By Brianna Van De Wijngaard –
Puddle Produce Urban Farm remembers its first season well in Williams Lake: I planted many seedlings and microgreens that either barely grew, or not at all. I operated a more than sketchy 30-year-old rototiller in people’s backyards, (which I am certain was not a pleasant sound), washed late into the night by headlamp the veggies that did grow, and lugged much of it around in my bike trailer. It was sometimes stressful, and a lot of work, but a great time and totally worth it. I’ve learned a lot since then, and hope to continue to make lots of mistakes so I can improve growing and marketing sustainable local produce around the Cariboo.
Modern urban farming is a unique phenomenon in local food production, at least in our part of the world. It’s tough to track numbers of urban farms in Canada and the US, because they often operate without permits or farm status, so are pretty “off the radar” when it comes to census data. But they are being given more attention in recent years, with good reason. Urban and peri-urban farms are actually nothing new: Victory gardens, subsistence urban farming in developing countries, and la culture maraîchère (vegetable gardening) of 19th century France, to name a few, have been around for many years, so it’s more of a renaissance here in North America. But they now operate – especially in Canada and the US – within a very different context, and provide solutions to problems never seen before by the world of agriculture.
One of the main advantages to urban agriculture is yield: urban and peri-urban farmers operate on smaller plots, often using hand tools or very small machinery, so they can plant very densely and get a higher yield per square foot. They can also monitor their plots in minutes, rather than hours, keeping weeds and pests under control more effectively. Even then, pests like deer, rodents, and insects are less of a problem in urban zones. The UNFAO estimates urban farms can grow 15 times more product than their rural counterparts.
Another advantage is environmental footprint: everything from an urban farm will have a smaller footprint because of its proximity to markets and customers. Inputs must still be shipped in, but it takes a lot more to haul refrigerated produce that’s 90 per cent water 2000 kilometres from California than it does to ship some seeds. It also doesn’t take nearly as long, and this is the third advantage: nutritional integrity. We all know that our tomatoes in the grocery store are picked green, and the lettuce mix is typically 5-7 days old by the time it reaches the shelf. As soon as a vegetable is picked, it starts to decay and lose nutritional value. Local and urban vegetables are often in the customer’s hands within 1-3 days of harvest.
Without even touching on the social and economic advantages of urban agriculture, (food security, beautification, job creation, etc.), all these benefits translate to value for customers and community members. Provided it’s grown sustainably and efficiently, they get a better product that is competitively priced.
So, in the end, why would someone ditch urban farming if it’s so great? There are lifestyle reasons, too. I, personally, wanted to live in a more rural location. But I truly believe that urban farming can be done just about anywhere, and if nothing else, it is a great entry-level position in agriculture: with super low start-up costs and initial investment compared to conventional agriculture, the risk factor is far lower for a new farmer. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get their feet wet, (or dirty, in most cases) with market gardening.
So Puddle Produce Farm has dropped the Urban, and is now converting a 70-acre property in Soda Creek to bio-intensive vegetable production, as there are still advantages to rural agriculture, of course: organic certification or integrated livestock, for example. Or farming in your pajamas. But I will truly miss all the kind homeowners that gave up their yards, the neighbours that stopped in to talk gardening, and all the supportive community members and farmers that helped so much as I floundered through those four seasons in downtown Williams Lake. I could never thank you enough!
Puddle Produce Farm has big plans for the future, and will still be at our local farmers’ markets and Cariboo Growers this year, as soon as the grass is under control here in Soda Creek. In the meantime, thanks to everyone for supporting their local ag producers. You are the future of good food.
Brianna van de Wijngaard is a certified Organic Master Gardener from Victoria, BC. She operates Puddle Produce Farm from Soda Creek, BC, and sells through farmers’ markets, a CSA (weekly box) program, and retail sales. You can contact her at email@example.com.