Jesse Brown

Urban agriculture growing in popularity

Jesse Brown never gets tired of seeing the look on people’s faces when they walk through the gate of the Mason Street City Farm.

Jesse Brown never gets tired of seeing the look on people’s faces when they walk through the gate of the Mason Street City Farm.

“It’s just total aghast at this space that they’ve wandered into,” said Brown, the co-owner of the quarter-acre urban farm, located amongst homes in the North Park neighbourhood.

“They say things like we’ve lived up the road for 30 years and had no idea you guys were here. Some just look around and share stories of when they lived on the Gulf Islands or when their grandmother was an avid gardner and farmer. They just appreciate coming to a place in the middle of the city where you don’t even almost see the city.”

The Mason Street City Farm has been in the community for nearly 30 years, but was taken over by Angela Moran in 2006. Brown jumped on board five years ago.

The pair and a few staff harvest their garden twice a week, producing 150 pounds a week of salad greens for 12 local restaurants. An hour or two of work is also needed every day tending to the mix of cherry tomatoes, poblano peppers, beats, kale, carrots, bulk fennel, chickens and fish grown through an aquaponics system.

The farm also feeds 11 families a week through a community-supported agriculture box program, runs a small plant nursery, and provides various educational opportunities teaching residents the necessary skills to run an urban farm.

For Brown, the farm has become an urban agriculture educational hub.

“It’s kind of also acts as a real community building centre in a space that acts much like a park,” said Brown, who enjoys the compost aspect the most on the farm.

“It’s life, death, sex, reproduction, you’re creating this primordial stew. That’s a farmers job really — is not necessarily to grow food, but to grow fertility and that’s our contribution to the biosphere in some ways.”

Local urban agriculture is nothing new in Victoria, with several mini farms scattered throughout the city. But it’s growing in popularity, and may get even more popular if the city goes through with bylaw changes that would permit small-scale commercial food production everywhere in Victoria, provided it doesn’t negatively impact neighbours.

According to the city, the changes would expand the range of potential sites for new urban food production businesses to include commercial areas, vacant lots, residential properties, rooftops, institutional properties and other underused sites.

Those wanting to sell food,  however, would be required to obtain a business licence for offsite sales (such as retail locations and restaurants) and on-site sales (such as food stands and farm box pick-up locations). A year-long licence would cost $100 while a three-month licence is $25. The changes would also eliminate the need for a development permit.

Brown said the proposed changes are long overdue and will help a lot of people who are growing food rest easier knowing the service they’re providing will not get shut down just because a neighbour doesn’t like the idea that someone is picking up food from their property.

His only concern is with a proposed update to the Official Community Plan to clarify that developments such as housing, office and retail buildings will be considered a higher priority than small-scale commercial urban food production — a move the city says is to balance food security and production with its objectives for new housing and development.

The proposed update also has other urban farmers concerned, claiming it will reduce the power farmers have to oppose built development that will hurt their ability to grow food.

If the city is serious about a green economy that includes urban food production, Julie Ford, an urban farmer with City Harvest and Welland Legacy Orchard, said councillors must consider the long-term tenure of farms a priority.

“Food production is fundamentally linked to a place in a way that other businesses are not,” said Ford. “If the land upon which I farm is legally subservient to other kinds of development there is no security for my business and I cannot continue to invest in its growth.”

A public hearing on the matter will be held at City Hall at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. For more information visit victoria.ca/growinginthecity.