The Farm Next Door

Why local food—really local—is back on Alberta’s political menu

By Jennifer Cockrall-King

“There are two types of power,” Says Monique Nutter, co-chair of Greater Edmonton Alliance’s (GEA) local foods team. “There’s organized money—and there’s organized people.” Nutter, a soft-spoken social worker and mother, is explaining how GEA, a grassroots organization barely five years old, managed to mobilize over 550 citizens on a bitterly cold November evening in 2008 to attend a public hearing for Edmonton’s 30-year Municipal Development Plan (MDP), “The Way We Grow.” The mass descent on city hall was a polite protest of a gaping hole in the plan—a lack of an explicit food policy.

The problem, as we saw it—I was one of the 550 citizens—was that the MDP addressed housing and transportation to cope with Greater Edmonton’s population growth (expected to reach 1.7 million people by 2040) but not something equally fundamental: food. Just as few expect that Edmontonians will live and drive in similarly unsustainable ways in 30 years, few expect that 30 years from now almost all of our food will come from far afield as well.

And yet the MDP made not one mention of protection for the city’s precious 3,200 hectares of urban farmland in the northeast, class 1 soil that lies along the bends and twists of the North Saskatchewan river, a microclimate that offers the most frost-free growing days of anywhere in the province. Good farmland is a dwindling resource in and around Edmonton (as it is across Alberta). Already, 90 per cent of residents’ food is imported from outside the Greater Edmonton region. Neither did the MDP mention any municipal food policy whatsoever. To us, it looked like a blueprint for a massive home renovation that curiously did away with the kitchen. 

Edmonton City Council didn’t see the protest coming. Terms such as “food policy” and “food security” were new to almost all 13 members. But GEA was prepared, handing out a primer on food policy terms tailored specifically for councillors and the city planning department called “The Way We Eat.”

In it, GEA outlines its vision: “A resurgence in small mixed family farms in the region, market gardens and Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) in and around the city. ‘Urban agriculture’ endeavours such as community gardens, Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) farming, rooftop gardens, fruit trees and shrubs in parks, backyard gardens and schoolyard gardens. City compost used to renew garden plots and agricultural lands. Urban gardening workshops and recruitment for mentors to help newcomers to Canada grow food.”

In fairness to city council, “food policy” and “food security” floated on the fringes of civic discussions in Canada until just a few years ago. But a series of scares—from E. coli-tainted produce to listeria-infected meat—exposed the vulnerabilities of our invisible, highly centralized food chain. And when the price of oil (and therefore the cost of transportation) spiked in 2008, so did the cost of food staples. Add these concerns to a renewed interest in reconnecting with “the local”—whether by getting to know the farmers who grow your food or converting urban land to community gardens—and a movement focused on issues of local food production and availability (“locavorism”) was born.

Locavore issues also dovetail with global concerns over the carbon footprint of food production and transportation, and with concerns about hunger and malnourishment in our cities. Indeed, the GEA protest featured a range of ages, cultures, incomes and social groups. Restaurateurs spoke at the hearing about the importance of preserving local supply to ensure an authentic local food culture. Parents voiced their safety concerns with food chains that begin thousands of miles away. Church leaders spoke about land stewardship. And other community activists spoke of the need to shorten the food chain, both as a buffer against shortages and price increases and as an encouragement to a resilient, enmeshed local economy.

In short, GEA and other groups across Alberta believe that creating municipal policies to encourage the production of more food locally—even within cities themselves—will, if not entirely solve these problems, at least begin to address them all at once.

As interest in GEA mushroomed over the past few years, so too has membership grown in the Calgary Food Policy Council (CFPC), which sprang to life as a Facebook page and blog in late 2008 and is now one of the city’s more vocal citizen groups. Championed by single father, artist and activist Paul Hughes, the admittedly still ad hoc group has a vision of food that is “nutritious and secure because we know who grows it, what goes into it and how it is processed… People exercise local control.”

Growing food in faraway places reduces costs. But such a systemdependent on cheap oilcan’t last.

As he scatters grain for the brood of six laying hens he keeps in his Killarney yard, Hughes tells me he is a “compulsive” social activist. “It’s my personal gift or my curse, but I have to change everything!” Hughes says. His main motivator, he says, is Calgary’s food “insecurity,” one of the worst cases in Canada. Calgary produces less than 1 per cent of its food needs, according to Hughes. While the city will never feed itself, the CFPC nonetheless sees room for big improvements.

Hughes wants the City of Calgary to better support regional farmers and food producers (e.g., to mandate that only locally grown or produced food be sold at farmers markets) while making more land available for markets and urban agriculture. He’d also like to see compostable waste collected by the city, as garbage and recyclables are already. Following the examples of Toronto and Vancouver, Hughes wants to change the bylaws to allow the keeping of chickens within city limits (New York, LA, Portland and Seattle have allowed this for years). And he wants the city to assist in the creation of 2,011 community gardens by the year 2011, mimicking the 2,010 plots that Vancouver aimed for in advance of its “green” Olympics, and the 2,012 plots that London plans for its games in 2012.

Hughes admits the latter is a symbolic rather than practical goal. But he believes that not only would urban food policies invigorate the economy, they would turn Calgary’s sprawl into an advantage. Hughes estimates that 67,000 acres of unused public land is available in Calgary. Some is zoned for future development, some lies derelict and some is parkland. Not all of it could easily be converted to food production, but not all of it would need to be to make a dent in Calgary’s food security problem. “Sprawl is really just a decentralized food system, if you want to look at it that way,” he says.

Hughes is unapologetically ambitious, unencumbered by a sense of protocol. He turns his attention to Calgary’s “Plus 15” system, 16 km of raised walkways and glassed-in bridges that connect downtown office towers and shopping centres, wondering if it could become a network of greenhouses. 

One of the CFPC’s first acts was to post a Calgary Food Policy Charter on its website. At first, when Hughes requested meetings with aldermen, he was ignored. After a few stunts and some high-profile media coverage—which ruffled a few feathers of long-standing food policy advocates—Hughes says aldermen started calling him, requesting meetings to get up to speed on food security issues. He brought enough attention to his illegal “urban farm” (that is, his brood of hens) that the city issued him a ticket. Hughes, whose other pet project is CLUCK, the Calgary Liberated Urban Chicken Klub, decided to fight it. Just two weeks later, CBC’s The National did a short Sunday-night segment about his birds.

Hughes’s candidacy for mayor has brought the CFPC even more attention. Many people dismiss him as a fringe candidate, but they may be missing the point. “Some groups spend millions of dollars just trying to get a motion on the floor at city hall,” he says. “If you don’t know what Calgary is all about, you might miss the subtleties of what we’re trying to do.”

While awareness continues to evolve, hurdles to creating a more sustainable food system persist, says Noel Keough, assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of sustainable design and board chair for Sustainable Calgary. Sustainable Calgary is a 240-member grassroots organization whose mandate is “to create the first sustainable city in Canada.” Since 1998, the group has tracked indicators that matter to Calgarians in their quality of life and their vision of their city. From the very start, they claim, “food grown locally” has been one of Calgarians’ top priorities. All 36 key indicators are analyzed in the group’s triennial “State of Our City” reports. 

Keough sees convergence between concerns over climate change, “peak oil,” a globalized food system, food security and pesticides and other toxins. Groups that fought for their own issues (community gardens, say, or pesticide bans) are realizing what they have in common, collaborating under the umbrella of groups like Sustainable Calgary and the CFPC, and pushing food policy into a priority position in civic affairs. But Keough warns that this is just a beginning.

“We value iPods [more than we] value our food,” he says. “We take food for granted, and we also take our food producers for granted.” (One of the arguments against locally grown and produced food is that it costs more. And like it or not, we are still a very price-sensitive group of consumers when it comes to groceries. Statistics Canada data shows that food averaged 8.1 per cent and 8.25 per cent of Calgarian and Edmontonian household expenditures, respectively, or about half of the 16 per cent average spent by people in other developed nations.) 

Members of Sustainable Calgary and CFPC argue, however, that urban food policies could actually lower the cost of locally grown food. They note that community gardens produce food with very low transportation costs. Part of the challenge is simply overcoming impressions of what’s possible. For example, SPIN farming is an entrepreneurial model that began in Saskatoon (and has since gone global) in which small businesses lease backyards for piecemeal commercial farming. One local startup, Leaf & Lyre, hopes to seed a quarter-acre “farm” (comprised of up to 20 southwest Calgary backyards) by this summer.

“I tell people that you don’t have to go back to the land, you’re already there,” says Ron Berezan, a.k.a. the Urban Farmer. He helped start Edmonton’s third community garden (in Millwoods) 16 years ago, and by the end of the summer will have given some 50 presentations to a growing number of people. “About six years ago, I did that gig about turning your passion into your livelihood,” he says, explaining his transition from cubicle worker to operator of an urban sustainability and gardening consulting business. “I’m biased, but I can make a pretty strong argument that if you want to do one thing to lessen your environmental impact, grow your own food.”

E.coli-tainted produce and listeria-infected meat exposed the vulnerabilities of our invisible food chain.

Edmonton has a long history of gardening—from the display gardens shown to pioneers to communicate visually what vegetables would prosper in Alberta’s climate, through a civic emphasis on self-sufficiency during the First and Second World Wars, to the writing and advocacy of market gardener, greenhouse operator and eventual Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Lois Hole. But gardening fell out of fashion in Edmonton—and across Canada—as the middle class rose in the 1950s. Those who persisted with food gardens in the era of manicured lawns and ornamental hedges were generally thought to be out of step with the time, lower class or immigrants unwilling to assimilate.

There are now at least 66 community gardens in Edmonton, designed, says the city’s Community Garden Network, “for food self-reliance, physical activity and social interaction.” They’re everywhere: on Capital Regional Housing sites, schoolyards, church lots, a utility right of way, downtown vacant lots, a former rail yard and city parks. Edmonton is second in Canada only to Montreal in the number of community gardens—and the city expects more will sprout this summer. (Calgary had 13 community gardens in 2008, 46 in 2009 and the Calgary Horticultural Society predicts that 81 could be up and running by this summer.) For both cities, the next step could be “allotment” plots, larger than community garden plots, focusing less on community and more on scale, and usually located away from neighbourhoods in empty lots or brownfields.

Berezan is a key member of River City Chickens, Edmonton’s urban chicken-keeping movement. He also sees a rising interest in urban beekeeping. “One hive can produce 150-plus pounds of honey,” he says. “That’s all the sweetener needs for your family for one year. Plus, pollinators at work in your neighbourhood!” I call Bon Accord beekeeper Patty Milligan. An artisanal honey producer since 1999, she notes that most cities’ bylaws don’t forbid keeping hives—Edmonton is a key exception. But she cites widespread beekeeping in Calgary, Toronto and even New York. “In three years, it’ll be standard in [Edmonton],” she predicts. 

Ron Berezan—not to mention Monique Nutter, Paul Hughes and Noel Keough—knows that growing one’s own food is not always compatible with reality. There’s a skill and knowledge gap; most urbanites are one or two generations removed from growing even some of their own food. It takes physical effort. Then there’s the time. “Any type of sustainable living takes time,” Berezan says.

And just look at the online comments for any news item concerning urban chickens or beekeeping; passionate arguments for and against these ideas abound. Noise pollution, animal welfare and concerns about smell will need to be accounted for in Calgary’s and Edmonton’s evolving urban food policies, just as concerns about cats and dogs were in earlier bylaws.

Edmonton councillors are still figuring out how to fairly compensate farmers who invested decades watching their land value increase, and who are now rightfully concerned that rezoning it as protected farmland will scuttle their retirement dreams.

Besides, complete civic food security is by most accounts unattainable (and by many accounts undesirable—for example, no-one has yet grown a pineapple in Alberta). Economies of scale, climate and expertise in faraway places actually do reduce the cost of food. Such a system—dependent on cheap oil—can’t last forever, of course. But until we unravel the much bigger economic, social, cultural and environmental realities that contribute to our short-term model, urban food policies will remain small steps toward an uncertain future.

How far down the road toward sustainability do we want to go? How far will we have to go? It’s clear that rather than settling on a global model, Albertans have only just begun to explore where our food will come from. Food grown locally—sometimes in our own neighbourhoods and even by our own hands—presents an enticing opportunity to create a better balance. After all, to quote the Indian food ethicist and social critic Vandana Shiva from Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, “No society can become a post-food society.” Or as any Alberta farmer will tell you: we’ll always need food. 

Edmontonian Jennifer Cockrall-King (a.k.a. is writing a book about the global urban agriculture movement.


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