What can a local government do to really support local food and agriculture? Start with understanding the challenges that face farmers and the changing times we are living in. Examine policy changes from the farmer’s perspective, because unforeseen consequences can result that have a negative effect on farming. There needs to be more done than just write reports and give lip service to local food.
Case in point – urban agriculture. Many people understand the benefits of having food grown close by – fresher, less fuel to transport, less impact by global events that could affect distribution, support of local economy. Early community gardens were called Railway Gardens, started by the CPR. Victory Gardens sprung up in wartime to help feed people in the cities. Some people have quickly grasped the benefits of urban agriculture, taking unused lots or yards and transforming them into mini farms, to sell produce at farmers markets to people in the community. For the past thirty or so years these markets have been growing in size and number, and more of the food is coming from the cities themselves. Pretty neat, right?
Not if you live in the District of Lantzville on Vancouver Island. The residential zoning bylaw in Lantzville does not allow for commercial or agricultural activities, and this summer the District was threatening legal action against Dirk Becker since he had not applied for a temporary use permit. This generated a fair bit of controversy, and some stories of other jurisdictions with similar situations have come to light as a result of the press Dirk has received. Dirk and his partner Nicole Shaw have taken a formerly bleak 2.5 acre lot and transformed it into a thriving garden. Unfortunately, not everyone that lives near Dirk appreciate his efforts.
What is particularly ironic is that the Regional District of Nanaimo, which includes the District of Lantzville, recently hosted the Canadian Institute of Planners AGM, which included a keynote speaker by an agrologist and supporter of urban agriculture, Wendy Holm. Wendy has taken farmers to Cuba for years to see how Cuba adopted organic urban agriculture out of necessity. She was sharing her views and experiences with planners from all over Canada, encouraging them to adopt farmer and home-grower friendly bylaws in their cities. Not only that, a team of Nanaimo planners hosted a tour of local farms in the Nanaimo area for the AGM.
As many people move towards resiliency, others like things to stay the way they are and are more concerned about maintaining property values based on appearances. The council of Lantzville isn't the only one faced with this dilemma. A similar situation has happened in the town of Oak Park, Michigan this summer. Oak Park threatened homeowner Julie Bass for planting raised gardens in her front yard. If convicted, she could have spent 93 days in jail but the city backed out when the case got widespread attention. This situation reminded me of my favourite British situation comedy from the 70's, the Good Life, which took a humorous look at a couple who decided to grow their own food on their suburban lot, except the Lantzville and Oak Park situations aren't funny for the property owners involved.
Values are shifting ever so slowly, and like many communities where people are on different parts of the spectrum, there can be conflicts. And there is a difference between urban agriculture, where unused lots or lawns are converted into gardens to grow food – and agricultural urbanism, a concept taken up by urban planners and developers to often justify the development of farmland by offering “urban farms” within a development. I am suspicious of the real motives of these projects, which seem to be just another version of developing farmland.
It is predicted that 65% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. The fresher the fruit or vegetable is, the more nutritious it is. Growing it yourself is the freshest and healthiest way to go. I have always felt that everyone should be able to grow their own food if they are able to. Bylaws should reflect that. Community gardens should be available for those who lack a yard to grow a garden, and ways to distribute fresh produce with others should be encouraged also.