Eat your greens, avoid cannibalism

I'm a skeptic. When people start telling me the latest thing is also the greatest thing ever, that's when my eyebrows start arching.

Urban agriculture is the greatest thing ever of the moment. It seems like everyone is doing it. In my youngish professional cohort, it's become a bit gauche to show up for a potluck without a salad made entirely from homegrown vegetables. Newspapers are trumpeting it; books have been published about it. Over in Vancouver, the NPA believes we've gone right out the other side of this one. They think the backlash -- the anti-wheat, chicken-hating vote -- is big enough to unseat Mayor Gregor Robertson.

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Farming in the City of North Vancouver also produced one of the more memorable lines I've heard at a council meeting, when one councillor suggested it may one day be all that stands between us and human cannibalism. Interesting argument.

North Vancouver city is a small, urban community. But it does have a working farm. It's about a half-acre, fenced off in the southern end of Loutet Park. Dig down far enough and you'll find an old landfill. On top of that is more fill from highway construction. As of this year, on top of that are 14 dump-truck loads of Fraser Valley soil, a tidy little greenhouse and a smart little shed. I tromped around them the other day with Heather Johnston of the Edible Garden Project.

"We've got beans, zucchinis, several kales, radishes, lettuce, flowers for the bees, tomatoes, peas, cilantro, basil and potatoes," she said.

Johnston works for North Shore Neighbourhood House. Three other folks make $18 an hour sharing the title of farmer. But much of the labour and all of the money has been donated. It's probably worth noting that many of the corporate sponsors -- Concert Properties, Wesgroup and Neptune Terminals among them -- have brought major development projects in front of the city recently.

Johnston is pragmatic.

"We raised a whole lot of money in a really short period of time, and it was largely thanks to those developers," she said.

About 32 tables-full of produce have been sold out of the Loutet Farm this year, and that might grow by a factor of four or five in the coming years as the soil improves. The prices are what you might call "farmer's market rate," more expensive than the supermarket. A tomato flown halfway around the planet may not be as tasty as one grown next door, but it is still cheaper. Even with free land, free labour and a wad of donations, economies of scale still trump economies of goodwill -- for now.

But that's not really the point, Johnston argued. It's not so much about pounds produced as it is about community-building and passing on skills that might come in handy to, say, prevent cannibalism in the event of a natural disaster, drought or a fuel crisis.

No one is pretending that Loutet Park is going to replace the fields of Saskatchewan. But it could take a little pressure off a food system that we have gotten pretty complacent about.

"Who would tell their kid to be a farmer?" Johnston asked. "It's low paying, it's not glamourous, it's not a well respected profession. But it's so key and we take it for granted every day."

I spent the next part of that day watching Alex Kurnicki eat his lunch. His official title is streetscape designer, but he's also the city's "de facto urban agriculture guy." That file landed on his desk when his boss learned he grows veggies, keeps bees and has plans to keep chickens next year. He's not exactly the NPA's target audience.

"It's a personal passion," he told me. "I love the concept. I love supporting it. I believe in it."

One of the complaints I hear a lot is this is a soft-headed detour for local government, that given the parade of priorities that pursue every municipal tax dollar, we don't need to be bankrolling front-yard lettuce plots. If you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have agreed that urban agriculture and horticulture are perfectly benign, harmless hobbies, but no more the city's business than knitting circles are. They're community-building as well, and we all need clothes, right?

The city hasn't given up anything for Loutet Farm beyond a swampy half-acre of park and about two weeks of Kurnicki's time. Echoing Johnston's argument, he said projects like that have a multiplier effect if they inspire people to look differently at their own land. He'd like to see people grow crops in their front yards, on public boulevards and on top of the commercial podiums most new condo towers have. He'd like to see more young people volunteer to grow stuff in a yard that a senior resident is tired of tending.

It was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of Johnston and Kurnicki.

Who knows if urban farming will ever graduate from hobby to viable business? Probably not unless we see a sharp increase in food prices. But that's quite possible in the years to come, especially given the volatility of the world economy right now. So ultimately, I would call this a strategically important hobby, like making your home more energy efficient. No one house or garden is going to save the world, but they add up. Moreover, if we do ever face a food crisis, it's good to have these skills and systems in place, ready to be ramped up. Big things start with small seeds.

Guess I'm a believer after all.

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