Urban farmers see need for more productive regulatory environment

· The Pulse

A decade after the adoption of its food and urban agriculture strategy, Edmonton has made it easier for people to grow food for themselves, but it has a long way to go to enable the kind of agriculture that allows farmers to feed others, advocates say.

The city's high-level strategy on these matters, called fresh, came into being in 2012 with a vision to create "a resilient food and agriculture system." Now a decade in, some urban farmers say policy changes haven't addressed the major hurdles keeping people from making full use of the fertile land in the city.

"Urban agriculture, should be, from a policy standpoint, provided the same sort of parity as peri-urban agriculture," said Ryan Mason of Reclaim Urban Farm, who used to operate within the city but has since relocated to Leduc County for a mix of personal and business reasons.

On some peripheral agricultural land that the city has annexed, there are zoning allowances and utility accesses that, for now, spare farmers the regulatory hurdles that limit agricultural development elsewhere in the city, he said.

"While I don't expect the exact same conditions or zoning or allowances in downtown Edmonton as in Horse Hill or what used to be Leduc County, those are the areas that these farmers in those downtown areas are going to compete with," said Mason. "So there has to be at least an understanding (that) it can't be a burden for the business that you're trying to support. And if they don't want to do it, then they should just admit that it's never going to happen, and be OK with the fact that urban agriculture is not going to be a focus of theirs."

Edmonton changed its zoning bylaws in 2016 to enable more urban agriculture within the city. But Mason said many of the roadblocks and challenges he experienced came after those changes were introduced. He cited difficulties getting permits to sell food grown on city land and a 2018 dispute in which the city inspector wanted him to get an engineering review for the hoop house he had erected over his produce.

The inspector would have been enforcing provincial legislation, said Karen Zypchyn, communications adviser in urban planning and economy, though Mason believes an exemption could have been made. At any rate, the city did allow Mason to keep the structure up until the end of the season. The hassle remained, however, and he faces a lot less of it where he is now near Pigeon Lake.

The legislative frameworks that guide urban agriculture are "very piecemeal across the country," said Ron Berezan, founder of The Urban Farmer and farm manager at Blueberry Commons Farm in Powell River, B.C. The success or failure of an urban farm often rides on the municipality's approach to zoning and land use regulations, he said.

A community garden plot in Edmonton. A sign reads "Water Me."

To develop a robust urban food system, Edmonton's urban agriculture strategy needs to go beyond backyard and community gardens and remove the barriers keeping urban farmers from doing business, advocates say. (Brett McKay)

Berezan finds himself in a municipality that does it right, in his estimation.

"We have basically about three and a half acres in production right now, right within the city. We sell at our property. We sell in farmers' markets. We do home delivery. And this year, we sold over $100,000 worth of produce," he said. "Thankfully, our municipality encourages it. I mean, there are still some bylaws on the books that if they were applied might be problematic, but they haven't cleaned those up, and they're just generally kind of let be."

Urban agriculture needs a regulatory environment that gives it room to grow, he said.

"If we want robust food systems in cities, more than anything, the cities need to remove encumbrances, and often it's land use bylaws," Berezan said.

Globally, only 5.9% of food production happens within cities, though some regions have made urban agriculture a large part of their overall food system. Berezan pointed to Cuba as one example, where beginning in the 1990s, the government made unused urban land available to urban farmers and now boasts thousands of highly productive, largely organic urban farms. In Shanghai, 60% of all vegetables consumed within the city are produced within the city.

How does Edmonton compare in terms of local food production? It's hard to say. The city doesn't track how much food is grown within the city or in peri-urban areas, and it hasn't surveyed where Edmontonians get their food, said Rachel Humenny, senior communications adviser for the city's urban planning and economy department.

To encourage food production, increase local growing food spaces, and increase access to locally grown food on private property and community spaces, the city began garden programs like the Pop-Up Community Gardens Pilot, which saw 83 garden sites started and 1,111 planters distributed, Humenny said.

Programs to make gardening more accessible are good in that everyone should have the right to grow food, Mason said, but he questioned the point of an agriculture strategy if it only allows people to "have these quaint little garden opportunities."

"To have a strong, vibrant food system, you need to have people that can grow (at) scale, even on a microscale, so that they can provide other people that don't have the skills or the time or the energy to do so," he said. "So if you can't focus on farms, it's not very helpful."