Digging the City

By Amy Reiswig, June 2013

Growing food locally is a political act of community preservation.

Summer is a-comin’ and those not worshipping the sun at the beach might be found, as Victoria poet and food writer Rhona McAdam says, on their knees in their yards, doing their part to earn Victoria its reputation as the City of Gardens. But what kinds of gardens? Consider the aggregate acres of lawns, hedges and ornamental flowers; then consider that Vancouver Island only grows about five percent of its own food. Something has grown terribly wrong. 

“But what can I do?” It’s a thought said often to one another and to ourselves in the face of Big Concerns demanding attention. Climate change, pollution, poverty and human rights, to name just a few, compete with issues like food security for the limited emotional energy and time we have for learning how to make a difference, whether in the wider world or our own communities. 

One publisher working to inform us into action is Rocky Mountain Books, recently relocated to Victoria from Calgary. Their non-fiction series RMB Manifestos, billed as “books to change the world,” takes a stand on topics from the global war for oil to First Nations water rights, grizzly bears to bark beetles, honeybees to hyperdevelopment. And McAdam, with her recent book Digging the City: An Urban Agriculture Manifesto (RMB, October 2012), is one of their authors speaking up in answer to “what can I do?” Blending personal reflection and practical advice, Digging the City tackles food security and the role urbanites like us in Victoria can play in solving the problems.

McAdam, with five poetry collections and two chapbooks on her writing record, has so far been sharing ideas about food in publications like Small Farm Canada, Food in Canada, Edible Vancouver and EAT Magazine. She has a Master’s Degree in Food Culture and Communication from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy (the academic branch of the Slow Food movement), along with graduate degrees in library science and communication planning. 

“I’ve never been a political advocate,” McAdam admits in her sunny living room overlooking the Gorge. “I’ve been a shy and retiring individual—that’s why I write poetry,” she laughs. But after her post-Italy food cultureshock, and then teaching an online course in urban agriculture and food security for St Lawrence College, McAdam realized something: “The people I stand behind in the supermarket don’t know this stuff,” she tells me earnestly. “I owe it to them to share what I know.”

And some of what she knows ain’t pretty. The demand for year-round cheap imported groceries buys us the risk of transportation disruption and ever-escalating fuel costs (and eventual fuel shortage). The lack of local food production means we feed our families and ourselves according to what big agribusiness chooses for us. Therein lies McAdam’s tale of a dysfunctional, profit-based food system depriving us of control and, most importantly, of quality food and the knowledge-base to produce it –or even to understand it critically. For example, McAdam writes: “Most people don’t realize how much of the conventional produce we buy from supermarkets was grown in sewage sludge”—sludge, she notes, that “combines industrial with bodily waste and excreted pharmaceuticals…the product is potentially toxic, laced with heavy metals and chemical fire retardants even after treatment or large-scale composting.” 

I didn’t know. Neither did I know about multiple problems with, for example, different kinds of greenhouses, from the toxicity of hydroponic growing mediums to mountains of plastic sheeting. “A study of agricultural plastics in Saskatchewan found the province used 239,967 square metres of greenhouse plastic, enough to cover nearly 30 Canadian football fields,” we learn, and it gets replaced after only a few years. Recycled? Landfill? It’s a lot of plastic, and from just one province. Nor did I consider that much-touted farmers’ markets, responsible nationally for $3.09 billion of economic impact (2008), might be an option for affluent locavores, but, as McAdam writes, “fall short in serving the lower-income households that could most benefit from access to reasonably-priced fresh produce.” 

So we land back in the stony field of “what can I do?” when even some seemingly beneficial approaches present their own problems. “It is overwhelming and can be frightening when you read too much,” McAdam concedes. But small steps matter, and she says simply that we need to scale back our thinking from the overwhelming “what can I do?” to the more specific and reasonable “what can I do in the time and sphere I can manage?”

Thus, this compact volume offers a harvest of ideas for would-be urban gardeners to choose from to meet different needs, timeframes, and budgets. Readers learn about chicken- and bee-keeping, community gardens, container gardens, rooftop food gardens. There’s information on farmers’ markets, farm stands, backyard-sharing databases, school gardens, small plot intensive farming, permaculture, organic food co-ops and subscription programs. For the more ambitiously self-reliant, there are sections on grey water capture, composting toilets, food preservation, even raising tilapia and freshwater prawns in urban aquaculture systems. Not all are for everyone, but all are options that can help us become more food secure.

And she points to bigger goings-on at various levels that are, like the slender asparagus spears poking hopefully from a half-barrel in McAdam’s backyard, growing up all over the world. Throughout, we read about organizations and projects making a difference, including Victoria’s own LifeCycles, Haliburton Community Organic Farm, the Compost Education Centre, Feasting for Change initiative, FoodRoots and Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers (GTUF). “There are a lot of good leaders out there, and their optimism has to sustain us,” she tells me.

Making that human connection is also key. “The most important crop we can harvest from urban agriculture is community,” McAdam writes. “For without a sense of connection to our neighbours and the land we share, there can be no food security.” 

So, while on your knees in the garden, consider what you are sowing and reaping not just for yourself but for the community and for what our City of Gardens could potentially become.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig has enjoyed growing veggies on her balcony but hopes she can overcome last year’s strange reluctance to cut up the zucchini she raised, almost like a pet, from a tiny seed.