A revolution you can eat at

By Rob Wipond, September 2011

Your backyard provides hope for the future.

We’re pretty conspicuous when we pull up in a little silver hatchback covered with children’s paintings of carrots, flowers, and slogans like “be cool, grow veggies,” sporting a roof rack piled with enough hay bales to practically tip us over. 

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling we’re sneaking around like criminals. Surely we’re not supposed to be in other people’s backyards when they’re not home. Even if they said we could. 

So it’s a new way of experiencing my city as we pull weeds, lay compost, roll a seeder, and harvest strawberries, nasturtiums and lettuce in yards in Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay.

I’m urban farming with Sol Kinnis, co-owner of City Harvest. It’s part of an international movement in revitalizing food production in cities informed by organic and SPIN (small plot intensive) agricultural methods. Others do similar projects locally, like Donald Street Farms, LifeCycles, and Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers, but with 12 loaned yards City Harvest is the largest, and co-owners Kinnis, Sharon McGeorge, and Heather Parker are the only urban farmers in BC attempting to create a financially viable co-operative company. 

We break for lunch outside Parker’s own home with a half-acre yard hosting planting areas, beehives, toolsheds, greenhouse, and cold storage. Kinnis and Parker’s respective children play nearby, pets romp, volunteers and people working in exchange for room and board come and go, and I feel part of a warmly vibrant extended farm family—on Haultain Street.

Jo-Anne Lee, I’ll soon learn, has similar feelings. This women’s studies professor, who’s loaned City Harvest her Oak Bay yard, waxes on about supporting alternative economies and democratic, co-operative enterprises which provide opportunities for mothers “to have an integrated work-life balance,” but then laughingly concedes her real motives are “less theoretical than that.”

“I had this big yard that was way too much for me to manage,” she says. “Having somebody come in to garden...was just a gift.” Lee loves to turn from her computer and see people bringing her yard to life on a sunny day, then leaving her vegetables. She also enjoys feeling more vitally connected to her community. “It’s kind of neat to think that something grown in your backyard is going to find its way to a local market or restaurant...To be in that cycle, in that network.”

Yes, inside the network, I think, as Victoria’s wet spring tugs at me through the summer weeds I’m pulling. As Vancouver Island’s bee collapse makes the thick honey in City Harvest’s new beehives sweeter still. As our urban jungle springs at me when Kinnis recounts how a racoon broke into her chicken cage. “I was really shocked to see all these headless chickens with no blood. No blood anywhere. And I’ve killed chickens; I know they squirt a lot of blood.” Kinnis subsequently learned racoons often drink the blood and leave chicken carcasses “like vampires.” 

As I turn compost, I feel even more intertwined with roots and branches of our community. City Harvest has drawn in compost from Victoria’s Pedal to Petal, manure from Peninsula horse farms, fruit scraps and coffee grounds from local bistros, grass clippings from landscapers, soy pulp from Esquimalt’s Dayspring Tofu, and leaves from municipal collections. It all turns into food for weekly customers, the Oaklands and Centennial Square markets, and sometimes for Cafe Bliss, Camille’s, Niagara Grocery and other local restaurants and shops.

My reverie breaks. Amidst rich, blackish, finished compost, I’m spotting reds, whites and oranges of imperishably plastic “certified organic” stickers. Neon-light announcements of our society’s absurdist hypocrisies. 

I sift through, picking out stickers. Then I stand holding them helplessly. Where should they go? 

Evidently, I’m also more intimately intertwined with our community conundrums. This is driven home when Kinnis takes me to City Harvest’s newest plot, behind an apartment building. Soil tests showed inexplicably high levels of lead. She’s planted particular leafy greens that will extract the lead from the soil. But now she wonders, should those toxic plants go into the municipal compost, or to the landfill, or somewhere else? We ponder how many other city areas are contaminated, and where all the contaminated plants are going. Is anyone keeping track?

In its second year, City Harvest’s co-owners earn $2/hour for their long days. Nevertheless, Kinnis says, “I love that I’m able to produce something at the end of the day that I know everybody needs.” 

She’s hopeful City Harvest will grow, but worries about our society’s lack of support for labour-intensive agriculture.

“People are concerned that their food prices are too high, but most people spend 30 to 80 percent of their income on their housing,” she observes. 

We dry-washed greens for tomorrow’s market through an outdoor washing machine’s spin cycle. My mind wanders into our community’s likely futures: A post-peak oil, climate chaos? Financial collapse? Same-old, toxically degenerating? Capitalism, socialism, tyranny or anarchy, whatever we’re envisioning, it comes to me, we’re going to need this. We’re almost certainly going to need more local resource recycling, and more land and people engaged in local food production. Organizations like this need to survive, and thrive. For all of us. Urban farming is a revolution at which everyone can dance and, even better, eat.

Later, Lee and I brainstorm how urban farmlands like hers could be protected in perpetuity. A city agricultural land reserve? Legal covenants? Municipal designations like those for heritage homes, giving owners tax breaks for donating their yards as community foodsharing assets?

In the meantime, City Harvest seeks new backyards, customers, and volunteers for everything from skilled labour to occasional weeding and harvesting. Contact Kinnis at 250-382-2124 or www.cityharvestcoop.com. And you can buy their produce at the Sunday Market in Centennial Square, 11 am–4 pm until September 25.

Rob Wipond discloses that he received some free lettuce and tomatoes while working on this article.