1978 - 1981 Report of Activities

City Farmer - Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture

Suite 801-318 Homer Street, Vancouver, B.C. V6B 2V3

August 29, 1981


From: Michael Levenston, City Farmer Executive Director

To: Dr. K. Wilde, Strategic Planning Division,

Agriculture Canada, Ottawa


I will review briefly 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 ware 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 l4-17% of the energy used in Canada, in farm production, in distribution, packaging, processing, and in homes for cooking and refrigeration. 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, D.C.‚ in their 1977 report titled Energy and Food, a study of energy use in the food system.


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


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, 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 shown 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 experienced 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 end 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. It is the ‘bible’ for urban agriculture environmentalists. They spoke to a large audience of the public, to City Hall, to professional agrologists, community groups and the media during their stay.

Our second visitor, John Jeavons from Palo Alto, was author of Grow More Vegetables. His detailed accounting of large ‘square foot’ yields using the French Intensive method made him a hit on C.B.C. radio. The interview he did in British Columbia was rebroadcast nationally‚ and C.B.C. is still getting requests for information about him.


Due to these two successes, City Farmer is regularly called by various media people and asked about future speakers.


Though working on a shoestring budget, our Office of Urban Agriculture became known in the U.S. as well as Canada. A number of our articles were picked up by other publications. The Avant-Gardener in New York alerted the U.S. to the Milorganite issue from an article in our paper. Self-Reliance magazine, out of Washington, D.C., 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)


An example of the beautiful calendars we produced, designed by Sue Fox.

An example of the beautiful calendars we produced, designed by Sue Fox.

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


In May 1980, Charles Barber M.L.A., 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. Students would research papers here. 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 stuff, Risa Smith, went back to U.B.C. to study Agriculture Science and is now finishing her M.A. 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 U.B.C.’s Centre for Continuing Education. Professionals from the Ministry of Agriculture, U.B.C., 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 packets to accompany each weeks 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 U.B.C.’s Centre for Continuing Education to develop and implement a Master Gardening program for B.C.


Over the years City Farmer has not gone to any great lengths to publicize itself and yet it has attracted much attention. We believe this shows that the public is truly interested in urban agriculture.

Three different filmmakers have come to us with requests for interviews end information about city farming.


Mr. Robert Nichol interviewed me and used two of our newspaper subjects in his film on land-use called Wonderland to be released soon. Ms. Judith Penner of N.F.B. 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 here for his film on Urban Alternatives, a component of which will be on city farming.


C.B.C. national television completed filming a show for Take 30 on urban agriculture just before the strike. (May, 1981) They interviewed me, Dr. Bomke a U.B.C. 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 end Mail has done one feature on our work and recently Canadian Press (C.P.) sent out part of an article on us taken from The Province newspaper to its 110 members, which was also picked up by the Globe end 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 at which we were given more media attention.


In Vancouver, a 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 U.B.C’ 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 representative of the American Community Gardening Association.


As you can see from this brief outline I have written, 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 would 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 sourcebook manual, City Farmer would then travel across the country and give workshops to groups who wanted to begin such an Office in their own city. We would be the catalyst.


In this way urban agriculture in Canada could be encouraged by using local people to supply local information.

See Dr. Wilde’s report in the December 1981 issue of Agriculture Canada’s Food Market Commentary.

See 'The Olkowskis inspired City Farmer 34 years ago'.


Michael Levenston