Farmers on 57th is one farm that has been providing Vancouver residents with food for the past twelve years. This non-profit organization runs several programs for residents of George Pearson Centre and other community members. Karen Ageson, Market Garden Manager & Lead Vegetable CSA Farmer at Farmers on 57th, is passionate about urban agriculture and hopes more city-dwellers will learn about where their food comes from. Ageson says, “we do this because we think it’s important for people to have a connection with their food, and to challenge the notion that farming is just rural work.”
There are numerous benefits to farming in the city. Access to hyper-local food shortens food miles between the farmer and the consumer. Farming utilizes many spaces in cities that would otherwise be left vacant such as lawns, long-term developmental property, rooftops, alleyways, and more. These spaces are transformed into slices of biodiversity and green space within the cityscape. Not only do they contribute to the aesthetic of a city, but they also invite insect wildlife to thrive. By providing space for flowering plants to grow, pollinator activity is increased. Farmers on 57th, for example, grow a great variety of flowers for their weekly flower CSA. Pollinators thrive on this one-acre space that has flowers, fruits, and vegetables that offer food for insects throughout the season. These spaces also provide beneficial insects spaces to nest in the winter months, an important aspect of keeping insect populations high.
The added green space brings life to a city and can improve the mental health and wellbeing of community members, especially with the option of visiting and volunteering in the space. Farmers on 57th offer local food education to their surrounding community by inviting CSA and community members to visit the farm and ask questions. Ageson says, “with the surge in interest for local food we have been able to attract more CSA members that are willing to come to the farm for pick-up.” CSA programs create long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between growers and eaters. “I believe the CSA model is a step towards decommodifying food. They get people away from the nickel-and-diming when buying vegetables,” says Ageson. The proximity to their local market is an added benefit for the farmer because it eliminates the step of delivering food items far distances.
Farmers on 57th is an agricultural hub where people learn growing skills and are inspired to start growing themselves. Experienced gardeners improve their growing skills and some include food for the first time into their front or backyard. They host an annual Grow Your Food Course and 30 community and instructional garden plots spawning at least four new workplace and community gardens (that are known), and many home gardens. Farmers on 57th also provides training grounds for urbanites interested in agricultural careers. Seven alumni of their urban farming learning program have gone on to work at or establish new farms in BC and Washington State.
Agriculture is important and rewarding work, but not without its challenges. Urban farming presents its own, unique set of hurdles. Available and permanent space is a key issue for many urban farmers. The space that Farmers on 57th use to grow food and flowers is destined for future development; they have already moved once and re-location of the farm is on Ageson’s mind as they make farm plans. Relationship building with a new institutional landowner, the physical characteristics of a new site including soil and space, and the time, energy, and financial resources to establish and sustain a new farm are top of mind. Relocation takes up a lot of resources. The original site continues to be in operation while they plan for the relocation of the farm, essentially doubling the operational resources needed for the year. Ageson says, “the operational challenge of navigating the development process, fundraising, designing, and building a new farm, while operating the existing one is stressful and a lot for a small non-profit organization to carry. But, that’s where community support comes in.”
Like all farmers, urban growers have their fair share of pests to deal with. “We mostly take our losses but we do make crop selection choices based on pests.” Limited space is another challenge for urban farmers. They utilize every bit of space they can to produce food. For example, Farmers on 57th have fruit trees intertwined with garden plots and a greenhouse in the middle of their vegetable patch.
The support of the community is integral to the success of Farmers on 57th, especially as a non-profit farm. Apart from two paid staff, “our crew and the success of the farm is built on a core group of perennial volunteers. They want this to succeed, this is their project.” Each community member contributes their knowledge and experience to the farm. Ageson explains how one volunteer’s dedication has been essential to the success of their squash. “Every year she finds little volunteer calendula, nasturtium, borage, sunflowers, [and other flowers] and plants them amongst the vegetables. In the past, we’ve had pollination issues with our squash and that has resolved itself now that she’s started these plantings everywhere,” says Ageson. Weeds remain relatively low on the farm with all of the helping hands they have. This keeps the vegetables happy and the space more beautiful for neighbours to look at.
Urban agriculture contributes to the health and wellbeing of communities. With benefits such as reducing food miles and increasing biodiversity, growing hyperlocal produce strengthens local food security and connects urbanites to their food. Ageson says, “urban farms work to inspire their neighbours to start growing themselves wherever and however they can. So beyond buying the food, we’re asking people to deepen their relationships with the land on which we live, the living systems that support us, and the people we live in community with.”
There are plenty of opportunities to support urban farming, starting with buying from your neighbourhood producers. Check out other urban farms in Vancouver: Sole Food Street Farms, Inner City Farms, City Beet Farm, Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, City Farmer and UBC Farm.