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Connecting with Food: Urban farms bridge gaps

By Marina Gibson

Take a deep breath. Don’t rush.

Marina Gibson at TEDx Chilliwack, 2017
Marina Gibson at TEDx Chilliwack, 2017

What I really love about farming is being outdoors, with the soil, the seeds and the plants. In this moment, I’m indoors in a darkened theatre, about to walk onstage. Looking out at the sea of faces, I wonder how I got here at this TEDx Chilliwack event, hoping the audience will understand why local food is important.

As a kid, my inside voice (and if I’m honest, my outside voice too) would be known to whine ‘do I have to?’ whenever my mom called me outside to help in the garden. My plan was to become a veterinarian since I loved horses—not weed lettuce beds and pumpkin patches! And yet, here I am—a rising BC agriculture statistic: female, urban farmer, direct marketer.

It began two and a half years ago when I became inspired through social media (so many clichés!) with the notion that while there are many groups and organizations that do good by handing out free food to the disadvantaged, perhaps there is an alternate model? Perhaps there an opportunity to connect people with nature and their food source, while they work through their individual circumstances and develop needed skills.

In the heart of ‘the City in the Country’ I partnered with Abbotsford Community Services which owns the land, and we transformed a bare gravel lot into an urban farm producing locally grown fruit and vegetables. Simply put, Urban Agriculture is the art of using small spaces in the heart of cities for growing food.  In some cases, like mine, the farmer uses a vacant lot. In other setups, the farmer will convert lawns from people’s yards. In Montreal, one group is building greenhouses on top of warehouse spaces to cultivate produce in the city.

Growing produce in the heart of a city doesn’t just bring fresh food directly to the consumers, it also has an environmental impact: urban farming reclaims spaces in cities, greening them and creating mini zones where carbon dioxide gets pulled out of the atmosphere by the plants to reduce greenhouse gases; bees and pollinators suffer from lack of food in cities, but urban farms give them a place to fuel up free from the effects of pesticides and chemicals; one of the best renewable resources found around an urban farm is roof runoff from rainy days—with storage and a gravity feed system, it’s possible to reduce municipal water consumption.

At the 2015 World Expo in Italy, cities from all around the world signed a pact pledging to coordinate urban food policies and strategies. Urban Agriculture is a movement that is, literally, gaining ground. One of the main forces driving this trend at the government level is that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that global food supply needs to increase by 70% just to meet population demand in the next 30 years.

One urban farm producing lettuce and kale won’t be able to feed the world—we do need intensive agriculture for that. What is clear, however, is that local food from an urban farm is important because it helps consumers feel connected to agriculture again.

I was asked during my preparations for the TEDx event if it’s hard getting the public in the Fraser Valley interested in urban agriculture. The answer is, not at all—I am finding that people are very excited and enthusiastic!

I step off the stage after the end of my talk. I can breathe, and I didn’t rush. People from the audience come find me and tell me they want to buy local and support the farmers in their area. Once again, my experience is that urban farming acts as a stepping stone for consumers, and offers a different look for agriculture. It makes me hopeful that urban farming can bridge separation between the farmers in the rural areas and the consumers in the cities. When that connection is solid, the future of our food supply is strengthened. I walk away, eager to head outdoors again and get back to the soil, the seeds and the plants.

[infobox title=’Marina Gibson’]Marina GibsonMarina has a countrified heart despite always having lived in cities. She spent several years as a Professional Agrologist working on the environmental aspects of BC Agriculture. With her children now grown, Marina has time to combine her enthusiasm for the outdoors with the challenge of starting a social enterprise business. Contact Marina at[/infobox]

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