Nov 13 2013

Lawns that Feed

Picture a neighborhood – not an area of urban density, but a typical block of single family homes. The structure of the homes may differ, with every era lending its own architectural influence (or, in some cases, its own blend of bad renovations). But for all the stylistic variance in the homes themselves, there’s one constant: front yards of green grass. Some may be dotted with a shade tree; others may brown in the summer when an owner forgets to water, or brighten in the spring with blooming flowers. But the general structure of the lawns - flat, green, and grassy - will be rubber stamped across any number of neighborhoods, regardless of wealth or region. Whether in May or October, suburban Ohio or parts of inner Portland, mowed monocrops stand unchanged by seasons, operating in isolation from or even aggression towards their surrounding vegetation and animals.

But in cities across the world, from Detroit to Vancouver, among the rows of manicured lawns that are forced into green uniformity by fertilizer, water, and pesticides, some front yards are entirely grass free, the green expanse replaced with raised beds or in-ground gardens growing an abundance of food. Most of these gardens are the result of individual action, whether from long-time hobby gardeners, or from those new to growing food at home, perhaps trained by organizations like Victory Gardens. But in Vancouver, BC, these gardens could also be the result of an innovative urban agricultural business named Inner City Farms. Inner City Farms transforms yards and lawns into miniature farms, generating food that is sold to local restaurants and distributed to CSA members. For their customers, lawn maintenance morphs from a much-groaned-about chore (“Who’s going to mow TODAY?”) to a productive, innovative, and communally-beneficial task.

“There’s a tension between the traditional aesthetic of the front lawn and the urban farm vibe and look,” Camil Dumont of Inner City Farms remarked as we sipped coffee at Vancouver’s Matchstick Coffee. While a standard front lawn calls to mind images of manicured, uniform green grass, nary an encroaching weed in sight, an urban farm “vibe” is decidedly more chaotic, colorful, and ever-changing: a plot that holds spring lettuce shoots might morph into a sunflower patch before withering away as winter kale and brassicas take root in the neighboring bed.

Dumont understands this tension better than the average person: as one of the founders of Inner City Farms, he spends his days converting front yards, side yards, and back yards into gardens full of edible produce. In 2009, Dumont and four friends created Inner City Farms as a personal experiment. For years, many of Dumont’s friends’ get-togethers involved bonding over food, cooking, and developing interesting flavors. Yet because they didn’t have any physical space to grow food, they shared a frustration over having “no connection to what was on our dinner plates,” Dumont told me. One of the friends suggested growing food on other people’s land, trading food in exchange for the landowners’ space. As Dumont explains it “We wanted to grow our own food and we found a way to sneak into some land. The next thing you know, we were gardeners.”

In 2009, Dumont and his friends started gardening six fairly small plots loaned to them by friends and word-of-mouth connections. “Quite quickly we realized we were able to grow a lot more food than we could even consume ourselves,” Dumont shared, which is when these front yards loaned for personal consumption transformed into a potential business. With the excess food, and the injection of a few larger plots of land, they began harvesting food for CSA shares, starting with nine shares and ending their first season with fifteen members.

The Inner City farmers’ initial impulse has proven to be far more fruitful than they expected; by the time I met Dumont this October, Inner City Farms had progressed from that initial CSA share into an incorporated business, with Dumont paid to garden and harvest for five months out of the year. Inner City has maintained the structure of exchanging land for food. Landowners who provide 1,000 square feet receive a full CSA share; for smaller yards, Inner City Farms prorates the landowners’ shares accordingly. Four seasons in, the organization grows food for 54 CSA members (including the land providers) and six restaurants on 22 plots scattered across Vancouver.

The key to Inner City’s success is diversity, a concept that stands in direct contrast to front lawns full of grass.

It’s estimated that close to three million tons of fossil-fuel-based fertilizer and thirty thousand tons of pesticides and herbicides are applied each year to keep American lawns green. The idea of a manicured front lawn is a relatively new phenomenon, starting in Britain and finding its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Canada around the time of the Industrial Revolution. After plant geneticists developed the appropriate grass seed, these new lawns were cut via scythe. By 1885, America was building fifty thousand lawnmowers a year and shipping them across the world, and the American Garden Club was promoting the idea of lawns planted “with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds.”

Inner City Farms challenges the traditional lawn monocrop by cultivating diversity in ways that extend beyond the food they grow. First, the obvious: the plot sizes. Each yard is its own entity, unique in its shape, location, limitations, and benefits. The yards they farm are as large as 2,000 square feet and as small as 250 square feet. Dumont estimates that he farms between half and three-quarters of an acre combined, on which he and eight interns plant a succession of crops according to the each lot’s position and space. On smaller lots of land, Dumont tends to focus on lower maintenance plants like potatoes and squash, which helps alleviate the weekly challenge in his job of visiting all of the different urban farms in “a way that’s reasonable”.

After we drained our coffee at Matchstick (which happens to be one of the six restaurants that buys Inner City’s vegetables and greens), I hopped into Dumont’s truck to tag along as he visited five of Inner City’s plots to weed and harvest orders for a few other restaurant accounts. As we drove around neighborhoods on the city’s east side, some already casually familiar to me, others brand new, I saw a unification of gardens across a diverse subset of Vancouver neighborhoods. One of the plots was in a neighborhood with smaller homes, the garden just big enough to hold radishes and greens. Another of the gardens was tucked behind a wrought iron fence, the entire yard full of edibles. The most impressive garden stood on a corner lot in a well-maintained and (according to Dumont) diverse neighborhood. The garden literally wrapped its way around the house, with chard, carrots, beans, and lettuces taking over every square inch. Despite its density, Dumont had laid out the garden in a visually appealing way, especially with the vegetables growing in juxtaposition with the autumn colors and clear blue sky.

“The land hosts are very diverse,” Dumont reflected between visiting lots. “They’re mostly landowners – which is a small percentage of Vancouverites – but the reasons for hosting us and who these people are is super variant.” The most exciting, and perhaps unexpected, development over the past four years has been how a garden in a neighborhood can serve as an inspiration for other homes to follow suit. “When we’re in a neighborhood for a year and have a whole growing season, we get approached by other people in that neighborhood. We’re starting to see these little clumps of farms forming,” Dumont happily told me.

And on these “clumps of farms”, Inner City experiments with heirloom and open-pollinated varieties of vegetables. Dumont was especially enthused as he harvested french round carrots. These carrots were grown as an experiment, and he was practically giddy as he rinsed and arranged the carrots with other root vegetables for an “Instagram fashion show”. Inner City Farms grows a plethora of Chinese vegetables including gai lan and bok choy, which in addition to excelling in the Pacific Northwest climate, have opened up conversations with cultures Dumont might rarely interact with. As he tends to one highly visible garden, Dumont frequently has Chinese neighbors of various generations stop, smile, or giggle to each other – there’s something about the idea of a hockey-playing Canadian tenderly caring for Chinese vegetables that can’t help but generate a chuckle.

Inner City Farms isn’t the only player in Vancouver’s urban agriculture sphere. As I explored the city in the two days before I met with Dumont, I saw several large scale urban gardening operations, including an acre of movable raised beds situated across from Rogers Arena, home to Vancouver’s beloved Canucks. Dumont told me that these gardens are part of an operation called Sole Food, a non-profit born from United We Can with a social mandate to hire marginalized populations (those with health or addiction issues) to work on the farms. The gardening boxes are built on movable pallets, which allow them to be easily relocated to other swaths of land slated for development. Beyond the positive effects of Sole Food’s work, developers are incentivized by a healthy dose of tax deductions.

Because Inner City Farms grows food for commercial purposes on residential land, they’ve faced a steep learning curve in understanding and navigating Vancouver’s regulations, a challenge made worse by the fact that Inner City was incarnated in 2009, when urban farming “[wasn’t] even on the city’s radar”, Dumont commented. Shortly after its founding, Inner City joined the Vancouver Urban Farming Society, which allowed them to merge their voice with other urban farmers to advocate for policy change. Their collective bargaining hasn’t been for naught. As the number of urban farmers swelled, the city of Vancouver has joined in the conversation about food security, access, and the environment, developing a plan to make Vancouver the world’s “greenest city” by 2020 – a plan that urban farming “seems to fit snugly into,” Dumont remarked.

Inner City Farm’s diversity extends beyond its plots and members to the founders themselves. Dumont told me that because of their wide range of personalities and skills, the founders approach aspects of the business differently, while maintaing their strong friendships. “Its funny,” Dumont shared. “We’re really good friends, we were friends first, and we’ve often talked about how we could have started an auto-body shop and figured it out too.” Dumont is a masters student at The University of British Columbia studying Land and Food Systems, with a focus on creating a record of food activism in the 1970s and drawing comparisons to modern day food activism. Another co-founder, Will Valley, is both a faculty member of UBC’s Land and Food Systems program and a PhD student in the same department, which makes his theory and food system knowledge inordinately insightful. The other co-founders, Andrew Fleming, Peter Salvador, and Chris Mills, work respectively as a gardener for the city of Vancouver, a manager at a natural health products company, and as a construction manager, each lending their expertise in vital ways.

Diversity, even in farming, has its challenges. Inner City Farms’ gardens are dynamic, ever-changing creations that produce benefits a tidy patch of grass simply can’t. The cyclical nature of curb-side agriculture invites passers-by and homeowners alike to cultivate an awareness of seasonality. But that doesn’t mean that the gardens are always pretty. “There are times of the year when it doesn’t look great; there are times when it looks amazing,” Dumont observed. “That’s the cyclical nature of it. Some people know that going in; some learn that as it happens.”

It’s an education that extends beyond the landowners to anyone passing by, a community reminder of the challenges and benefits of local food and seasonality. And in a city where space comes at a premium, Inner City Farms shows how much can be done with so little. These gardens may not maintain the perfect aesthetics imagined by the garden clubs of the 19th century. But their value goes beyond aesthetics, and even beyond food, as they contribute to a local ecosystem of home cooks and restaurants while bringing disconnected communities together. And as Inner City Farms’ collection of gardens grow, they form an ever-more impressive testament to a new idea: that privately owned space can benefit not just an individual, but can be a productive contribution to an entire community.