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Entries in Urban Agriculture (22)

Monday
Oct012012

#YEGfoodag: A draft response to the draft report of the Edmonton Food and Ag Strategy Project

Like many other municipalities around the world, Edmonton, my hometown, has been grappling with a food and urban agriculture strategy. This has largely been in response to vocal and widespread interest by a cross-section of citizens the 30-year Municipal Development Plan (MDP) The Way We Grow (finalized on May 26, 2010) which contains policies on food and urban agriculture. In brief, it was an important amendment to the MDP that food security and the desires of Edmontonians to maintain and encourage local food be taken into account when making certain key planning decisions.

A Food and Agriculture Project was created under the City of Edmonton in late 2011. And it was tasked with some rather ambitious targets:

Food Policy Council and City-Wide Food and Agriculture Strategy Schedule


2011

2011

2012

2012

2012


Jul- Sept

Oct- Dec

Jan - Mar

Apr- June

July- Sept

Confirm Terms of Reference for Project

X





Broad Public Engagement (ongoing)

X

X

X

X


Food Organization Engagement (ongoing)

X

X

X

X


Government and Institution Engagement

X

X

X

X


CWF&A Policy Development – City-wide analysis


X

X

X


CWF&A Policy Development - Peri-urban


X

X

X


CWF&A - Urban Growth Areas ASPs




X


Overall Policy Development and Public Participation



X

X


CWF&A – Strategy Consolidation




X

X

Food Policy Council Work


X

X

X

X

Final Draft at Council





X

(Source: Food-and-Urban-Ag-Project-Terms-of-Reference-1.pdf / City of Edmonton)

The timeline was short and many felt there was a strange pressure to move forward to settle this issue that crept into the discussion of how Edmonton should grow (economically and spacially). There was a Food in the City conference in May 2012, public consultations, and work by an Advisory Committee of stakeholders from various interests including developers, urban farmers, food system experts and community groups. Today, the Advisory Committee released a draft of the City Wide Food and Agriculture Strategy to the public.

I have just finished reading “fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy Version 3, September 30, 2012.” At no point in this process was I consulted by the City, their consultants HB Lanarc or the Advisory Committee (curiously), so this is “fresh” reaction to a brand new document. That said, it is a carefully considered one informed by several years of immersion in urban agriculture research and travel to some of the cities at the forefront of creating urban agriculture opportunities in their communities.

Overall, the document was more of a reference guide than a strategy. It outlines what is happening in many other cities where people are interested in providing more opportunity for urban agriculture and local foods. The language is vague in a city (Edmonton) that has so many specific assets already in place: generations of urban farmers / market gardeners who know the ins and outs of producing local food for Edmontonians; an existing local food scene with well-established distribution nodes such as farmers’ markets and a grocery chains that carry some locally grown- and produced-foods (Wild Earth, Safeway, Family Foods, Save-On, etc.); and existing citizen groups working to promote and educate Edmontonians about locally grown- and produced-foods. Is this what happens when reports are written by consultants that have only a working knowledge of the city after a few short visits? Surely the expertise on the Advisory Committee could have provided some of this information?

There are two glaring omissions that I would hope can still be incorporated into this document. This is the purpose, afterall, for today’s release of the draft of the document as well as the Special Executive Committee Non-statutory Public Hearing on Friday, October 26, 2012. (Citizens who wish to speak at the Public Hearing can register in advance online and by phone 780-496-8178, or in person the day of the meeting.)

 Photo B9021 appears courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta "Vegetables from Donald Ross's Vegetable Garden Edmonton (1902)

The first omission is that we, as a city are failing to boast about our legacy of continuous urban food production that dates all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. We have had generations of market gardeners growing an eye-popping variety of fresh, local vegetables right in the city starting with Donald Ross’ Market Garden in the downtown river valley and continuing on today with young urban farmers like Janelle and Aaron Herbert of Riverbend Gardens. Riverbend, one of several successful family farming operations inside the city limits, maintains 120 acres of farmable land and grows over 20 types of vegetables for seven farmers markets in the Greater Edmonton Area. We have community gardens that date back to the Victory Gardens movement in the 1940s. We have an incredible resource of knowledge capital that was not even mentioned. Instead the report keeps referring to “the emerging practice and profession of urban farming” (p. 48). Why would we not reward and support proven successful farming entrepreneurs who are succeeding despite the pressures of globalization and lack of local permanent retail infrastructure, other than the ones I have mentioned above?

The second omission relates to the first – that is the economic contribution that the existing urban food producers and market producers already contribute to the economy of the city. First and foremost, producing food is a viable and sustainable economic activity. It seems to be treated more as a cultural need in this document (it is that as well, but it already contributes to our local economy). I would have liked to have seen studies and statistics presented on the dollars created in Edmonton through the production and vending of local foods. I would recommend adding “urban farming” to the Peri-urban column on page 11, as well as sub-acre urban farming to the Urban column on the same page. Let’s acknowledge that food is an engine of economic growth and prosperity. It’s a job-creator and we can eat the by-products.

There are some positives to the report as well. The Advisory Committee recommends the establishment of an Edmonton Food Council (EFC) in section 5.1 (pages 24-26). The report recommends providing “appropriate supporting resources to the EFC, which might include: i. At least one full-time staff position to support the EFC.
ii. An operating budget and clerical support for meetings.” That would be a very good step.

The report also identifies that the “City of Edmonton has an opportunity to lead by example by setting a local food purchasing policy. This could encourage other large organizations, like educational institutions, hospitals, and large corporations to follow suit, thereby creating a significant impact on local food demand.” (page 39)

Finally, there seems to be reluctant mention of the hot-button issue of the question of whether or not to protect / preserve tracts of prime agricultural land from other types of development (let’s not forget that agriculture is a type of landuse like any other…it is not undeveloped just because it is being farmed, and farmers pay taxes like other landowners) at the tail-end of this report. Really, this might be the most important element of the document.

The contention and lack of agreement over how to address this issue is written all over this final section of the report: Section 5.9 “Integrate Land for Agriculture.” (Even the title suggests that this will be a new use for land in Edmonton, instead of acknowledging that there is land already in use for agriculture. What we really are talking about, but fail to call it that, is Preserve Land for Agriculture!) The report acknowledges that “85% (n=55) participants at the stakeholder meeting believe that preserving land for agriculture in the Urban Growth Areas is a sound direction for Edmonton,” (p. 51 / Source: Stakeholder Groups Summary). While the Advisory Committee report refers to the fact that Edmonton is one of the few municipalities in Canada with prime agricultural land within its boundaries, it also refers to this as presenting “a range of complexities,” (page 51). Why is this a complexity rather than an opportunity? The choice of wording says it all! The fact that Edmonton is the envy of many cities around the world is a problem. And furthermore, the Advisory Committee fails to make any sort of recommendations about the issue that citizens who are engaged in this project feel most strongly about.

In the end, this is an advisory committee report that has failed to advise, but instead decided to outline the issues and leave the decisions to city councilors. In other words, Edmonton’s food and agriculture strategy is at a nascent stage and that is fine. These are complex issues. Perhaps, it was not wise to ask for answers when we’re really just starting to grasp the questions. More information needs to be gathered. More facts need to be considered. More time needs to be taken. 

I encourage everyone who can to read the report, consider the options and make your thoughts known to city hall. It’s apparent that this is where this issue will ultimately be decided, which is fine, as long as city councilors know how to proceed based on solid knowledge, and in keeping with the wishes and desires of their employers, the citizens of Edmonton.

 

Thursday
Sep132012

Closing the Food Gap / Panel discussion in Edmonton tonight

I have been asked to participate in a City of Edmonton The Way We Green Speakers Series called Closing the Food Gap. I will be one speaker on a panel of four. The other speakers are:

  • Mark Winne, food policy expert and atuhor of Closing the Food Gap (Beacon Press 2008) and Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas (Beacon Press, 2010)
  • Kevin Kossowan, local food expert and urban homesteader, videographer and award-winning blogger at www.kevinkossowan.com
  • Kathryn Lennon - Volunteer Organizer, Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op

The panel will be moderated by Mack Male, social media expert and community action organizer

You can still register, it's free.

In preparation for the panel discussion, I am going to pop up some photos and some talking points. I won't have a slideshow presentation tonight, but many people in the audience will be holding their smartphones at the ready. I will likely touch on a few of these photos / points, but it's a free-flowing discussion. In other words, I'll post something more coherent here in the next day or so.

Photo B9021 appears courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta "Vegetables from Donald Ross's Vegetable Garden Edmonton (1902)"

The point of the above photo is that Edmonton has a long and successful history of urban gardening, both on a homescale and a commercial scale. Donald Ross sold his Edmonton-grown veg at the city market (he was an urban farmer, though he would have called himself a market gardener in 1902).

Photo B9028 appears courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta "W. Reeve's Tomatoes Edmonton"

And Edmonton has a century-long history of urban food production on a homescale and on vacant lots. During WWI and WWII, home food production and preservation peaked. And it remained "normal" to have a kitchen garden through the 1970s and 1980s. It's only in the 1990s that food gardening really dipped. It is now swinging back. The Edmonton Horticultural Society acted as the city of Edmonton's agent administering the vacant lots for food gardening from 1916 to the early 1990s. Here's a touch of the history and the staggering numbers of food gardens in Edmonton in those early years before the 50s. (Keep in mind the population of Edmonton was considerably lower than now, so the person-to-garden ratio was quite high.)

Until well into the 1950s the renting of vacant lots was one of the EHS's major programs. By 1924 the EHS had hired a full-time secretary to administer the program and, by 1930, the number of lots rented each year had increased from 200 (in 1916) to 2200. During the Great Depression hundreds of lots each year were allocated rent-free to citizens on relief. The EHS, in conjunction with the City's Special Relief Department, set up competitions for relief gardens which ran during the worst years of the depression. In the 1940s it was not unusual for the EHS to administer the rental of over 4000 lots per year but, over the next few decades, the numbers of lots available dwindled; in 1978 120 lots were rented.

                   --Kathryn Chase Merrett, http://www.edmontonhort.com/about/historyexpanded.php

And finally here's the cover of my maternal grandmother's copy of Victory Backyard Gardens (1942). It was a US government (Department of Agriculture) manual that was a standard reference even here in Canada for the Victory Gardens movement. In the 1940s, 40 percent of domestic fresh vegetables and fruit were produced in household victory gardens in the United States.

 

Monday
Aug202012

Urban Ag Dispatch from London: Farming a Building in Hackney

(My friend Craille lives in Hackney, a neighbourhood in London. She's an accomplished and smart writer working on a big, cool writing project on geographic promiscuity and the pathological need to travel, The Modern Nomad. On her way to her office, she passes by an urban farm/ing shop and has sent me photos from time to time. This past weekend, she attended a workshop on urban agriculture this past weekend and is guest blogging for me about it. I LOVE having foreign correspondents on foodgirl.ca!)

By Craille Maguire Gillies

photo: Craille Maguire Gillies

On a recent sweltering Sunday in London, one of few in the UK this year, I visited KXFS, or King’s Cross Filling Station, on the edge of Regent’s Canal. KXFS is a one-time petrol station that has been converted to a restaurant (Shrimpy’s) and a pizza bar.

The weekend I visited, a stage, seating and a large screen had been set up to host a small festival devoted to all things science. I was there to hear a talk about urban agriculture by artist Andrew Merritt, one third of the London’s creative studio Something & Son. They’ve worked with the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Council, and the London Architecture Festival. They’re also the folks behind FARM:shop, a retail store and urban farm housing in a former women’s refuge in East London. Through the windows you can see hydroponic greens and basil and when I’ve wandered by I’ve always been curious about what goes on inside. A bearded, T-shirt-clad Merritt came to super/collider’s festival at KXFS to fill us in.

Image from http://farmlondon.weebly.com/farmshop.htmlThe tagline adopted by FARM:shop, which opened in 2011, is “growing as much as we can in a shop in Hackney, London.” Specifically, they renovated a four-storey building, including the basement. “We wanted to farm the whole building,” Merritt told us. That means chickens on the roof where London’s foxes can’t catch them, a wall of hydroponic basil, tanks with 40 tilapia, a freshwater fish (great because they reproduce in tight spaces and are highly immune to disease), and mushrooms. A ground-floor café and co-working desk space bring in extra cash.

The goal has been to not only experiment with how much space you need to create a sustainable urban farm (Merritt estimates 2,000-square-metre), but also to involve the community in the venture and raise consciousness around food in the city. Though they try to be as efficient as possible, the true goal, says Merritt, is “to show the realities of where your food is coming from.” Something & Son describes itself as an eco-social design studio, and many of its projects, such as a new affordable bathouse/spa in the suburb of Barking, are as much social projects as art projects.

There’s another goal at FARM:shop. It opened thanks to an arts grant (which can be a great way to fund social and eco projects, says Merritt); now it employs two people. That means that Something & Son is thinking not only about the best way to, say, kill aphids (parasitic wasps seem to do the trick), but also to make community projects like FARM:shop or the Barking Bathhouse sustainable businesses. “We need to balance the commercial side [of urban agriculture], which New York City does really well with the local growing side, which London does really well,” Merritt said as smoke from the pizza oven curled upward.

The roof over the former filling station protected us from a brief bout of thunder and lighting. A barge floated down Regent’s Canal as Merritt spoke, and we were surrounded by concrete and cranes and buildings. Slowly, as funding comes along, Something & Son is rolling out satellite projects around the city and it plans to bring FARM:shops to in-between spaces throughout the UK. Looking up at the brick buildings on the other side of the canal, just sitting empty, it was easy to imagine how, when it comes to urban ag in London, the sky’s the limit.

Andrew Merritt talks urban ag at the Super/Collider festival Aug 17-19, 2012Photo: Craille Maguire Gillies Andrew Merritt, FARM:shop talks urban farming at the Super/Collider festival London, Aug 17-19, 2012. Photo: Craille Maguire Gillies

Wednesday
Aug152012

The Importance of Urban Agriculture on Global News Toronto this morning

Here I am talking about the global movement of urban agriculture and why growing food in cities matters on this morning's news in Toronto. (Watch directly on the Global Toronto site, or in the little screen below. The direct link to the site has a clearer picture.)

Saturday
Aug112012

Todmorden, UK, an Edible City and the Rise of "Vegetable Tourism"

I read an article about Todmorden, a city near Manchester in the UK, in 2009, when the city announced that it would strive to become self-sufficient in vegetables. It launched an ambitious project, which was called the Incredible Edible Todmorden.

I didn't have time to visit this city as I was writing Food and the City, but I still want to visit someday soon. I'm not the only one apparently. Todmorden is now a Vegetable Tourism destination. They have had incredible success with their open-concept to just plant food everywhere, in both public and private spaces.

The TED talk by Pam Warhurst, café owner and chair of the Incredible Edible Tormorden project, has just been released. I want to shake this woman's hand. And I love some of the great sound bites from the talk -- from the creation of Vegetable Tourism, to "We have sprouting cemetaries -- the soil is extremely good," to the fact that "we done it all without a flippin strategy document!" Ha. Bravo Todmorden.

Watch the Pam Warhurst: How we can eat our landscapes.