Community Group Pushes the Limits of Urban Agriculture

Monday Magazine | July 22, 2004
Sitting on the lush grass beside a thriving mass of greenery in the Michigan Street Community Garden, LifeCycles Project Society co-director Kezia Cowtan talks food miles. How far, she asks, does your food travel before you sink your teeth into it?

Your jet-setting New Zealand apples or Chilean grapes aren’t unusual­—the typical trip from farm to plate, via supermarket, is 1,500 miles, according to a report prepared for the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiative Roundtable (CR-FAIR). The group estimates only five percent of our food is produced within the region, and 90 percent of it is produced off-island. That means one thing: it takes fossil fuels to get food to your table. So for those interested in meeting Kyoto protocols or creating sustainable communities, urban agriculture makes a lot of sense. In the city, there isn’t enough room to grow vast fields of wheat or other industrial crops (though Vic West is home to a commercial hydroponic operation that grows basil for sale in local supermarkets). But between back yards, vacant lots and other spaces, there is a surprising amount of land that can be used for growing food, and it’s the mission of groups like LifeCycles and other members of CR-FAIR to make sure that land gets put to growing use.

Because community allotment gardens often have long waiting lists, LifeCycles is putting together an online “sharing backyards” database, says Cowtan. This program helps people with under-utilized garden space hook up with landless gardeners. It benefits both, as they share the food that results.

LifeCycles also helps establish vegetable gardens in the yards of low-income people, an activity for which there is much demand. “Because welfare recipients have been cut back or denied service, some of those folks are looking at getting the basic tools and [gardening] abilities to make it by,” Cowtan says. Other hands-on programs include the fruit tree project, in which volunteers pick homeowners’ backyard fruit trees and divide the produce between the homeowner, LifeCycles and themselves.

These measures do produce a lot of food, but LifeCycles would like to see an even bigger change so that we’re no longer dependent on food grown thousands of miles away. As such, Lifecycles would like to see an overall, far-reaching change towards a system of locally produced food. But to get there, a major shift in attitude would need to take place. “That’s the big thing you’re really looking for,” says Cowtan. “Behavioural change in consumers.”

Geoff Johnson, site educator at the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre, agrees. A proponent of urban agriculture, Johnson also pushes permaculture, a system of gardening “designed to make connections between things so that you don’t have to import lots of energy on to the site,” says Johnson. “It’s about setting up a cultivatable ecology.”

That means choosing plants to suit specific site conditions, and planting companion plants. It also means establishing perennials instead of annuals such as carrots and squash. “It’s not like annuals are the devil, but it makes sense. If we’re talking sustainability and long-term conservation, perennials are where it’s at.”

Johnson was the main force behind the current incarnation of the Spring Ridge Commons in Fernwood. The biggest difference between the four-year-old project and other community gardens, says Johnson, is that the Commons belongs to everyone. There are no waitlists or private plots, and anyone can care for and harvest produce in the Commons. But most people aren’t familiar with the concept of nurturing and harvesting plants in a public place, says Johnson. Nor are they familiar with the concepts of permaculture or with some of its plants. Take, for example, the greyish-green sea buckthorn bush that is growing unobtrusively to the side of the lot’s gravel path. Johnson saw sea buckthorn thriving in Tibet, but it’s little known here, despite its suitability. “It’s super-rich in vitamin C, it fixes nitrogen [into the soil], it’s drought resistant and it produces fruit,” he says, adding that it’s now being used in some trendy sports drinks.

More recognizable are the hay berries, similar to blackberries, growing along a wooden frame, and the figs trees laden with fruit.

“This pushes the envelope of urban agriculture. Yeah, there’s a few weeds,” he says. “But just imagine if more people got involved, we could really go to town.”

If taxpayers’ money went into projects like this one, instead of into public gardens with lawns and flowers, we’d all be better off, Johnson says. “I think we could do better than we are with our public urban spaces,” he says, indicating the permaculture garden. “These plants take no more work than rose bushes, but the difference is these plants promote food security.” And food security, he says, is going to become more and more important.

“We completely take for granted that our food comes from oil wells—unless we start to build places like this, we’ll be in trouble if that system breaks down.”

Other parts of the world have tried such urban agriculture projects, and have been remarkably successful. In Cuba, for example, the United States trade embargo made a self-reliant food system a necessity. A huge amount of food is grown in the capital city of Havana and sold to thousands of nearby apartment dwellers, Cowtan says. Urban agriculture gets a lot of support from the Cuban government, she adds, gesturing towards the B.C. legislature, visible from the garden in James Bay. “Canadians could learn a lot.” M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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