Backyard farming fight has high stakes countrywide
By Derek Spalding, Daily news November 25, 2010 The shutdown of a rural farm on residential property in Lantzville has sent ripples through the urban farming network across the country.
Bylaw officers ordered Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw to stop growing food on their Fernmar Road farm because it violated home-business regulations that do not include agriculture. Lantzville politicians say they want to grant Becker and Shaw a temporary-use permit while they consult the community about zoning regulations and urban farming.
Local food production advocates from across Canada will be watching this saga play out as it could set a precedent for the sustainability movement that has taken hold in communities in nearly every province. Health experts say there is little to no risk involved with growing food in backyards for public consumption, but many municipal bylaws do not include agriculture in residential zoning. As more people grow food close to home, there may be a need to change the outdated regulations, say leaders in the urban farming community.
"Our values have to be decided by the public. If the people of Vancouver Island want to cover our land with golf courses, then that's what we'll do, but if the people of Vancouver Island want to grow local food, then the politicians must follow and lead," Becker said earlier this week.
The backyard gardening movement has gained momentum in recent years and Lantzville could find itself the centre of attention as this issue gets resolved, say some of the key figures involved in the food security movement.
As more people turn to growing food in their yards, some are going to be able to focus on one crop and share with others, either through trade or sales. Given the problem in Lantzville, urban farming leaders have gone to check their own bylaws and want to see favourable results north of Nanaimo.
Agrologist Arzeena Hamir threw her support behind Becker. As a board of directors member for B.C. Food Systems Network and coordinator of the Richmond Food Security Society, Hamir staunchly advocates for local food production. She grows produce in three backyards in her city and she recently checked to ensure bylaws allowed her to grow on urban lots.
"We'd love to see more communities proactively change their bylaws and not wait for someone like Dirk to have to take a cease and desist order," she said. "It certainly has opened up a lot of people's eyes because this is a problem throughout B.C. and the rest of Canada. Bylaws were constructed when agriculture had its place and urban had its place and never the two should meet."
Jack Anderson has been watching the Becker situation closely. The sustainability planner and green building designer said Becker and Shaw should be praised for their efforts to illustrate just how much of an impact people can have if they take local food production seriously.
"Lantzville should realize that they are setting up a precedent by having to deal with residential property and this will be watched by many communities across the country," he said.
There needs to be a paradigm shift when it comes to food sources for people living on Vancouver Island, according to Anderson.
Growing up on the Island, he remembers a time when the majority of the produce consumed here was grown here. Just about 5% of the Island's food is grown here because of mass harvesting in California, where farmers were able to grow food at a much cheaper rate than local farmers on the Island could.
Rising transportation costs, however, could change food prices in the near future, which is an indication to Anderson that governments need to support local food production.
"We're going to find that the food on Vancouver Island is going to be much more expensive than it ever has been in the past," he said. "We need to update our bylaws to represent the challenges that are forthcoming for our society. In my mind, people like Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw should be honoured for showing us what they can do on their own property."
Vancouver Island in particular has only a day or two of food supply at any given time. Should transportation be shut down for any reason, such as a natural disaster, people here would be in a struggle to survive, Hamir said.
Critics of the backyard food movement demand regulations, but low-risk produce should not be considered a threat to people's health, according to a senior environmental health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Doug Glenn said, in general, "most of the stuff at farmers' markets has been deemed a low hazard food. If people wash and cook their foods, there is little chance for bacterial infections."
Nanaimo's business and zoning bylaws do not allow for commercial food production on urban lots, but that could change with zoning regulations are under review. Agriculture and local food production became a high priority when the city updated its official community plan two years ago.
Social values have changed and more people are pushing for the ability grow food in their backyards. Residents cannot sell retail out of their homes, for any home business, but anyone growing food in Nanaimo can ship the produce to farmers' markets. The only hurdle is to ensure the right zoning is in place to allow for commercial agriculture.
City staff members are currently upgrading its zoning bylaws and are looking for feedback from the public.
"We're happy to hear from the public in terms of what they want to see for more opportunities to have urban agriculture," said city planner Dave Stewart.
"Everything is up in the air right now."