Harvesting a Crisis

  • Photo Erin Sparks

How Canada Can Address Its Farming Needs With Urban Agriculture

Canada is approaching a potentially devastating demographic shift.

We have an aging population, sure, but even worse, we have an aging agriculture sector.

The 2011 Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture revealed that the average age of farm operators in this country—those running Canadian farms day-to-day—is 54. Their numbers have dropped by 10 per cent since 2006.

“We have a farming crisis. […] Seventy-four per cent of farmers today are planning to sell their farm in the next 10 years—and guess who’s waiting to buy it up? Developers, investors, offshore investment agencies,” said Food Secure Canada Coordinator Amanda Sheedy at a Concordia panel discussion on food politics last Thursday.

“We have a serious problem. There is no policy to cover how we’re going to manage that shift in land tenure over the next 10 years.”

To cope, Canada needs new innovations: technology, initiatives and policies to engage younger generations in food production.

THE PROBLEM

“Try and think of something that food doesn’t affect in our society and in our lives,” said Sheedy. “It affects our social relationships. It affects our environment. It affects our health. It’s fundamental.”

Separation is perhaps the biggest problem in our food system—we are geographically separated from what we eat.

According to June Komisar, associate professor in the department of Architecture Science at Ryerson University, who specializes in designing for urban agriculture, our current system presents two problems.

“One, you’re not contributing to the local economy and two, there’s a lot of energy expended in bringing that food thousands of miles to the consumer,” said Komisar.

Delivery from farm to plate is responsible for between 30 and 50 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, Sheedy said.

But an explosion in the popularity of people calling themselves “locavores” and following “100 mile diets,” would suggest that urban dwellers crave that connection.

“I think that there’s a new crop of young farmers. There’s always these articles that I’ve been seeing in the last couple of years—that I think are very heartening—that young people are really interested in farming again.”
Yet despite that interest, Statistics Canada reports only 8.2 per cent of farm operators are under 35.

David Wees, a lecturer at McGill University’s department of Plant Science—and at the Farm Management and Technology Program—attributes the change to natural demographic shifts.

“Traditionally, people who studied agriculture were sons and daughters of farmers. Well, there are fewer and fewer farmers and they’re having smaller families. […] It’s just a rapidly shrinking population,” said Wees.

Whatever the reasons, this is the first time in history that we have seen agriculture dominated by the aged. Of the 168 agriculture programs funded by the Canadian government for the purposes of managing farming and production, only seven of them are dedicated to “young farmers or new entrants.”

Two of these programs are limited to Nova Scotia—which is also the only province to see an increase in number of farms—while the rest are dedicated to agricultural financing, management and accounting.

But while the federal government invests in ways to innovate the current system of farming, an increasing number of the population is congregating in cities. The United Nations estimates the total global population living in cities will increase from 50 to 60 per cent by 2030.

So what does the future of agriculture look like?

DREAMING BIG

From the development of agriculture-dedicated buildings to rooftop gardens, urban landscapes are being looked to as the farms of the future.

A more ambitious plan is vertical farming: the building of mega multi-story greenhouse skyscrapers that are solar powered and use urban wastewater.

Dickson Despommier and his students at Columbia University originally proposed the idea in 2007, and immediately Chinese companies invested $5 million in research.

Despommier estimated that a $500 million 30-story building, inspired by the iconic Apple store on 5th Ave. in New York City, could feed 50,000 annually—but since the proposal, Singapore is the only city to actually construct one of these super farms.
The 30-foot Sky Greens tower there produces 1,000 lbs of them daily. Despite slightly higher costs, they frequently sell out at the supermarket.

Meanwhile, smaller versions of the concept have been popping up, such as Sweden’s 12-story Plantagon or the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, which provides the 65 research staff of the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station with one fresh salad daily.

Still, the concept has its detractors.

“I personally believe that this is a completely impractical way of farming,” said Komisar. “I can understand the attraction of thinking that farms can be vertical, but I think that the energy required and many other things have not been worked out very well.”

Vertical farms are primarily criticized for their dependence on artificial light and near impossible start-up costs. But a few compromises could make the idea more feasible.

“I think that multi-use buildings […] a warehouse, or a loft building or an office building, or a big box store that has a horizontal on the farm on the roof, like a greenhouse or an outdoor farm, is much more likely,” said Komisar.

URBAN INITIATIVES

Without copious amounts of funding from governments or other sources to build their own buildings, independent citizens are instead turning to what’s already there in their cityscapes. From the tops of skyscrapers to the backyards of strangers, simple ways to maximize growing spaces are popping up everywhere.

“We could certainly do a lot more just to take advantage of the space that we do have,” admitted Wees.

“There are a huge number of vacant lots on the island of Montreal. There are a lot of green spaces that are underutilized. And I think that if we just try to take the space that we have and make better use of it we could probably produce quite a bit more.”

Wees and his students estimated that if all the available green spaces on the island of Montreal—parks, backyard gardens and community gardens—were used to grow as many fruits and vegetables as possible, they could support about 40 per cent of the island’s needs.

Community gardening initiatives in the city are also on the rise. With 97 gardens and 18 boroughs participating, the programs generally provide access to tools, compost and managers who oversee the plots.

“We have a very good community garden system in Montreal, but there’s simply a limited number [of farming locations],” said Wees. “There are more people who want to garden than there are actual spaces.”

Cities generally have a slightly longer growing season because of their higher temperatures, and they can be extended even further by the use of materials like a lightweight cheese cloth-esque substance that retains heat.

Currently, however, according to Wees, the only areas zoned green—for agricultural use—are Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Senneville and Pierrefonds in the West Island.

But elsewhere in Canada, urban development is embracing greenery. Toronto is making headway as the first North American city legislating industrial developments 2,000 m2 and above to have a green roof covering a certain graduated percentage.

The city defines green roofs as “an extension of an above grade roof, built on top of a human-made structure, that allows vegetation to grow in a growing medium.”

But the bylaw, which went into effect in April 2012, could go further, said Komisar.

“If you’re going to have a green roof, why not have a productive green roof?”

Other initiatives are also changing the landscape of the city.

Small-plot intensive farming, or SPIN-Farming, sees entrepreneurs farm plot-to-plot in neighbourhood yards, sometimes charging the lot owners for upkeep and giving them a percentage of the harvest as payment.

“In Toronto at the moment [SPIN-Farming] seems to be able to support someone part-time,” said Komisar.

“We have a number of young entrepreneurs that are kind of getting their feet wet with training themselves as young farmers by doing this. It might not pay enough to be a full-time job, but that is way of supplementing income and getting experience in becoming an entrepreneur.”

Not Far From the Tree is a similar initiative that harvests fruit from city trees. The group reports having picked 12,512 lbs in 2012 and splits the bounty three ways: between the tree owner, volunteers and food organizations.

THE REAL FUTURE OF URBAN AGRICULTURE

“There are a number of hypotheses [about the future],” surmised Komisar.

“One is that every large roof is going to become farmed and I think that is going to happen to a great extent because people are beginning to understand that the heat island affect is terrible, as well as the cost of processing runoff from rain from the roofs.”
One notable example she cited is the continuous productive urban landscape.

CPUL integrates urban design and food production into the vision of cities and surrounding countrysides. The urban and rural partnership could open even more opportunities.

“The CPUL concept really shows that our parks, our open spaces can all be connected up to be a productive landscape,” said Komisar.

“So rather than merely having unproductive landscaping, you can have things that provide food for the city. I think that their vision is much closer to what the future might possibly look like.”

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