City Farmer – “Making Farmers Outa City Folk”

 Michael Levenston and Joan MacNab check swiss chard in their Strathcona backyard. 

 Michael Levenston and Joan MacNab check swiss chard in their Strathcona backyard. 


By Elizabeth Godley
Vancouver Sun
Feb 15, 1982

If Vancouverites plowed under their lawns and boulevards and planted beans or potatoes, brussels sprouts or kale – they could supply the entire Lower Mainland with fresh veggies.

But before you run for the rototiller, Michael Levenston isn’t really serious. it’s just that, as a member at a volunteer organization called City Farmer, he’d like city folk to start thinking about urban agriculture.

According to Levenston’s calculations, there are about 2,600 hectares of potentially arable land in the City of Vancouver alone not counting parks, cemeteries, golf courses or land in more sparsely populated suburbs – that could, given half a chance, grow food.

Look at the love we lavish on our lawns, Levenston points out – all those lost weekends spent fertilizing, raking, mowing, trimming and edging. That energy could be converted into enough spinach to keep Popeye happy for

Sound crazy? Even staid government institutions are beginning to look at the economic benefits of home food production. Levenston points to a recent article by Keith Wilde of Agriculture Canada stating that Canada now imports about $400 million worth of vegetables each year, together with $800 million worth of fruits and nuts. “Replacement of $500 million of this total by homegrown produce would be the equivalent in balance-of-payment
terms to one fifth of our average grain exports.” Wilde

Growing your own makes personal financial sense. Remember when the price of lettuce shot up a few years back, because of frosts in California? Levenston says that alternatives to imported produce are “getting more
important every year, and unless there is something organized set in motion, then if there is a crisis, we won’t be ready for it.”

Besides, gardening is increasingly popular. Seed companies report burgeoning sales, and a Gallup survey of United States leisure activities ranks gardening fourth, after television watching, movie-going and home sewing.

So until the day he can look out the window of his East Georgia Street home and survey acres of cabbages instead of lawns and asphalt, Levenston and his organization will continue to act as a resource for home gardeners.

To ensure every new gardener doesn’t have to learn solely by trial and error, Levenston and his group are compiling as much detailed local information about Lower Mainland gardening as possible.

Vancouver is a gardener’s city, he points out. Look at the flower gardens flourishing in Shaughnessy and Dunbar, not to mention the verdant veggie patches in Strathcona and Grandview.

Tapping that lore, most of it stored in the brains of residents, is part of City Farmer‘s aim, and some of the information finds its way into the group’s sporadic newspaper, available now and then at natural food stores and other outlets around town (the most recent issue appeared last May). More information can be gleaned at the organization’s reference library, in an office atop an old building at Homer and Cordova.

City Farmer sprouted in 1978 with a grant from the Federal Department of Energy, Mines and Resources to study energy conservation. The discovery that Food production consumed between 12 and 15 per cent of Canada’s energy production excited the dozen or so people involved. When the grant period came to an end, City Farmer did not.

No one in the group has had any gardening experience, Levenston recalls. That has changed: in his own back yard, a 100-square-metre patch now produces peas, beans and tomatoes.

Gardening is hard work, he admits. “For us, at the moment, the garden isn’t a treasure trove, it isn’t the whole freezer.

“But I’ve learned that food production isn’t a one-minute thing. There’s a lot of learning.”

Beginning Feb. 20, City Farmer will sponsor a lecture series, featuring such horticultural luminaries as landscape architect Richard Britz, author of a book called The Edible City, and University of B.C. soil scientist Arthur Bomke.

Michael Levenston