Focus on Inner City Farms

On a recent visit to Vancouver I took the opportunity to catch up with Camil Dumont, a founder of Inner City Farms (ICF), one of the urban farms that has sprung up there over the past few years. While the city is known for its milder than most of Canada climate, more recently it has been building a reputation as a hub for true local food with the number of community gardens and small scale urban horticulture start ups rapidly increasing. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with grocery shopping there’s a growing niche for organisations such as ICF  “We harvest and provide the same day, grow all in our own city and mostly offer an opportunity to support social and ecological values tied to food citizenship when we offer our veggie shares. Not many others provide this package.”

Initiated by a group of five friends who were motivated to garden and grow their own chemical free food but lacked viable land due to inner city apartment living, they approached friends and family in more suburban areas with ample lawn space that could be converted into vegetable patches. After turning their first sod in 2009 the group soon realised they would easily grow more than they could eat and ICF was born. In their first year 6 yards underwent conversion with sod being replaced by composted growing beds; three years later they work at 20 different sites which total just under an acre in area.

Word spreads fast and they get more offers to convert front yards than they can handle so each proposed site is assessed for orientation, soil quality and presence of invasive species before any decisions are made. Homeowners need to have the right attitude towards the project and establishing and maintaining good relationships with them is essential, as Dumont says “It’s not for everyone, a farm no matter what the size is a working space and it won’t always look like nice straight perfectly weeded vegetable rows.” Due to changes in ownership or householder priorities they have had to return several sites to their original lawn covered state but overall the majority of the land providers are happy to host ICF.

While they haven’t had any major issues with theft or vandalism, attributable to the neighbourhoods they choose to grow in and the fact that their gardens are owned by someone, the group does flout the law on a daily basis as what they do is technically illegal. There’s a host of council by-laws they break but luckily, as policy slowly catches up with the changing world that is urban agriculture, a no enforcement policy in place so Dumont and his team can continue to work without the threat of fines.

Besides fruit and vegetable production, ICF also places importance on improving access for people with low or no income to fresh produce “They are often the people that can benefit the most” says Dumont and with this in mind, ICF donates a huge weekly box of veggies throughout the season to Oppenheimer Park Community Kitchen where it’s used to cook dinner as part of the DECK project. In the current food distribution system, organic food is simply priced out of reach for many people and as part of bridging this gap Dumont has plans for a sponsorship system where companies and individuals can sponsor vegetable deliveries via local charities.

On the business side of things, ICF follows the CSA model where shares in the harvest are pre-sold in the spring and members are entitled to a box of fresh veggies each week for the duration of the season. Initially ICF had just 9 shares available and this has consistently increased to a whopping 65 with restaurant orders gradually being added to the mix. Key aspects of their approach to minimise capital input have been to:

  • Sell produce directly to the consumer.
  • Hire big equipment, like a roto-tiller or sod cutter, only when required.
  • Exchange produce for use of front yard space.
  • Exchange labour for access to greenhouse space.
  • Exchange labour for additional products (currently sprouts from Food Pedalers  are included in the CSA boxes).
  • Good planning so wastage is minimised.
  • Avoid cultivation of delicate greens such as lettuce and arugula eliminating need for refrigeration.
  • Maintain a small scale operation so produce is always harvested on delivery day eliminating the need for storage space.

Profitability has continued to improve and ICF was able to pay a salary for the first time in 2012 with a ute purchase planned in 2013 to replace the trusty farm Corolla.

All five co-founders are long established Vancouverites and this has definitely been a factor in their success as connections with their sprout supplier, soil testing lab and commercial customers had already been established through friends and family. Dumont’s advice to anyone who wants to start urban farming is “Go for it! We didn’t know a lot when we started” and with plenty of hard work, persistence and passion they have managed to build a thriving business that grows great food and supports their community.

Note: All images from a great short film produced by Fire and Light as part of a fantastic series about urban farming in Vancouver; well worth checking out.

Fermenting fomenter

A bonus for me as an intern last year was a copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and over the summer it was my little bible for fermenting just about anything I could get my hands on. Katz delves into the historic significance of fermentation, something that is practised by most cultures around the globe, as well as briefly examining the science of live cultures. He also looks at the health benefits of live cultured foods and why ferments have gone out of fashion as our food system increasingly relies on mass production and standardization.

All the fermented foods we find commonly are listed, with recipes for sauerkraut, sourdough, beer and wine featured, but there’s also a host of lesser known cultures such as amazaké (sweet Japanese rice drink), injera (spongy Ethiopian flat bread) and kombucha (sweetened tea fermented with a SCOBY – symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) covered as well. A basic list of resources is included for obtaining cultures that won’t just happen to be hanging around like the koji mould, Aspergillus oryzae, needed to make miso. Experimentation is strongly encouraged and fermenting can be a pretty exciting process; flavours develop over time, you can taste as you go and if you’re like me and don’t really follow recipes that strictly, every jar tastes different.

Over the course of the season I mostly used lacto-fermentation, one of the simplest fermentation methods (vegetables + brine + time) that can be ready in less than two weeks, for a few batches of kimchi and innumerable jars of mixed vegetables. Just before I left Quebec we put a batch of elderberry wine on using elderberries found on an urban forage – thanks to the Gatineau council for planting elderberry in public spaces we were able to harvest just enough for the recipe – but there are many recipes I plan to try in the future.

I found fermenting to be an easy process with tasty results and I’d encourage anyone whose ever thought about it to give it a try; it can be as simple as filling a jar and letting nature go!

Farm City

Making better use of urban spaces has been an inspiration for me since I first visited Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane in 2004. There are many community gardens around the world that either allocate members their own plot to work or simply have a one size fits all model where everyone contributes and works a common area. In urban environments of the western world, it’s much rarer to find an individual who has taken the step from gardening, growing vegetables and maybe raising chickens, to farming, where more livestock are involved and butchering them for human consumption is definitely on the agenda. Significant barriers to people include time (livestock need regular and consistent care), resources (animals also need food), and access to land, since it’s not always easy to find a bare block that can be used with the blessing of the land owner.

Novella Carpenter had gardening in mind when she rented an apartment in the heart of Oakland, a city with nearly 400,000 inhabitants, on the west coast of California. She transformed an overgrown city block into a food producing oasis and then wrote a personal account of her experience growing fruit and vegetables while raising bees, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and finally two pigs on an almost abandoned site adjacent to her apartment building. It makes for an absorbing and entertaining read as armed with a can do attitude, plenty of enthusiasm and a shoestring budget she learns how to keep poultry alive amidst dog attacks, get her rabbits to breed like rabbits and dumpster dive enough food for her ever growing pigs. Novella’s approach reminds me of my own where if it sounds like a good idea you should try it and you’ll figure out everything else you need to know as you go along. City raised bacon anyone?


food not lawns

Taking advantage of the household library I’m currently about half way through Food Not Lawns and loving it. A handbook for turning urban spaces into food producing landscapes with a focus on doing it and recycling, reusing and re-appropriating land and materials in the process.

Food Not Lawns or How to turn your yard into a garden and your neighborhood into a community by H.C. Flores, published 2006 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Checking out the local scene

I took the opportunity to see a showing of Vanishing of the Bees in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago with hopes that I’d meet some local beekeepers. In addition to meeting Brent Halsall, a commercial beekeeper from the Ontario Beekeepers Association I was lucky enough to be at the same table as Carolyn from Riverglen who was heading to a beehive construction workshop that weekend. Although the workshop was full, she has plans to share the experience so hopefully I’ll be building my own hives soon.