Chris Thoreau owns a small agricultural business called My Urban Farm from his home in East Vancouver, where he grows sunflowers, buckwheat, and pea shoots year-round. He also runs Your Local Food Peddlers, a company that connects customers in Vancouver with other urban farmers in the city and the Lower Mainland. He sells to farmers’ markets, restaurants, and a few small grocers.
Business is booming. But in order for Thoreau to get a license and insurance for his food-growing business, he would have to move production out of Vancouver.
Commercial farming on residential plots remains illegal in Vancouver, despite the fact that local food production forms a key pillar of Vancouver’s plan to become the world’s greenest city by 2020. Insurance companies don’t cover operations that contravene municipal by-laws.
It’s a by-law the city’s commercial urban farmers say needs to be changed.
How local farming works in Vancouver
Julia Smith doesn’t remember ever deciding to become a commercial farmer.
After moving to a new Vancouver house with a lot of lawn space that needed tending, she noticed an ad on Craigslist posted by someone looking for land to cultivate. Hoping to reduce the time she would have to spend mowing the lawn, she answered the ad, and soon a woman came over and sowed some seeds.
After watching how it was done, Smith started growing her own food, soon growing so much that she had extra left over. “I ended up selling some food to some people, and they wanted more,” she recalls.
But with her own yard maxed out, Smith found herself looking for landowners who wanted their yards turned into vegetable gardens.
“Next thing I knew, I was an urban farmer.”
Most land cultivated by urban farmers in Vancouver is owned by private residents, according to Marc Schutzbank, a graduate student at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC. The landowners allow urban farmers to cultivate their yards in exchange for a tended garden and a weekly box of fresh produce during the growing season. Contracts are usually informal but farmers often request a commitment of three years in order to amortize the initial commitment of time and resources.
The farmers then sell their produce to pre-paying customers as part of a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) program. The first CSA in Vancouver started in 2007, when a few like-minded individuals put their green thumbs together and created a network of farmers across the city. By 2011, there were 13 CSAs operated in the city, according to a not-yet-published study by Schutzbank.
“It’s not reasonable for us to operate without insurance,” says Smith. “We’re growing people’s food.”
According to Schutzbank’s research, in 2010, Vancouver’s urban farmers tended an average of seven donated residential plots. Farmers rarely solicit for land, as the demand for farming services is high.
Smith’s own experience echoes Schutzbank’s findings. “The demand is there,” she says. “The biggest issue for urban farmers right now is making it legal.”
Push for changing policy
Like commercial farms within the city today, just over a decade ago, farmers’ markets in Vancouver were illegal.
“When we started, we were always in contravention to by-laws,” says Roberta LaQuaglia, operations manager at Vancouver Farmers’ Markets, a non-profit society that fought for direct market access in Vancouver for B.C. farmers. “We were squatting on private property.”
However, because of high demand for local food, the city first turned a blind eye to the markets, and then changed by-laws to make them legal.
Last year, the City of Vancouver donated $10,000 to support the Urban Farmers’ Forum, which brought urban agriculture stakeholders and public officials together to discuss policy change.
“They essentially paid for the forum,” says Thoreau, who helped to organize the event.
And while commercial farming remains illegal, many urban farmers also say that tacit support comes from a lack of by-law enforcement.
“Most of us are carrying on as if it’s legal,” says Thoreau. “The city has turned a blind eye.”
According to City Councillor Andrea Reimer, council recognizes the role of local food production in Vancouver’s sustainability goals, but notes that policy change takes time.
“The issue of commercial activity happening in residential areas is a challenging one, because where do you draw the line? If we’re going to allow food production to be a legal commercial activity in a residential zone, then why not making bread?
“We have to assess all the impacts — the noise, trucks, everything.”
Creative solutions while waiting for change
While waiting for a change in policy, farmers who cannot insure the commercial production of food on residential property find creative ways of managing the problem.
Emi Do, who works closely with Smith, says that she added a landscaping arm to her urban farming business after signing an insurance agreement and then expanded commercial production outside of Vancouver.
“I come in [to residential properties] and set up a food production site,” says Do, who grows everything from herbs such as tarragon, oregano, rosemary, mint, and thyme, to salad greens, like kale and mustards, to root vegetables and cherry tomatoes. “And [the owners] pay me like they pay any landscaper.”
“Instead of getting cut flowers or your lawn mowed, you get a basket of produce on your doorstep.”
Others grow food and ignore business insurance entirely.
Demand for a better food production system
Producing food locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions and stimulates local economies by re-circulating money and creating an income multiplier effect, according to research done by Chris Hild, a policy adviser for the city’s food system.
Such findings are perhaps the biggest reasons for cities to make commercial urban farming legal, says Hild, “provided it is conducted in a way that is fair as well as safe for human consumption.”
For Vancouver farmers, producing on small plots in the city means lower costs and the advantage of selling directly to customers, thus avoiding handling fees.
Despite these benefits, locally produced food is often criticized as overpriced and unaffordable. But growers say that the higher price reflects environmental and health externalities and producers receiving a fair income.
“There are subsidies in the lower price,” says Thoreau. “You’re not seeing the cost of environmental degradation or abusive practices. Even organic food is probably priced lower than it really is.”
According to Schutzbank, a large part of the work that urban farmers are doing is changing attitudes toward local food production.
“[They are] changing the idea that it’s just for rich foodies. It’s for everybody,” he says.
Some signs indicate that minds are changing.
Since Vancouver’s first farmers’ market at the Croatian Cultural Centre in 1995, traffic rose from 1,000 weekly customers and $50,000 in annual sales to 10,000 customers a week and almost $5.5 million in 2011.
Ultimately, however, many urban farmers say that sustainability depends on consumers.
“It’s the consumer who’s going to make the choice to pay the prices that will make [the urban farming model] sustainable,” says Smith. “We all have to take responsibility for our food system.”
Thoreau says that the economic situation might be a barrier to increased demand for local produce.
But, he adds, “We are trying to promote the bigger picture.”
How CSAs work
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are a distribution method that farms use to manage risk by establishing a reliable source of demand for their products.
First, farmers estimate how much food their land will yield. They then divide the total expected yield into shares, each share calculated to feed one family.
CSA shares are then sold to customers. In other words, people “buy-in” the growing season.
One CSA share entitles consumers to a weekly box of fresh produce for the duration of the growing season, usually 17-20 weeks. Each box feeds 2-4 people.
Vancouver’s CSA shares sell for $500-$720, a price which often includes delivery of the produce.
In times of abundance, CSA produce often comes to consumers at a discount, as farmers increase supply in order to avoid waste.