Urban farms a growing trend for city dwellers

Unconventional agriculture | Community gardens supplementing, not replacing, the supermarket, says author

Cities may seem like nothing more than concrete and cars, but look closer and carrots, celery and potatoes can be seen sprouting up in vacant lots, backyards and boulevards.

It’s all part of the growing trend of urban agriculture, in which city dwellers are relearning the joys of plucking a carrot from the ground or snapping a bean from the vine and popping it fresh into their mouths.

Edmonton author Jennifer Cockrall-King travelled to five countries and 12 cities to study the increasing interest in urban agriculture that she recounts in her new best selling book, Food and the City.

Through her tours, Cockrall-King saw fruit trees and parsnips growing in large metal dumpsters in London and apiaries and vineyards in Paris.

A grocery store in London has turned its roof into a place where beets, lettuce and tomatoes are grown in plastic recycling bins.

In Chicago, an industrial developer turned an old meat packing plant into an indoor garden with grow lights.

Back home in Edmonton, she watched neighbours digging up their front yards to plant vegetables and tuck asparagus between the flowers.

“It’s a niche food trend just poking into the mainstream,” she said.

With gardening parents and farming grandparents, Cockrall-King was born with dirt under her fingernails.

“I love food and grew up as a gardener.”

However, her “food radar” started twitching a few years ago as she sensed the enthusiasm growing for agriculture in the city.

Cockrall-King grew up in Edmonton, where there used to be lots of backyard gardens that children could raid.

During the Second World War, Edmonton and Calgary had more than 4,000 vacant lot gardens to help supplement food supplies. In the United States, there were more than five million Victory gardens during the war years.

However, gardens were sown to grass in the 1990s and 2000s and food now comes from the grocery store.

“We used to grow a tremendous amount of food in cities because we didn’t have global supply lines supporting us with food,” she said.

It’s estimated cities have only a three-day supply of food in the stores, which she called a shocking revelation.

It was while on a tour of Cuba in 2007 that Cockrall-King realized how much food could be grown at home. In Cuba, backyard gardens are the cornerstone of the national food system.

She doesn’t believe urban gardeners will ever shun the supermarket, but there is a growing yearning to relearn the skill of gardening.

“The 20- to 40-year-olds are actively engaged in urban planning and community development to encourage community gardens,” she said.

Community gardens encourage better community relations, less crime and improved understanding between generations.

She believes gardening and canning are better learned as apprenticeship type programs in which grandmothers show young people how to hill potatoes or how little soil is needed to cover carrots.

Growing a few carrots leads to more awareness of good food, she said. Growing food leads to cooking, which is another lost skill, and cooking leads to canning, preserving and picking.

“Canning workshops are wildly popular,” she said.

Cockrall-King said cities are a natural location for growing food because of the heat island effect they create. Paris has 132 urban vineyards.

She said the long daylight hours of Canadian summer means it doesn’t take much room to grow a lot of vegetables.

“You don’t need to dig up the whole yard.”

Even a little bit of gardening gives a new perspective of how much work gardening requires.

“It’s hard work and that’s why our grandmothers were so thrilled when they could jump in the car and go to the grocery store for their vegetables.”

Cockrall-King doubts urban gardeners will go the whole “homestead route” and plant their entire yard to vegetables, but she said it is possible to tuck beets between the begonias and replace snap dragons with sugar snap peas.

“It’s a supplemental thing. It’s getting people to taste and know what an actual head of broccoli should taste like.”

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