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This is urban agriculture?

CANADA: If you want to see eyes roll, just ask Country Guide readers (and writers) if urban farmers are actually farmers. Since when was a pot of tomatoes on a balcony a farm? But maybe we need to think again

"A lot of people just don’t get it,” says Wally Satzewich on ground he farms with Gail Vandersteen. “They don’t see the potential.”

Not surprisingly, urban farming is generally defined as agriculture that is done in a city, usually on a small plot of land but really it could be on any available nook. That’s what separates it from conventional farming. But then, it’s also done as a business, producing food for commercial sale, which is what links it to mainstream farms.

There’s still that question in the air, though. Is it for real, or, to put it politely, is it only for eccentrics?

Well, maybe in a world that is being pushed to sustainably produce food for an expanding global population against the backdrop of climate change and increasing urbanization, urban farming may become as valid and essential as any other kind of agriculture, especially since it is innovating and expanding so rapidly.

And urban agriculturists take exception to the idea that they’re just hobbyists. In fact, they come at the job with all kinds of strengths. They might have backgrounds in engineering or teaching or any other career path. But something truly distinguishes them, says Dr. Mark Lefsrud of McGill University, which operates a number of urban farms and gardens on its campus and throughout Montreal. It’s that to succeed, they must develop “the mindset of a farmer,” he says. “This is hard manual labour done on a smaller scale, but it’s still the same style of farming … if they want to make it commercial, they have to go full-in and they are true farmers at that point.”

What is urban agriculture?

Any food production in a city, town or populated community is a form of urban farming, but urban agriculture is also characterized by its diversity of people, types of operation and motivations.

Urban agricultural ventures vary in size and intensity and encompass everything from open-air or greenhouse rooftop farms to indoor and vertical farms, community gardens, hydroponic or aquaculture operations, edible walls and landscape projects, backyard gardens and peri-urban farms (those located on the perimeter of cities).

Urban farmers don’t necessarily come from farm backgrounds, although they do all seem to share the same passion for growing food that rural farmers do. They operate on smaller tracts of land that they may own, lease, rent or access by engaging in some kind of reciprocal agreement with the owner, such as a share of the food produced, or use of a growing area in return for maintaining the property.

Some farms are located on vacant lots and municipal land, sometimes even city parks. Urban farms may be managed by an individual, couple, family, friends or a community or non-profit group. They produce a diverse range of foods, often including ethnic crops that reflect the diverse cultures of the urban community they serve and those involved in its management.

"A farmers market is so many things besides just selling, it’s fellow vendors, long-time customers and the relationships formed with them," says Wally Satzewich. photo: David Stobbe

Most urban farms sell directly through different (and multiple) sales channels such as farmers markets, online stores, CSAs, food buying clubs, pick-up food boxes, retail stores, restaurants and even wholesalers, but their customers are generally local, loyal and increasingly eager to understand the story behind their food and the people who grow it.

Urban farmers build a relationship with their customers that is vastly different from those involved in commodity agriculture, where crops are sold to grain buyers or processors distant from the end-consumers.

The origins of urban agriculture

Urban agriculture has experienced a renaissance over the past 10 to 15 years but its origins date back more than 11,000 years as people began growing crops and raising livestock to support a human population that was evolving from being nomadic, hunter-gatherers to permanent dwellers of emerging urban settlements.

The first large-scale urban agriculture development in North America was in Detroit in the 1890s when vacant lots were converted to food production. During the First World War, with food imports from Europe no longer available, governments in North America encouraged small urban farm plots and Victory Gardens for people to grow their own food, and their popularity continued through the Depression and the 1940s.

Why today?

Wartime efforts to encourage people to grow their own food may be perfectly understandable, but what is driving people to do the same today, and to actually adopt urban agriculture as a means to make a living?

There are many factors, including increasing urbanization, which means more and more people are becoming ever more distant from rural farming and its way of life. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations says at least 55 per cent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. By 2050, it will be 68 per cent.

It’s not hard to see that urban agriculture and innovative approaches to food production of all types will be needed to meet growing food demand, not just in affluent, western societies, but rapidly growing poorer countries too, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

If there is one thing that we’ve all learned in the last year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic it’s how fragile our global food system is and how easy it is to disrupt food chains that supply our urban centres.

Vandersteen and Satzewich have farmed in open countryside and in the middle of big cities. But, he says, “the dream setup for me is this one in a small town.” photo: David Stobbe

This has put the issue of food security more firmly in the minds of governments at all levels, so growing and processing food more locally is firmly on the agenda.

Similarly, individuals, families and groups of people around the world have become more interested in growing their own food, spurred on by reasons that are as varied as the people themselves. It could be because of food security concerns, ethical, environmental or health considerations, to generate income, or simply because it’s beneficial to a person’s mental health and well-being.

Whatever the reason, people are planting, weeding and harvesting food in cities and towns around the world, for themselves and their families, or as part of community gardening projects.

In Canada, we are seeing evidence of this with the tight availability of garden seeds this past spring from many suppliers, and the popularity of events like “Seedy Saturdays,” an initiative of Seeds of Diversity, where people all over Canada come together to exchange seeds and knowledge.

Policies and regulations, which in the past have often hindered growth in urban agriculture, are slowly changing to help facilitate urban agricultural enterprises, although there is still a hodgepodge of regulations across Canada and the U.S. as some jurisdictions are quicker to recognize and get on board the urban agriculture express than others.

Urban agriculture in Canada

Urban farming takes many forms and comes in many sizes, and it exists in every province across the country. As always, though, if you want to understand any kind of agriculture, talk to the farmers, and over the next few issues, Country Guide will highlight urban farm operations in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, showing their diversity and innovation.

Grow Calgary, which began in 2013, is Canada’s largest non-profit urban farm, involving close 25,000 volunteers growing food and non-commercial hemp on 11 acres of land west of Canada Olympic Park. It donates all of its produce to over 40 food programs in Calgary, with 95 per cent of the food recipients being women and children.

Besides such non-profit urban agriculture initiatives (of which there are many), there are increasing numbers of small commercial businesses that are adopting innovative production methods to make earning a living off the land not just feasible, but attractive.

One of the new commercial farm models that is gaining in popularity is SPIN (small plot intensive farming) an idea that originated in Pennsylvania, but that has been adopted and enhanced for Prairie growers by Canadian SPIN pioneers Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen of Saskatchewan. (Read more about them in the following story).

These types of small-plot farmers are utilizing the same principles that larger commercial farmers focus on too. They aim to produce more yield and net revenue on the same land resource through the adoption of practices that help build and maintain soil health, boost productivity and increase profits and sustainability at the same time.

Photo: David Stobbe photo: David Stobbe

The similarities, the differences

How does urban farming differ from the conventional, rural farming?

Operating costs and overheads are obvious difference between the large, rural farm, with land, buildings and equipment that keep increasing in value, compared to the small plot — typically less than an acre — that generally uses more intensive management methods and more manual labour than technology.
But while costs are lower for many small, urban farm systems, the notable exception is indoor farms, whether that’s hydroponic operations growing food in containers, commercial rooftop greenhouses or large vertical farm systems, which, despite their potential to produce huge yields in a very small area, are slower to develop largely because of the cost to establish and operate them. 

A 37-floor vertical farm at Germany’s University of Bonn cost a whopping 201 million euros (approx C$300 million) to build and equip (in 2014) and operating costs are another eight million euros (almost C$12 million), making the average cost of the raw food it produced between 3.5 and four euros (around C$5 to C$6) per kg. Although that figure is likely to come down with advances in technology, vertical farming has a long way to go before it catches up with other forms of urban farming.

While there are differences between urban farms and conventional, rural farms, there are also a whole lot of similarities, and number one is that these farmers, big and small, urban or rural, are passionate about growing high-quality food and proud of what they do. Satzewich says the fundamental difference between urban and conventional farming is the proximity to and relationship with the end-consumer. 

“The difference is what arises out of engaging customers face-to-face as opposed to more distant marketing. If you go to a farmers market, you have to explain how to cook with your ingredients a lot of the time,” he says. “You become like a cooking coach, and you also become a friend. A farmers market is so many things besides just selling, it’s fellow vendors, long-time customers and the relationships formed with them.” 

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Angela Lovell

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