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Urban farming shortens the distance from field to fork

Innovative ways that cities are bringing food security to the table.

From fruit orchards and salmon fisheries in British Columbia, to acres of golden wheat and cattle ranches across the prairies, to east coast potatoes, blueberries and lobster, Canada’s agriculture industry is wonderfully diverse and bountiful. But would you be surprised to learn that urban centres are becoming an important part of the food production ecosystem? Urban farming – a relatively new buzzword that you might hear popping up more frequently – is evolving the conversation around sustainability beyond the backyard garden patch.

Raise the roof!

The rooftop patio has long been a coveted urban hangout, where visionary restaurateurs and condo owners have made the effort to utilize what otherwise would be surplus space. But rooftops are now finding a new purpose as important grow zones. 

In Vancouver, the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel broke new ground in 1996 by becoming one of Canada’s first green roofs. Today this 2,100-square-foot rooftop garden produces an abundance of fresh herbs and veggies. There is also a rooftop honeybee apiary.

In Montreal, MicroHabitat and the Rooftop Gardening Project are two organizations helping to create dozens of unique green spaces across the city. Manulife is one company embracing the movement: its downtown Montreal office rooftop is now a thriving green space that provides fresh garden produce to Fondation Accueil Bonneau, an organization that provides assistance to low-income families. Beehives are also part of the Manulife Montreal rooftop project, with about 600 jars of honey donated annually to J’aime Montréal to use in food baskets for those in need. 

In Toronto, Ryerson University has converted an estimated 10,000 square feet of rooftop into fruit and vegetable gardens, with produce sold at the university’s own farmer’s market and to campus food services. 

Tower power

Taking things up a notch from rooftop gardening, greenspace innovators are now setting their sights on normalizing grow towers. Consider Skyscraper Farm, which advocates faster farm-to-table produce distribution through a number of vertical farming scenarios. The U.S.-based organization proposes different building designs:

  • A four-storey facility solely for growing
  • A mid-rise farm built on top of grocery stores
  • A 52-storey skyscraper, including vertical farming, residential condos, commercial office space and restaurants

Along with being a local year-round source of fresh produce for urban centres, these grow towers also propose impressive water conservation, with grow methods using 90 per cent less water than traditional field farming.

In Singapore, farm towers are already helping to provide fresh produce to the island’s five million residents. These two-storey facilities are a year-round source of bok choy, Chinese cabbage and other greens for this wealthy nation that is heavily reliant on food imports.[1] 

Fish tales and chicken joy

When you think of urban farming, fruit trees lining city boulevards and empty neighbourhood lots repurposed into vegetable gardens might be what springs to mind. But there’s also some interesting work being done in the animal agriculture space. Consider a food bank in Mississauga, Ontario, that is using aquaponics to help provide fresh food for its clients.[2] 

With six grow beds and three fish tanks, the Mississauga Food Bank produces 2,500 servings of tilapia and 28,000 servings of greens each year. And this unique setup is a great example of recycling and water conservation. Wastewater from the fish tanks is processed and used as fertilized water for the plants. In turn, the plants clean and filter the water so it can be pumped back to the fish tanks for a complete cycle. 

Access to fresh eggs is another important part of the food security conversation, with backyard chickens now allowed in several Canadian cities, including Victoria, Edmonton, Kingston, Guelph, and a pilot project in Toronto.[3] Urban backyard chicken coops come with a few rules: homeowners are limited to a few hens that will provide eggs for the household, no roosters allowed, eggs aren’t to be sold, birds aren’t to be raised for meat, and chicken coops of certain specifications are required.[4] 

Want the experience of having backyard chickens, but not quite sure how to get started? Renting a chicken might be the perfect solution for you. A number of companies exist that provide everything you need, including delivery of a coop and cluckers. A typical rental package is six months, after which the hens return to the barn to enjoy a cozy winter. Timberwind Farm in southern Ontario and Rent the Chicken in Ontario and southern B.C. are two rental options. 

Life in a concrete jungle is certainly evolving, with the concept of farm to table radically changing for the better. As urban farming continues to expand, we may see sustainable city neighbourhoods with easy access to vast quantities of fruits, veggies, eggs and more, produced right at home. 

[1] https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/farming-in-the-sky-in-singapore

[2] https://aquagrowfarms.ca

[3] www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2020/ec/bgrd/backgroundfile-158775.pdf 

[4] www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/02/18/backyard-hens-not-the-scourge-some-predicted.html 

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