They wanted to grow food in the city and supply small local processors and soup kitchens with fresh vegetables — but when four would-be urban farmers in London found an ideal stretch of unoccupied land in the east end, the city told them they couldn’t lease it.
“We were literally not allowed to bid on that land because we were not going to develop it into houses,” says Richie Bloomfield, co-owner of Urban Roots London, the farming outfit in need of farmland. “That was kind of shocking to us.”
Urban agriculture is gaining popularity fast, but for farmers just getting started, often the biggest challenge isn’t learning how to till soil or keep pests at bay — rather, it’s the tangle of municipal rules and bylaws that either don’t take farming into account or actively discourage it.
But a new and nearly finalized urban agriculture strategy in London should make things easier, proponents say. According to Leif Maitland, the local planner spearheading the strategy, it’ll land on councillors’ desks by the end of the summer.
Supporters tout the benefits of urban farming: It makes fresh produce available to city-dwellers who might otherwise have trouble finding it, and it creates jobs, too. It can even help the environment, creating habitat for pollinators and reducing the distance food has to be trucked.
London’s strategy may not be the first in Ontario, but its inclusion of processing, distribution, food waste management, and education — all under the umbrella of urban agriculture — is unique.
Some of the proposed ideas, like building community gardens and growing fruit trees on public property, already exist in the city. Others, like a proposed backyard chicken pilot, have a long way to go before implementation. There’s also talk of establishing more farmers markets; creating hubs for sharing tools, supplies, and information; and building school gardens and community kitchens.
“We really wanted this strategy to inspire action, and that’s what the city wanted too,” says Lauren Baker, a consultant on the project and a former policy specialist with the Toronto Food Policy Council, a subcommittee of the city’s health board.
One of the biggest challenges will be putting the strategy to work — which will require participation from the municipal government and the broader community. In London, Maitland says, it’s not clear who will take the leading role.
“Maybe we’ll be enabling community groups, maybe we’ll be partnering with them,” he says. “Maybe we just need to change our bylaws to be as accommodating as possible, and then get out of the way and let people do what they want to do.”
Maitland says he’s familiar with the difficulties Urban Roots ran into searching for land. The city does rent to large-scale farmers who grow, for example, soybeans and corn, which can thrive even in poor soil. But the land is designated for other purposes, such as residential or commercial development, so it’s unsuitable for organic farming ventures that need to invest in long-term soil improvements.
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London’s struggle is nothing out of the ordinary: many cities lack stable, long-term farming space. In Toronto, the GrowTO urban agriculture action plan identified hydro corridors as a possible solution, but Baker says other challenges nearly derailed farming there altogether. Just two of five hydro-corridor farms proposed in 2012 have moved ahead, with the requirement to conduct extensive environmental assessments complicating matters.
Scott Ross, a policy analyst with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says policies at the provincial and national levels would make it easier for cities to implement urban agriculture strategies.
“I look at a lot of the recommendations,” he says of London’s proposed strategy, “and I see a lot of further review required to understand what’s needed in various spaces. It speaks to how important it is to get federal, provincial, and municipal governments aligned and having access to the resources needed to move these kind of things forward.”
Still, the owners of Urban Roots are excited about the London strategy. They’d like the city’s help in launching their venture, and so far, municipal staff have helped where possible. But right now, says Graham Bracken, also of Urban Roots, “they don’t have the policy. They can’t point to any sorts of policies to give us any sort of preferential treatment.”
In May, Urban Roots finally managed to lease a parcel of farmland: three acres of privately owned pasture in London’s southeast end. Their next task is to make sure the soil and the groundwater they intend to use for irrigation are pollutant-free. Such testing can be expensive — it could cost them up to $5,000. “Our hope,” Bracken says, “is that the city could help us and future projects with soil testing, in terms of clear standards and financial assistance.”
Once their operation is up and running — and with the help of the new strategy — the owners anticipate expanding Urban Roots will be easier than getting started has been.
“There’s so much land in the city that is just grass,” Bloomfield says. “I know there are visions of development, but there are so many acres of land that could be producing food.”
Photo courtesy of Karen Stintz and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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