The Purple Thistle operates a community garden off Commercial Drive, just one model of urban farming that is addressing growing concerns about our food system. Photo courtesy of Purple Thistle.
Food security and sustainability are common conversation topics these days. While more people are beginning to demand local and sustainable options for their food choices, Kent Mullinix is preparing people to make changes to the food system at large.
Mullinix is the director of a new program at Kwantlen College that will give graduating students a Bachelor of Applied Science in sustainable agriculture.
Making dramatic changes in our relationship with food has become critical, according to Mullinix. He doesn’t mince words on the subject: “There is recognition that the human enterprise is unequivocally unsustainable,” he says. “We are destroying the very basis of human existence. And we know this.”
The program is unique in North America, but Mullinix says that the need for programs like Kwantlen’s is paramount, which is why interest for admission is already high. It will give students the tools to invent a truly sustainable food system. “It will focus on right-sized agriculture. Appropriately configured agriculture,” he says.
Starting in September 2012, the inaugural class will participate in a mix of classroom learning and fieldwork, and will graduate four years later with the tools to take on opportunities as diverse as farming, postproduction food management, community activism, municipal planning or positions in any level of government—but always with the goal to advance sustainable food systems.
While those students are four years away from putting theory into practice, there are already many people active in the urban and sustainable farming movement. Because the concept is relatively new, it is largely wild terrain for people who are interested in forming sustainable agriculture models. And here in Vancouver, sustainable urban food production is taking some interesting forms.
The collective approach
The people who have created the Purple Thistle community gardens call themselves guerilla gardeners. Not long ago, the three spaces they claimed, located in the industrial area just east of Commercial Drive, were underused, overgrown and covered in junk.
Now, these three plots support a food forest with 50 young fruit and nut trees, an area dedicated to food medicine, vegetable plots, bee hives and a welcoming space where anyone can come and take part in their own food production.
Adam Huggins is one of two coordinators that provide cohesion to the multi-faceted collective. Fittingly, he likens the group’s structure to a flower. “Each of the petals represents a different autonomous working group— plant medicine, food forest design, bee keeping, water and irrigation, composting.
The SOLEfood farm sits in the shadows of downtown Vancouver. Photo by Kevin Hollett.
And at the centre of the flower, the flower’s reproductive organs, are weekly work parties, a monthly potluck, our harvest ceremony. This brings all these autonomous groups together to celebrate and have a good time.”
They began in 2010 and the city has since retroactively recognized the plots as community gardens. But the difference between these and traditional community gardens is that one large plot (rather than many smaller individual plots) means that the risk, commitment and rewards are distributed amongst a group.
And that group is entirely inclusive, from the people who work on it to people that just walk by and need or want something to eat. There are no signs that claim the food belongs to the people who work the land. “People will harvest from the street and that is something that we like,” Huggins says.
The gardens are juxtaposed against nearby the ports and terminals that receive food from all over the world, food that is inaccessible to many people. Huggins is determined to help grant people access to food at a community level. The collective is youth-focused and youth-run but they mentor and welcome anyone who wants to work or learn.
The guerilla gardeners took over the spaces, one of which is a small section of surviving wetland habitat, and began to work with the conditions that the earth was already providing.
They don’t use raised garden beds or plant anything that wouldn’t naturally thrive. “We try to interface with the land itself and interface with the social system, and I think that makes us really unique,” Huggins says.
The community-supported approach
Ward Teulon had come back from harvesting at the downtown rooftop garden he farms when we spoke on the phone. He has six plots altogether, the rest are in private backyards in the Kensington-Cedar Cottage area. Later this day, Teulon will take his harvest and divide it between the people that comprise his urban farming collective.
It’s called community-supported agriculture. The model has roots in Germany,Switzerland and Japan, from when food imports and exports raised concerns about food safety. When Teulon started urban farming in 2007, calling himself City Farm Boy, he was one of the first farmers in the city. Now, there are more than 20 such farmers who run similar businesses.
Each member pays him $650 at the beginning of the season and in return, they get a portion of Teulon’s weekly harvest. It’s good value and high quality because it’s harvested right before they get it, Teulon says. But the real joy is because of the interactions between people. “It’s all people from the community, my kids play with their kids. We’re all neighbours for the most part so it just seems to make sense.”
Teulon has used his expertise in the past to run workshops and teach classes about urban farming and he acknowledges that the movement is spreading. “I’ve noticed it around the city, people are starting to grow food more often,” he says. “There are lots of vegetables being grown along the streets.”
At one point, Teulon had about 40 people who bought shares in his business. He has scaled it back now, but since more people are developing urban farms of all different sizes, there are more people using services like his.
There’s huge potential for people to grow their own food and create networks within their own communities, he says, and with some planning and effort, people can grow surprising amounts of food. “Two years ago I grew 22 kilos of sugar snap peas in a raised bed along the side of my house. Another year I grew about 150-200 cobs of corn.”
He has built a solid community and is happy to see his neighbours interact and get to know each other when they come and pick up their weekly harvest. He knows he’ll never become a millionaire on this path but he doesn’t do it for the money. “I just love growing food. I can’t help myself, so now, at least, I have somebody to eat it all.”
The social enterprise approach
If you are riding the SkyTrain heading west into downtown Vancouver, you’ll be able to see one of SOLEfood’s newest urban farming projects—a pop-up garden at Pacific Boulevard and Carrall Street.
A giant asphalt lot with Rogers Arena looming in the background seems an unlikely place for a garden,but the people at SOLEfood have been setting up garden beds equalling two acres of farmland and preparing them for the growing season.
Seann Dory of SOLEfood stands in the newest farm plot being built next to Pacific Avenue. Photo by Kevin Hollett.
Seann Dory, co-director of SOLEfood, is tough to track down, understandably so due to the size of the undertaking. Dory says the farms (the first is operated at Hawks Avenue and Hastings Street) began with a lot of questions. “People talk about food security all the time but what does that really mean? What does it really look like? And how does it apply to our city and the Downtown Eastside? Do people have access to food? To healthy food? We are asking these questions with some seriousness behind them,” he says.
While the most obvious end result of the gardens is growing food, the gardens are actually run as employment opportunities for people from the Downtown Eastside who have difficulty entering the work force. The project is an arm of United We Can, which also runs a bottle depot with a similar employment strategy.
The harvested food is sold to high-end restaurants, at farmers markets and through a partnership with Whole Foods. The profits are then reinvested in the program to expand and provide further opportunities to people from the Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver is not ideal for these kinds of large-scale urban farming projects as the land value is high and there is a lack of vacant space. The challenges force urban farmers to get creative, Dory says. “You really have to learn how to work with all different kinds of spaces.”
But despite any of the difficulties that a project like this might have, the relationships and opportunities for people make it well worth it, according to Dory.
“When you see someone working in a garden, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. That’s been the most positive part about our project: you see people that might never talk to each other, people who have visible scars from the Downtown Eastside. It turns preconceived ideas about who people are on their head.”
Planting the seeds
In addition to providing hyperlocal food to Vancouver, each of the different models demonstrates that farming connects people and strengthens communities.
The last time I checked, the carrots I planted a couple of weeks ago are sprouting in my first solo attempt at gardening. I was lucky enough to secure a small plot in a church-owned community garden across the street from my house. When more food is ready for harvest, everyone will gather for a weekly potluck.
While gardening takes work and effort, the benefits are many and the opportunities are everywhere.
I told the woman selling me the carrot seeds that I was worried I didn’t know enough about gardening. “The thing about plants is, they’re good at growing,” she said.
Click here to read the first part of this series here.