The City Farmer

By Miriam King, Bradford Times

Author Lorraine Johnson, on the "City Farmer," at the Central Ontario Agricultural Conference in Barrie, March 4, 2017. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

Author Lorraine Johnson, on the "City Farmer," at the Central Ontario Agricultural Conference in Barrie, March 4, 2017. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

From “green roof” to Community Garden, urban agriculture has been experiencing a boom.

Over the past 7 years, “urban agriculture has really infiltrated our culture,” says Lorraine Johnson, author and editor of Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly.

It's nothing new: during World War II, homeowners in cities were encouraged to transform lawns and flowerbeds into “Victory Gardens,” augmenting the food supply.

The growing interest today comes from a greater interest in fresh, local food, issues of food security, and changing esthetics. “People are looking for an alternative to monoculture, looking after lawns. They are looking at the connection between food and the environment,” says Johnson. “What could be more local than growing it in your backyard?”

But the city farmer is still dealing with a fundamental dichotomy, between how the rural environment is perceived, and people's views on urban environments. 'Rural' is seen as natural, healthy, and clean; 'Urban” is seen as polluted and contaminated – even though it's easier to control pesticide use in cities, than on imported produce. “There's still this idea that food doesn't belong in the city,” Johnson says – and especially, that food “doesn't belong in the front yard. There's a real kind of visceral response to food in the front yard, negatively.”

She suggests that it may stem from earlier 19th century anti-immigrant sentiment, but notes that mixed gardening and a changing esthetic that sees “the ornamental potential of food plants,” has resulted in a shift.

Lettuce and kale as bedding plants - “it's beautiful, and edible;” urban “guerilla” gardens in abandoned spaces; fences supporting bean, squash and tomato vines; balcony gardens; roof-top gardens; container gardens - “There's so much space in cities... Put on your food goggles. There's no limit to where you can grow.”

Urban farming is also being embraced by municipal governments, with space for community gardens in parks and other municipally-owned lands, and by some schools. The impact can be huge.

One such garden in Toronto, measuring only 30' by 90', was divided into more than 40 plots. “The amount of produce you can grow in a tiny spot is incredible,” Johnson says.

Then there's the social and cultural aspect to growing produce in the urban environment, as well as the educational role, especially for kids.
“You can grow food anywhere. Make food visible and interactive, and engage people with food – and one of the ways we can do that is by growing food in the city.”

Johnson was a speaker at the Central Ontario Agricultural Conference, held at Georgian College's Sadlon Centre for Health and Wellness, March 3 and 4. Her talk on the “City Farmer” looked at the challenges and concerns surrounding farming in the city – and the next “step” in urban agriculture: backyard chickens coops.
While some cities, like Vancouver and Orillia, now allow homeowners to keep chickens, “it's one of the most debated, controversial aspects of urban agriculture.”

Johnson also provided an introduction to some urban agriculture programs, that could be adapted for use in any urban environment:

. Plant A Row, Grow a Row, inviting backyard gardeners to plant an extra row for their local Food Bank.

., a Toronto-based initiative that harvests the fruit from untended trees. Once a tree or vine is registered, the volunteers will pick the fruit, dividing the harvest among the homeowner, picker and an agency, such as a food bank or community kitchen.

. The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto “YIMBY” Project. Yes in My Back Yard (YIMBY) was a backyard-sharing project, that matched people who wanted to grow food but had no space, with homeowners whose backyards were not being used.  Again, harvests were shared among homeowner, grower, and social agency.