Yes in My Backyard

Landscape architecture prof hits the road to see how people in Canada and the United States are bringing farming to the city

In Milwaukee, the Growing Power organization offers tours of its urban farm to give people, especially children, a chance to see where their food comes from.
In Milwaukee, the Growing Power organization offers tours of its urban farm to give people, especially children, a chance to see where their food comes from.


Prof. Karen Landman, Environmental Design and Rural Development, grew up on a dairy farm, but she says her father wouldn't recognize as farmers the people she met this summer when she travelled more than 18,000 kilometres across the western United States and Canada to study urban agriculture. They were growing food commercially in the city.

"I met with academics, social advocates, people who train others in the techniques of urban farming and, of course, urban farmers themselves," she says.

Why study farming in cities? "Food is a fundamental issue," says Landman. "We all need it, and food is the basis of culture because people gather together around food. But increasingly, we have concerns about issues such as food safety, food security and the impact of food transportation on the environment. Urban agriculture may be a solution to some of these concerns, and that makes it important on many levels."

Layered on the concerns that consumers have about food are worries about the future of farming in rural areas.

Landman says it's tough to get young people interested in farming because those raised on a farm know about the economic challenges and those raised in the city don't know where to begin.

In Milwaukee, she spent time with Will Allen, whose Growing Power organization was established to tackle the problem of "food deserts" in that city. Food deserts are low-income areas in large cities where people have no access to grocery stores and usually end up having to buy expensive processed foods at corner stores.

Allen's solution was to turn a two-acre plot of land in a neighbourhood in northern Milwaukee into a farm. There, he grows fruit and vegetables and raises goats, turkeys, chickens and honeybees. There's also an aquaponics system housing thousands of tilapia and perch. In total, the farm produces $250,000 worth of food each year.

Allen has a store on site that provides fresh food to the community at reasonable prices. He also sells to local restaurants.

"Some of the middle-aged people in that community are eating fresh vegetables for the first time in their lives," says Landman.

To make the operation work, Allen uses interns and volunteers to help with the intensive farming. He also offers tours of the facility six days a week to give people, especially children, a chance to see where their food comes from.

"Farmers want people to understand them and what they do," says Landman. "This is a beginning."

She recalls one young boy on a tour who had never seen a chicken before and didn't know where eggs came from.

After her stay in Milwaukee, Landman went to San Francisco, then headed up the coast to Vancouver. She also travelled to Edmonton, where she visited the Visser farms, which are two large tracts of farmland within city limits.

"The land has excellent soil and a good microclimate," she says. "People don't think there is good land in cities, but there is. We're urbanizing onto the best soil."

In September, Gord Visser staged a huge potato giveaway to raise awareness of locally grown food and to remind people about the importance of protecting farmland from development.

People could have for free any potatoes they dug up from his fields. The event was so popular that traffic was backed up for miles, and many people waited hours for their opportunity to harvest some spuds.

Landman's next stop was Saskatchewan to meet a farmer involved in SPIN-farming.

SPIN stands for small plot intensive, and the farmers involved negotiate with people living in the city to use their backyards for farming. The farmer she met had 25 backyards under cultivation and sold the food at the local farmers' market.

"There are several advantages to this," she says. "The farmer has access to municipal water, rather than having to rely on irrigation systems. There's a longer growing season in town because of the better microclimate and the shelter from strong winds. And the market for the food produced is literally on the farmer's doorstep."

A similar project called Backyard Bounty is under way in Guelph. On a tour of some Backyard Bounty properties, Landman saw first-hand how programs like this can create community cohesion.

"At one home, there was an older woman who had always grown food in her garden but wasn't able to anymore. During one visit, the young man doing the farming gave her some zucchini from the vegetables in her front garden. At the next visit, she gave him a loaf of bread she had baked with the zucchini."

On Nov. 20, Backyard Bounty and U of G will host "Opportunities for Action: An Urban Agriculture Symposium" from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Arboretum. Landman will be the keynote speaker and will share stories of her summer tour. The day will also feature panel discussions and interactive workshops. (For registration information, visit www.backyardbounty.ca.)

Although Landman is back on campus for now, her urban agriculture tour isn't over yet. She'll be heading out to Nova Scotia for a food summit there and plans to visit urban farms in Halifax and Quebec City on her way back.

"I'm just interested in finding out what's going on in various places," she says. "I'm very excited about the potential of urban agriculture. Maybe the best part for me is that I have access to great food while I'm travelling. Almonds from California, apricots from Kelowna yum."