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


The Early Years at City Farmer 1978-1981

Report written for Dr. Keith Wilde
Strategic Planning Division
Agriculture Canada, Ottawa
August 29, 1981

By Michael Levenston

I will briefly review here something of what City Farmer has done in the field of urban agriculture since we began work in early 1978. I did give you part of the story on the phone a few weeks ago and this will be a repetition in part.

In February, 1978, Bob Woodsworth and I were part of a team hired by the federal government, Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Resources to man/woman an office named the Vancouver Conservation Centre. Its mandate at that time was to spread the good word to Vancouverites about energy conservation in all its forms. Some of the staff studied energy use in the transportation system, others home energy use, others industrial use, and so on. The staff then gave the public information on that energy use and spelled out conservation methods.

Bob and I chose the food system for our work. It consumes anywhere from 14 - 17% of the energy used in Canada in farm production, in distribution, packaging, processing, and in homes for cooking and refridgeration. We discovered that cultivating the family food garden was a good way for urban people to help learn about and conserve energy in the food system.

We were not alone in our findings. "Increased home gardening and fruit growing should be encouraged," was the number one energy conservation recommendation made by the Centre for Science and the Public Interest, Washington, DC, in their 1977 report titled Energy and Food, a study of energy use in the food system.

We produced a slide show on energy and food in Canada and took it to speaking engagements, along with two excellent curriculum guides from Seattle for elementary and secondary schools titled Energy Food and You.

As we learned of the worth of home food production for energy savings we began to see its worth from other viewpoints.

A major influence on us was a story on Integral Urban House in Berkeley, California, in the January, 1978 issue of Atlantic magazine, and a book by two of the house founders, William and Helga Olkowski, titled The City People's Book of Raising Food. The city farm, so it seemed, could gently expose the urban person to such subjects as nutrition, environmental awareness, mental and physical health, the sciences (e.g. entomology, biology, chemistry), the politics of food, etc.

Many of the issues that were in the news could be approached through the garden, a peaceful setting for discussion. The city farmer could react to these issues in a positive way by actively transforming his lawn into a food garden.

We decided we needed to communicate with the public about our research in all the various areas related to urban agriculture and in August, 1978 the first issue of City Farmer was printed.

The stories in that issue and those since have described urban people in Vancouver who are successful home food producers. These "heroes" and "heroines" are a source of wonder to those who have simply been consumers of food in the city. They encourage newcomers to join in, and they share their expertise with other gardeners.

Food gardening is not new to Canadian cities. The pioneers who settled on present urban sites a century or two ago cultivated "kitchen gardens". However today with 75% of Canadians living in cities, we are far from our rural roots. Most urban people don't know how to produce any of their food and more importantly they don't know about the potential for small-scale agriculture in the city.

In 1979 our organization set out with new determination to show the public what could be done. We invited William and Helga Olkowski to Vancouver to speak about their work. They had been giving courses in urban agriculture at college and had just finished writing the Integral Urban House book. Right now it is the "bible" for urban agriculture environmentalists. They spoke to a large audience at a public forum, to City Hall officials, to professional agrologists, to community groups and to the media during their stay.

Our second visitor, John Jeavons from Palo Alto, is the author of Grow More Vegetables. His detailed accounting of large "square foot" yields, using the French Intensive method, made him a hit on CBC radio. The interview recorded in British Columbia was re-broadcast nationally, and CBC is still getting requests for information about Jeavons.

Due to these two successes, City Farmer is often called by the media who request information on urban agriculture.

Despite working on a shoe-string budget, our Office of Urban Agriculture became widely known both in the US as well as in Canada. A number of our articles were picked up by other publications. The Avant-Gardener in New York alerted the US to contaminants in Milorganite because of an article in our paper. Self-Reliance magazine out of Washington DC reprinted our findings on acreage potential and the economics of urban agriculture in Vancouver. Vancouver City Hall's magazine, The Urban Reader, did a feature titled "Farming the City" based on" our work. Harrowsmith did an issue (#20) titled "The City Farmers". Three-quarters of their staff report was taken from the pages of City Farmer, and they also hired one of our writers, Kerry Banks, to rework his City Farmer article on urban beekeeping for that issue. They later had Kerry rework another article on Chinese food gardeners. (Issue #25)

The interest in urban agriculture was great and we watched it grow.

In May, 1980 Charles Barber, Member of the Legislative Assembly, proposed in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, that an Office of Urban Agriculture be created by the government to serve the needs of urban dwellers. He received a lot of publicity at the time and we did too as our Office had been in existence for two years already.

In the meantime we were doing consulting to a wide variety of interest groups. For instance, students researched their papers at our office. One notable thesis written for a third year geography course at Simon Fraser University was titled "Cabbages are Flowers Too: The Rationale for Agriculture in the City".

One of our staff, Risa Smith, went back to UBC to study Agriculture Science and is now finishing her MA. Her contacts within the university and government scientific community won us many supporters including the Dean of Agriculture.

We produced a very popular urban agriculture calendar which is unique for the local information it includes.

This past spring we began to give courses in urban agriculture in cooperation with UBC's Centre for Continuing Education. Professionals from the Ministry of Agriculture, UBC, private industry, and the public spoke to very receptive audiences on such subjects as soils, plant diseases, hydroponics, etc. Shirley Buswell of City Farmer, a professional writer, wrote educational booklets to accompany each week's lectures. These and other materials used for the courses have been bound as a source book for others interested in starting an urban agriculture course.

There is a demand for more of this type of education and we are working with UBC's Centre for Continuing Education to develop and implement a Master Gardening program for BC.

Over the years City Farmer has not gone out of its way to publicize its work and yet it has attracted lots of attention. We believe this shows that the public is truly interested in urban agriculture.

Three filmmakers have come to us with requests for interviews and information about city farming. Mr. Robert Nichol interviewed me and used two of our newspaper subjects in his film on land-use called Wonderland. Ms. Judith Penner of NFB Halifax visited this office recently (July, 1981) to do research for a film on urban agriculture she is writing. I gave her a tour of our city gardens. Mr. Gordon Fish researched in Vancouver for his film on "Urban Alternatives", a component of which will be on city farming.

CBC national television completed filming a show for Take 30 on urban agriculture just before the strike. (May, 1981) They interviewed me, Dr. Bomke a UBC soil scientist and supporter of our work, and Mrs. Millen a city farmer teacher.

A year ago Ms. Debra Pugh did a show about City Farmer for Radio Canada International which was broadcast to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. (copy of tape at City Farmer)

The Toronto Globe and Mail has done a feature on our work and recently Canadian Press sent out part of another article on us, taken from the Province newspaper, to its 110 members which was also picked up by the Globe and Mail. Other local publications have reported on our work and we have done numerous radio interviews.

In June of 1981 we spoke and gave a workshop at a conference on Personal Food Production in Fairview, Alberta where we were given more media attention.

In Vancouver a new Conservation Centre is about to open its doors. It is a jointly funded Federal, Provincial, Municipal venture which will include urban agriculture features, in the same way that Toronto's Ecology House displays a solar greenhouse, backyard garden, and hydroponic rooftop. We are acting as consultants to the garden committee.

On October 13, 1981, we will give a lecture on "Urban Agriculture" as one in a series of talks titled Utopias and Alternative Technology for UBC's Centre for Continuing Education. We have recently completed a slide show on urban agriculture in Vancouver which we will show on that occasion.

City Farmer has an excellent library and filing system on urban agriculture and has an extensive local and international network of contacts in this field. We are the official British Columbia representatives of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA).

As you can see from this brief outline, we at City Farmer are serious in our belief that urban agriculture is part of Canada's future. After nearly four years as Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture, we know a great deal about what the public wants and needs from such an Office. We also know what such an Office needs in order to function in a particular community. And because of this knowledge from our experience, we have a lot to offer other communities in Canada.

City Farmer in Vancouver should be supported as a pilot project Office of Urban Agriculture. Its newspaper and educational work must continue. If funded as a pilot project it will put together a self-help manual for community organizations in Canada on " how to start-up and operate a local Office of Urban Agriculture". With this source book manual, City Farmer proposes to travel across the country giving workshops to serious groups who want to start such an Office in their own city. We will be the catalyst.

In this way urban agriculture in Canada will grow by using local people to supply local information.

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Revised March 8, 1997

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture