Illustration by Pop Winson
On a bitterly cold November evening in 2010, the temperature inside Edmonton City Hall was rising. The gallery and upper deck were full, and staff scrambled to set up closed-circuit television in the overflow rooms so that all 600 people who showed up to lobby for a city food policy could hear what then-mayor Stephen Mandel had to say. Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan, or MDP, approved on May 26 of the same year, laid out strategies and set goals for how we will use our land, integrate new transit systems, and protect our water sources and ecosystems over the next 30 years, among other things. But there was not a word printed about urban agriculture sustainability or food security.
“There was a feeling of, ‘We are not going to let this one go,'” says food and culture writer Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. “For many of us at City Hall that night, food was our introduction to civic politics.” For the city councillors, forming a committee to build a city-wide food policy was new territory, too.
The resulting policy, entitled Fresh, came about in October 2012, and since then has begun a transformation of our urban agriculture scene in Edmonton. Or has it? What has Fresh really accomplished since its inception? What has it done for Edmontonians who value food security?
High school teacher, permaculture expert and Edmonton Food Council member Dustin Bajer says not a lot of cities have a document like Fresh: “Edmonton should be commended for being ahead of the game.”
One of the goals of Fresh was to establish a food council that would advise City officials as they implemented the policy. Fresh also initiated renewed lobbying efforts for beekeeping and raising backyard hens.
The Edmonton Food Council, now in its second year, is made up of a group of foodies, growers and producers, urban agriculture innovators, restaurateurs and educators. They act as liaisons between the public and City administration to mobilize bylaw and policy changes. “If there is a vacant lot in your neighbourhood and you want to grow vegetables on it and sell them, there is nothing to say you can or cannot do that right now,” says Bajer.
In late summer 2014, Michael Hamilton started a beekeeping pilot project in his backyard in the Capilano area. This spring, Hamilton will add protein to his hive in the form of a protein patty, replenish its honey supply and maybe replace the queen that is now a few years old. He is confident the pilot has been a way to understand how the City is going to accommodate beekeeping, rather than whether or not it is going to. “There are 100 hives in the city right now, and if things remain underground, it’s harder to manage, mentor and give people support in these projects. People will still have bees and chickens, but the community around it won’t be strong.” A hen pilot project will be complete at the end of summer 2015. If all goes well, Edmontonians will see regulations in place by summer for bees and by the end of 2015 for hens.
Since Fresh, and in the five years prior, there has been a surge in Edmonton’s food activities. At the height of our growing season, Edmonton has over 80 community gardens in bloom. An increase in farmers’ markets and vendors, school programs – such as aquaponics design at Jasper Place High School under Bajer – and anecdotal evidence of incremental growth in programs like Little Green Thumbs and Yard Share are only a few of the examples. But Fresh is still not mandated.
Cockrall-King worries that Fresh doesn’t have enough teeth to balance the profit motives for a city that’s always hungry for land. “When you drive south between South Edmonton Common and the International Airport, single-family units still seem to be the predominant vision,” she remarks.
Janelle Herbert, the third-generation owner and operator of Riverbend Gardens, a 120-acre market garden farm in the city’s northeast, worries that Fresh was done simply to “tick the box to appease the public.” Herbert gets all kinds of answers when she asks about a proposed interchange over Highway 21 that could wipe out three-quarters of her farm when the Horse Hill development grows. She believes some goodwill comes out of the food policy, but says its intentions were never to change the land-development process in any way. She wants to see an area structure plan for Horse Hill that includes some protection for her farm. “Why are agricultural zones not included in residential development plans the same way commercial and industrial zones are?”
The conversation around land use remains contentious. There are landowners who want protection, and then there are those who have waited years for the city boundary to reach them so they can cash out. Jodie Wacko with Beaverbrook, an Alberta land developer, concedes, “Most farmers are very protective of their land.” He grew up on a farm and still has farmland in the family. “Farmers work their whole lives to build up the equity in their land. No one forces them to sell; it’s an individual’s choice.”
Edmonton is a city with a notable agricultural history. Today, Northlands’ legacy continues in educational agriculture programming, playing host to events like the FarmTech Conference and the Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR), and allotting one acre of its land to an urban farm called Lactuca.
Business partners Kevin Kossowan and Travis Kennedy grow a diverse offering of mixed heirloom and hybrid fruit and vegetable crops, with a specialization in salad green production, in an urban garden at 112th Avenue and 79th Street. Their produce goes to some of Edmonton’s finest restaurants. But there was a time between the 1950s and the 1980s when Edmontonians chose conformity over gardening; trimming ornamental hedges and keeping pristine yards with bright green, manicured lawns pushed out potato harvests. “There was a social perception that having a garden meant you couldn’t afford to go to the grocery store,” says Cockrall-King. “It somehow lowered your economic status.”
Establishing a sustainable local-food system is about more than what lies at the bottom of our grocery bags. “We are reclaiming our agricultural past and becoming more connected with our food and moving away from some of the large-scale commercial agriculture that we are so dependent on,” says Hamilton.
Whatever the reason to participate in our current food movement – whether that is building social equity, educating future generations or just believing in a tastier carrot – keeping urban agriculture sustainable is a fragile business, especially when a city is growing. In the last two years alone, 60,000 people have moved to the Capital Region, many of whom come looking for affordable ground-oriented dwellings, says Wacko. “Edmonton is unique in that it has multiple nodes of employment outside the downtown core, including the industrial heartland and Nisku, and it makes sense that people want to work close to where they live.”
In 2012, Edmonton’s population density was 1,168 people per square kilometre, compared to Winnipeg’s 1,428 and Vancouver’s 5,243. There are approximately 26 current area structure plans that stud Edmonton’s perimeter. With no obstacles to lock Edmonton in, the annexation of land – including the most recent 12,000-hectare Edmonton International Airport proposal – continues.
“Fresh has been successful in building awareness of the food movement, but I worry that the smaller initiatives are ignoring the fact that we are still selling off tremendous amounts of quality farm land for development,” says Cockrall-King. “We need to ask, ‘Are we being placated with bee and hen pilots while it’s business as usual?'”
Edmontonians increasingly want to be close to what we consume; how our food is bred or grown has become a personal matter. But we are still in the infancy of our food movement, and though Fresh is far from flawless, it is accurate in one significant way: Its success will depend on whether or not it manages to engage Edmontonians. Bajer assures: “If the public is calling for changes in urban agriculture – if that is what the people want – the developers will follow.”