the day, there is nobody training young farmers about lease agreements, or how to find landowners and lawyers.”

Month-to-month leases are tough for farmers who are on a seasonal timeline. “You can’t just up and move out in August if your crops aren’t ready till fall,” Levy said.

Vancouver needs to “walk the walk” if it wants to claim being the “greenest city,” she added.

“Young farmers need clear action that encourages small-scale regenerative farming through land trusts, start-up grants, caps on home size, and changes to the ALR,” Levy said. “The reality is this ALR land was set aside for us to sow our future food security and instead it is being used as a speculative staging ground for the planet.”

“It does not feel nice to constantly have the door shut,” she said.

This story is the first instalment in a three-part series looking at small-scale farming in British Columbia.

Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia

Correction, May 26, 2018 – This story has been changed from a previous version which misstated Michael Ableman’s role at Sole Food Street Farms. He is a co-founder, not the owner. A quote from Mr. Ableman has also been clarified explaining his position on the need for more experience for young farmers.

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.