Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


1979 - City Farmer's Vision of Urban Agriculture

Presentation to science teachers at the 20th International Science Education Symposium at the University of British Columbia, Fall, 1979

By Bob Woodsworth and Michael Levenston
Founding Directors of City Farmer,
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Bob and I are here from City Farmer. I'd like to tell you a bit about our work. Perhaps you'll find something here that you and your students can begin to investigate.

City Farmer is a Vancouver non-profit organization whose primary interest is urban agriculture, that is the production of food in cities whether that food be produced on highrise balconies, in dark basements, or on front boulevards.

We have been researching urban agriculture and its potential since the spring of 1978. While working for the Federal Department of Mines Energy and Resources on energy conservation research, we discovered that home food production could cut by 2/3 the energy used in the food system.

The food system as a whole now uses 15% of the energy consumed in Canada. That 15% consists of energy used in production on the farm, in transportation, in processing, and in the home to cook and refridgerate food. In other words, the 15% includes all the energy used to put food on our tables.

Putting a seed in the ground by hand a few steps from your kitchen door, then harvesting the grown plant a few months later, will remove a number of costly energy steps that are presently taken in the food system, most obvious of which being the long truck trip or flight of an item up from Mexico or California.

Accurate research on the energy saving potential of urban agriculture is not available and there are interesting questions still to be answered.

For instance, if everyone made home preserves in his or her kitchen, would we save energy or consume more energy than the centralized commercial canning operations?

Or can energy-intensive chemical fertilizers be replaced by the home-made compost pile using just household organic wastes?

Our work with energy figures led us to dollar figures. How much money could be saved by growing food at home? The conclusion we reached was that a city farmer's time is worth on the average 5 to 10 dollars per hour.

Bernard Moore, a local horticultural expert who grows all his fresh produce at home, says that because he pays as much tax for his garden as he does for squatting in the front portion of his lot, he therefore feels impelled to make his garden pay his taxes and car insurance too.

But money and energy were just the beginnings of what became for us an amazing educational voyage. Education that none of us had had at school but an education that we saw as essential.

As soon as we'd decided that city farming was a positive direction for the future, a future which will be energy scarce with higher food prices, we were left with a large store of what was for us 'mysterious information' under such names as small-scale agriculture, plant science, horticulture, or simply gardening.

To learn how to save energy within the food system we realized that the public would need to learn more about the natural sciences and about practical techniques of small-scale food production.

Ideally we believe that simply by changing from suit to jeans, digging up a bit of lawn, and planting vegetable seeds, the city person will begin asking questions about his environment and about his urban behavior and thinking patterns.

To most city people soil is simply mud or dirt, not a substance in which food is born.

Rain, means 'no beach'. It is not seen as a drink for thirsty plants.

Sunny days are 'tanning days', not givers of food energy.

There are no such things as 'beneficial insects'. They're all big game for a can of 'Raid'.

Big toothed dogs are nice animals to feed. Egg producing chickens are not.

Left-over food, minutes after a delicious meal, becomes garbage to be trucked away out of sight rather than a valuable homemade soil conditioner.

As the urban person moves towards his garden and finds thousands of things there to explore, his lifestyle will gradually begin to change.

Ideally, the new city farmer will find that the fresh vegetables and fruit he has grown are tasty and he will decide to grow more of them. This change in diet will be good for his health.

He will feel invigorated by the activity of producing food and will exercise more. Since he is outside in the sun and fresh air, again his health will improve.

By spending so much more time at home in the garden he will cut down his restless, leisure-time, automobile drives which guzzle gallons of precious energy.

By being outside he will see his neighbours, have time to chat about their common work, share some of the harvest and thus contribute to a less alienated community.

A conserver mentality will take hold as wastes will be recycled for use in the garden. For example, broken broom handles become support stakes, orange juice cartons become seedling boxes, and shiny tins become scarecrows.

We believe that a transformation will take place in the mind of the city dweller and that he will look with a different sensitivity at his environment. The environment will gain a new meaning to him as it now will have something to do with what he puts in his mouth to feed himself.

For instance the question of urban air pollution may come up as the city farmer worries about lead pollution from car exhaust tainting his vegetable crop. Or he may show concern about chemical herbicide used by pavers who lay down back lanes.

This newly aware city farmer will begin to take steps beyond the neat consumer shelves of a Safeway supermarket out into the country where most of our food is produced. Each square foot of lawn he claims for his city garden will make him aware of the preciousness of those large rural acreages.

If he hears alarming figures about farmland loss he will see more clearly their importance.

A Commission of the US Department of Agriculture will soon release its findings which show that 8 million acres of fertile farmland are lost each year in the US. The land is lost to erosion, to non-agricultural uses, or is isolated by development. If these losses continue the US will no longer be the breadbasket of the world. By the year 2000 it will be a net importer of food.

Our research began to tie in so many fascinating subjects to urban agriculture that we decided to put out a small newspaper called City Farmer that would show some of our work to a larger audience.

In the paper we have interviewed professional horticulturists about gardening therapy, local amateurs about their orchards, soil scientists about heavy metal contamination in sewage sludge, quail raisers, solar greenhouse builders, grandmothers with pioneer methods of food storage, gardening teachers about their courses and many more.

We have so far published 8 issues of City Farmer and need only more money and time to put out #9.

We also feel that great interest can be generated in our field when experts in small-scale agriculture are given the chance to address the public and speak with the media.

Last summer we invited Drs. William and Helga Olkowski, two entomologists from Berkeley, California, to come and speak on Integrated Pest Management, a method of pest control which puts pesticides last on a list of control weapons. They are also two of the founders of Integral House, a model research and educational city house in Berkeley where a great deal of food is produced on a typical urban lot. Chickens, rabbits, fruit, vegetables, and hives full of honey are all there for 500 visitors a week to see and believe. The Olkowski's new book on the house is really the bible of urban homesteading.

John Jeavons, another of our speakers is a master at cultivating small areas using hand labour, ecologically sound techniques of fertilization and pest control. According to Jeavons a person can earn up to 20,000 dollars a year growing food, by hand, on 1/10 of an acre using his method. The method is described in Jeavons' Grow More Vegetables.

Last Fall we worked with a member of the Agricultural Curriculum Review Committee which is in the final stages of putting forth a new curriculum for agricultural studies to be used in elementary and secondary schools in BC. We made the case for urban agriculture to him and showed him some of the educational materials we have collected.

Two curriculum guides from Washington State are particularly valuable to teachers. They are both called Energy, Food and You. One is for elementary schools, the other for secondary schools.

If a teacher buys these two guides plus the Integral House book, he or she will have a very exciting and practical contemporary course to teach.

One of our many idealistic visions of the future is for every school in the province to have a teaching food garden. In Vancouver we've discovered that many of the schools have a city owned vacant lot adjacent to their properties. These would be appropriate for such a garden with some clearing and proper fencing.

School gardens used to be a part of Vancouver during the Victory Garden era of World War II. In 1943 the Canadian government, worried by Allied food shortages, began a campaign to get the civilian population to grow some food for itself. Front lawns were turned over and thousands of vacant lots of tax sale land were put to use. Children were encouraged to grow prize vegetables in school plots and their produce was judged at special Victory Garden fairs.

At the end of the 1943 season the Federal Agriculture Supplies Board estimated that there were 52,000 Victory Gardens in Vancouver, New Westminster, Burnaby, North and West Vancouver alone which produced fruit and vegetables worth 4 million dollars, equivalent to about 20 million dollars in today's dollars.

Quite a success then. Imagine the possibility of success today in peacetime if our schools began teaching children about small-scale food production.

Today urban sprawl has covered some of the best farmland in BC much of that here in the Lower Mainland. One way to compensate for that loss is to tell people about the history of the land they live on and tell them how they can bring back some of its food producing value. Make them into city farmers.

We at City Farmer believe in going 'back to the land' but we believe you can go back, right here in the city, where the majority of Canadians live.

Search Our Site

pointer Return to Contents' Page pointer

Revised December 10, 2008

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture