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A look at Vancouver's urban farmers, by the numbers

There are only a handful of urban farms in Vancouver, with a total footprint of just a few acres scattered throughout the city. It's a small sector, but one with significant growth potential, according to researcher Marc Schutzbank.

Schutzbank recently completed the first urban farming census in Vancouver, as part of his Masters degree in UBC's Land and Food Systems department. The census was made public at a recent urban farming forum and is a "big step forward" says one local farmer, to legitimizing the business of growing food in the city.

Schutzbank included eight farms in the census (which will grow to include seven more over the next year) and found they are producing $128,580 worth of vegetables on just 2.31 acres of land. "As small businesses, these are really interesting and powerful organizations," says Schutzbank. "They're not making a lot of money, but they're making some money."

In fact, he says that urban farming is becoming more sustainable, economically, than traditional vegetable production in rural areas. The average annual net farm income in B.C. is $16,839, or $8.77 per hour. The urban farm operators Schutzbank surveyed are earning on average $13,745 per year, or $8.64 per hour.

Interestingly, he noted, urban farm operators tend to pay their employees more (between $12 and $20 an hour) than they take home themselves. "On average," he explains, "using a mixed vegetable system, there is no way that a rural farmer is going to be able to do the same sort of revenue generation that an urban farmer can do."

The reason, he says, comes down to lower production costs (the average farm in B.C. spends 88 cents for every dollar earned, while the urban farmers in this census incurred 51 cents of costs for every dollar earned) and the ability to sell directly to consumers instead of through a major retailer. The majority of urban farm revenues in Vancouver come from market sales (46 per cent), followed by CSA sales (41 per cent). Restaurants comprise just 10 per cent of sales.

However, the kicker here is that urban farms in Vancouver are technically not supposed to be selling their produce at all. There is no business license for urban farming in the city, and commercial farming—that is, growing to sell—is only allowed within the Agricultural Land Reserve. There is no ALR-zoned property in Vancouver except for a piece of property at Balaclava Street and 51st Avenue knows as Southlands.

Urban farmer Chris Thoreau says that zoning and business licenses are two issues that keep cropping up within this community. Vancouver, as part of its Greenest City strategy, has a goal of increasing neighbourhood food assets by 50 per cent.

"You've got this policy directive, and you've got these urban farms..." says Thoreau. "We've been talking [with the city] about what needs to happen on both ends to carry forward."

Thoreau says Wendy Mendes, a planner in the city's social policy division has listened to his and other farmers' concerns with an open ear. "Wendy said 'you need to organize and bring us some research and bring it to us,' and rightly so," says Thoreau. "Marc's research is a big step forward. It gives us some numbers to work with."

Thoreau describes himself as a leader within the urban farming community, a diverse group that includes farm operators and employees, NGOs, and others interest in food security. His urban farm newsletter has 180 subscribers, about 50 of whom are directly involved in food production. "We're creating a very cohesive community," says Thoreau.

Colleen Kimmett writes about food, sustainability and agriculture for The Tyee Solutions Society and others. This article was first published on OpenFile Vancouver, and is reprinted here with permission.

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