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City Farmer History
1981

Urban Agriculture - Instructional Course

A course held at the University of British Columbia from February 14, 1981, to March 21, 1981, under the auspices of City Farmer and in co-operation with the Department of Continuing Education, the University of British Columbia.

City Farmer:
Michael Levenston Course Co-Ordinator
Shirley Buswell Education Specialist
Introductions by Risa Smith, Education Consultant

Centre for Continuing Education:
Robin Fried Director, Urban Planning Programs
Janice Doyle Secretary, Urban Planning Programs

Speakers:

The Family Food Garden: A Success Story
John Millen, P. Eng., Environment Canada, and Marian Millen, B.Sc.

The Soil
Arthur Bomke, Assistant Professor of Soil Science, University of British Columbia

Vegetable Gardening
Mark Sweeney, P.Ag., Horticulturist, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Abbotsford

Tree Fruits and Berry Crops
John Hill, P.Ag., District Horticulturist, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Cloverdale

Insects
Bob Costello, Entomologist, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Cloverdale

Diseases
Dave Ormrod, P.Ag., Plant Pathologist, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Cloverdale


An Introduction to Urban Agriculture

Our Valuable Soil

Beating Costs: Conserving Energy

Getting the Maximum from the Garden

A New Plan of Attack

Gardening is Good Medicine


The course was held on six consecutive Saturday mornings. Different speakers (all expert in their fields) were engaged for each class.

The course had been planned originally for the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens, but due to a strike of municipal workers, it was not possible to hold it there.

All the speakers chose to use the lecture format for their presentations, and most made use of overhead or slide projectors. City Farmer tape recorded each class.

Handout material in the form of a Newsletter was prepared for each session by the staff of City Farmer. Agriculture Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food were most generous, and supplied all the publications which City Farmer requested, so we were able to supplement the Newsletter with these. Buckerfield's Limited kindly supplied us with sufficient seed packages to distribute one, free, to each student.

Each week, City Farmer arranged a different display of printed materials selected from our own library, and this proved very popular with the participants, some of whom ordered these for themselves. A list of the printed materials shown appears at the beginning of each weekly section, after the introduction.


An Introduction to Urban Agriculture

When the farmer steps out of his door, he looks at the sky. Changes in the daily weather, the natural progression of the seasons, these are matters of prime importance to him; they dictate the organization of his life.

For those of us who live in Canada's urban centres (approximately 75%)* it's very easy to look at the year through different eyes. Winter can become associated merely with difficult driving conditions; summer, with the choice of a holiday spot. When spring stirs us, it may be only to buy some of the new clothes which overflow the stores. When autumns first bite wakes us from our summer torpor, the weightiest problem we begin to consider may be the cost of outfitting the children for school. We have lost touch with the purpose behind the rhythm of the year. We have lost touch with nature.

To the gardener, as to the farmer, the time of year is never insignificant. Each season brings its list of chores to do and of pleasures to be had from the cultivation of his own back yard. To the urban gardener, those chores are especially important, those pleasures are especially dear, because his professional life, so often spent in a prison of highrise office complexes, provides such a contrast to his time in the garden.

But there is more to urban gardening than pleasure and the relief from city stress.

The urban gardener, isolated from the farm which is the traditional source of his daily food, has the opportunity in his backyard plot to discover the process by which dull-looking seeds transform themselves into crops of which to be proud.

What he gains along the way is not to be measured only in terms of a certain number of kilos of food produced by each square metre of soil, important though that is, he begins to understand what is involved in each stage of food production.

This latter point may at first appear an irrelevant addition to the home gardener's knowledge. But if he learns to approach his plot as a small ecosystem, it is possible for him to appreciate the implications of differing methods of cultivation, and these can then be considered not only in relation to his own garden, but also in relation to the national and world-wide food production systems upon which all of us have relied for so long, and which we are increasingly obliged to recognize as a diminishing resource.

Welcome to the course. We hope that whether you are a beginner or a gardener with several years' experience, you will find something new and interesting to consider each week.

* 17,366,970 Canadians live in urban areas (defined as settlements of over 1,000 persons); 5,625,635 are country dwellers. Source: Statistics Canada's 1976 census.


Our Valuable Soil

Of the one quarter of the earth's surface which is not covered by the oceans, only a small fraction is arable, or potentially so. The remainder is prevented by climate or by location from providing land for agriculture.

Erosion by wind and water annually strips our farmland of billions of tons of topsoil. Still more farmland falls victim to urbanization each year. Modern methods of agriculture with their dependence on heavy machinery which compacts the soil, cause considerable damage to that land which is under cultivation.



Once the soil has been damaged or agricultural land converted to other uses, it is often too costly or too impractical to restore it. In addition, the world's population increase places each year more demand upon the present food supplies.

In view of these trends, it is apparent that we must conserve the farmland upon which we depend for our food.

Ironically, most Canadian cities are built on land well suited for agriculture. Vancouver is no exception. In 1980, City Farmer found that in the Municipality alone, over 6,ooo acres of land could be used for food production. This figure included home gardens, vacant lots, industrial open spaces, and railway rights of way. (See City Farmer, Vol.3 #1).

In the future, this land could prove to be our most valuable local resource.


Beating Costs: Conserving Energy

Food prices are rising every year because the cost of energy is rising, and production costs are tied closely to the price of oil.

The story of the oil cost/food cost link begins at the food source – on the farm. It's easy for us to understand one aspect of the farmer's dependence on fossil fuel when we take a drive in the country and see large machinery being operated in the fields. But there are other ways in which the cost of energy affects the price the farmer must charge the wholesaler.

The manufacture of pesticides and fertilizers, for instance--products so necessary for the smooth operation of large farming concerns as they are presently organized--requires a large amount of fossil fuel.

Once the food leaves the farm, the price of energy continues to affect its cost to the consumer. The processing and packaging industries use energy. And imagine, finally, the cost of trucking a lettuce from Mexico or California to your Vancouver greengrocer!

If we want to think of lowering the price of fresh vegetables, or even if we would like to see the price held at its present level in relation to income, and if we are concerned about diminishing fuel resources, it is apparent that we will have to think of new ways of food production on an international scale.

One way the individual can make a contribution is by turning an unproductive back lot into a prosperous mini-farm.

Bernard Moore estimates that a 2400 square foot piece of ground (60' x 40') will provide "more than enough fresh vegetables for a family of four, plus sufficient to can or freeze for winter."

Allan Littler, Urban Horticulturist for the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, estimates that 1000 square feet (50' x 20') will do the same job.

At 50c. to 75c. per square foot of vegetables produced, a garden of 1000 square feet would be worth anywhere from $500 to $750.

And all of this stretched out of a few 49c. seed packets.


Getting the Maximum from the Garden

Nutrition has always been a subject to provoke controversial discussion, even amongst experts in the field.

To give only one example: eggs are a valuable source of dietary protein, yet they are also one of the most readily available sources of cholesterol. Cholesterol intake has been found to contribute to atherio- sclerosis, which in turn is a contributor to the incidence of heart attack and stroke. Therefore, many nutritionists would encourage us to limit our intake of eggs, despite their "food value."

Rather than become confused (or even depressed, something that's easy to do when reading dietary advice, because it attacks us at our most incorrigible level, that of our lifelong eating habits) maybe we should simply be thankful that so much nutritional knowledge is now available to us. And the field of that knowledge is continually expanding.

We are now practically certain, for example, that of all the items which could form part of a normal Canadian diet, uncontaminated fresh fruits and vegetables provide the greatest potential nutritional reward with the least possible health risk.

Each part of the plant has its own particular value. Vegetable leaves (think here of spinach, lettuce, and parsley) are generally rich in minerals and vitamins, and where there are dark green outer parts, these are rich in vitamin A. Edible plant stems such as asparagus, rhubarb, and celery, are good sources of dietary fiber. Starch and sugar is stored in the roots, bulbs, and tubers (potatoes, beets, carrots). Edible seeds such as peas, nuts, and rye, have a high concentration of starch, protein, and fat.

You have most control over what you eat when you grow it yourself. That said, it would be regrettable to destroy even part of the nutritional value of your garden produce by mishandling it in the kitchen.

Generally speaking, the more vegetables are cut, chopped, soaked, and cooked, the greater is the loss of vitamin and mineral content. Of course vegetables must be cleaned, but this should be done as quickly as possible, under cold running water. A salad drier is not a culinary affectation--water left on leafy vegetables dissolves vitamin C, natural sugars, and some minerals. Cutting any vegetable means exposing more surfaces to air, and oxygen destroys vitamins. And if soaking in water leaches vitamin and mineral content, think how much more damage is done by overcooking in large amounts of water and then discarding the nutritionally-enriched water. Truly a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

But nobody with a Canadian stomach would be happy living only on large chunks of raw vegetables. The principle to follow in the cooking process, experts say, is to move fast and minimize water. Best of all is rated the wok method; second best the pressure cooker.

It's ironic that heat, oxygen, and water, all necessary for plant growth, can inhibit the nutritional value of those same plants to humans, as soon we get them from the garden to the kitchen.


A New Plan of Attack

As a result of increased public awareness concerning the hazards of pesticide usage, people who worry about the health of our environment and of our bodies have begun to consider whether there might not be better ways to combat the insects which destroy our crops than by the indiscriminate use of potentially toxic substances.

Yes--there are better ways. And the name of one of them, "integrated pest management," may well become the home gardener's catchphrase for 1981.

- "Integrated pest management" has been defined in various slightly different ways, but for the city farmer, that offered by Helga and William Olkowski in The Integral Urban House is perhaps most useful o The Olkowskis state, "An integrated pest management system is a decision-making process that utilizes all suitable techniques and information to suppress or prevent the build-up of pest population numbers. The aim is either to reduce pest populations and maintain them at levels below those causing aesthetic or economic injury, or to manipulate the pest populations so that they are prevented from causing such injury."

How is this done?

In an integrated system, biological, cultural, physical, and educational controls come into play, and each contributes to the total effectiveness. Biological control usually means the constructive use of parasites and predators; a cultural method might mean crop rotation, or the careful use of water and fertilizer. Physical methods may involve hand-picking or constructive pruning to remove an infested tree limb. And the educational facet of the operation? It means considering whether the insect population is sufficient to warrant action, and whether the damage being caused is within tolerable bounds.

All of this requires close personal observation and monitoring.

It's easy enough, of course, to keep a watch on your own garden, and to encourage your children to warn you of an invasion of slugs (for example). But most people are obliged to rely on commercially-produced fruit and vegetables for at least part of their diet, and, at first glance, integrated pest management may appear to have limited potential application in the area of commercial agriculture.

However, no less prestigious a body than the Agricultural Institute of Canada (the national organization of Canada's five thousand agricultural professionals) has recently identified integrated pest management as an area requiring additional and urgent research with a view to investigating its commercial feasibility, because the problems relating to pesticide use are increasing.

Among these problems are environmental hazards during application, environmental hazards from residues, and resistance of pest species to pesticides.

The Institute's views are offered in a just-released report, "Pesticides, Agriculture, and the Environment." It's a scholarly work, but with an urgent personal message for us all. It can be obtained, free, from the Agricultural Institute of Canada, 151 Slater Street, Suite 907, Ottawa, Ontario KZP 5H4


Gardening is Good Medicine

In these days when a good selection of vegetables is available almost every day of the year from the corner store, why, really, do so many urban people continue to grow their own vegetables?

There was a time, before the development of the sophisticated food distribution system we now enjoy, when to have your own vegetable garden was a matter of daily necessity. Those days are long gone. There was a more recent time-—during the Second World War--when to grow your own food was considered a patriotic duty. That claim is no longer generally made.

City Farmer has always held to the view (and the following two reasons for it are only two of many) that since present food production and distribution systems are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and since the circumstances which currently make it easy for us to draw on supplies from foreign food-producing countries are almost certain to change, the more self-reliant we become, the better able will we be to adapt to future market trends.

But people can be told repeatedly that to do a certain thing is either necessary or "good" for them, without their really caring--or believing-—that it's so. If human motivation were not such an important factor in labour, so much attention would not have been paid to it by so many of those who have changed the way people think about the way the world runs--people as diverse as Rousseau and Engels.

The inescapable fact is that people who garden know something that people who don't can't appreciate: gardening is good for the soul. And that is the reason they continue to do it, although the high cost of vegetables may be the reason they begin.

This is not unsubstantiated opinion. The unseen benefits of gardening are well known to those who work with the physically or psychologically disadvantaged, so much so that Horticulture Therapy programs have long been accepted as useful in the recovery process. (See City Farmer, Vol.1 #2 for "Gardening as Therapy," an account of one such program held at the University of British Columbia.)

But gardening is good for everybody.

Environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan studied reports from over 4,000 members of the American Horticultural Society in 1978, in search of information on the kinds of benefits these dedicated gardeners thought they derived from their avocation. Peace and tranquility were rated highest by the participants; a chance to appreciate the colour and the beauty of the garden, second.*



For those of us who are city farmers, gardening has an added benefit. It's sometimes only through our gardens that we whose days are often spent in the relatively impersonal surroundings of office, factory, warehouse or classroom, are able to perceive ourselves as participants in a process of basic survival, along with the other beings, both animal and vegetable, which inhabit the earth.

* See: Kaplan, Rachel, "People/Plant Survey: Some Highlights, 1978" (unpublished manuscript).




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Revised Saturday, June 5, 1999

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

cityfarmer@gmail.com