here’s no denying that our world is becoming more urbanized. Cities and towns, big and small, continue to grow, making the inevitable result a loss of farmland and natural spaces. This reality coupled with the fragility of our food supply chain has brought the conversation about local food to the forefront of many conversations. So what’s the solution?
I virtually connected with three farmers to hear their take on the future of agriculture in our rapidly urbanizing world.
Arzeena Hamir of Amara Farm in Comox Valley, B.C. was quick to apologize for the background noise as she multitasked getting their farmstand ready for the day’s pickups during our chat. Despite not having a background in farming, Hamir has a rich background in local food systems. Her career in agriculture blossomed from the desire to give back to her community.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree from the University of Guelph in Tropical Agriculture, she and her husband Neil set out to volunteer and do research all over the world. Something they never envisioned was becoming farmers, but upon returning to Canada in the late ‘90s, Hamir began working for West Coast Seeds, a B.C. based seed supplier, as a staff agrologist supporting and educating gardeners. From there, she transitioned into the role of Food Security Coordinator at the City of Richmond where she managed community gardens and hosted workshops that taught people how to grow, process, and preserve food coming out of their own gardens.
It was during this time, just after the 2008 financial crisis, that she connected with other like-minded folks who came together to grow food in an effort to increase the availability of local options within their community.
Hamir learned how to grow local food using the Small Plot Intensive system known as SPIN-farming; a method that was developed for urban farmers to maximize potential for urban agriculture to grow food in a high-yield and financially viable way.
After three years of growing in urban Richmond, B.C., she and Neil took the plunge and purchased their first farm—Amara Farms—on Vancouver Island in 2011.
I asked Hamir if she has a vision for how farming can become a pillar of urban communities instead of a far-off system that perpetuates disconnection from food sources. “You’re speaking my language,” she says. Her passion for urban farming runs deep. She’s seen first hand how positively it can impact individuals and entire communities.
One of her main growing sites in Richmond, a quarter acre in the city owned by an elderly woman whose late husband had been an avid gardener, came to fruition once the yard work became too much to keep up with on her own. Overgrown with weeds, Hamir knew that with some love the rehabilitation and maintenance of this space could not only yield successful harvests of local food, but it could also create a sense of community and an element of safety for the vulnerable property owner. It is the feeling of bringing people together and growing their understanding of the value of local food that’s most important to her.
Community is a common thread that weaves its way throughout conversations about local food in all of my talks with the farmers.
Liz Beasley and Matt Rock, two young farmers and the founders of Joyfully Organic Farm in Stouffville, Ontario, put community at the heart of everything they do. Having a personal connection with them is part of their Community Supported Agriculture Farmshare Membership.
Manning their stand at local farmers’ markets and CSA pickup hubs themselves like so many farmers do has allowed them the opportunity to meet the people eating their food every week, and create connections that you just can’t get at the grocery store. They also host farm tours and an annual potluck in the field for their farmshare members.
Fostering connections to the farmers, and to the land that their community’s food is coming from has led to lasting relationships, dedicated local eaters and a growing community of people who are coming to understand the importance of local food.
Hamir reflects back to the start of the pandemic when people began to experience first hand the fragility of our food supply chain. She tells me that during the pandemic, she saw more support from politicians on important changes and urban agriculture bylaws than previously.
“People are ready to see food grown in their city and it’s an encouraging sign for the future of urban agriculture”.
[During the pandemic] Hamir was unsure if people would continue to visit the farmers’ market, so she and her husband started their own farmstand and CSA. With supply chain issues in mind, they began growing more robust foods like squash, onions, and root vegetables that will overwinter, and heartier greens such as collards and kale instead of lettuce and salad greens. The forethought and ability to quickly adapt to a community’s needs is something unique to local systems.
Backyard and balcony gardening is another element of urban food production that has seen a resurgence. Hamir had so many people asking for gardening advice at the beginning of the pandemic that she decided to start a Facebook Group called Grow Food Everywhere Comox Valley. In the first week, over 200 people joined and now the group has more than 2,700 members. It’s a friendly place for those new to gardening to ask any questions they might have. In the beginning stages she was answering most of the questions herself. Now a community space, she’s encouraged others to give their advice to other members of the group.
Home gardening in urban settings is something that Melissa Cameron, founder of The Good Seed based in Toronto, Ontario, is just as passionate about. Cameron is particularly encouraged by the movement away from growing lawns and towards growing food and important pollinator plants instead of grass. Her mission is to connect urban dwellers with their home gardens and outdoor spaces to help them appreciate what goes into growing food.
“By having micro urban farms, we’re returning our gardens to productive spaces and, little by little, decreasing our reliance on imported food,” she says.
The surge of interest in gardening led her to collaborate with Luay Ghafari of Urban Farm and Kitchen, a lifestyle blog for home gardeners and cooks, to create A Year in the Urban Garden, a master class for those completely new to gardening who are keen to learn how to do it themselves.
Whether it’s shopping at the local farmers’ market, registering for a local CSA box, or growing your own veggies at home, these actions are meaningful contributions to a future full of delicious local food.
In a world where our reliance on international food supply chains is tenuous and environmentally detrimental and our need for true community is greater than ever, local food systems present a solution that has always been right in front of us: a system that was the norm only a couple of generations ago. As the emphasis on local food continues to grow, so too does the opportunity to connect more meaningfully with our food, our farmers, and each other.