The Forum Question I’ve Grown To Hate

For some reason, at every mayoral forum I’ve been to — and I’ve been to pretty much all of them — there is a question about “food security.” And invariably the answers all seem to revolve around more gardens.

I don’t know which bus load of hippies made this an issue in 2012 (nor whether they were driving to a Grateful Dead or a Phish concert) but I could really live without hearing this one again.

Because, you know what? I hate gardening. I really, really do. And it’s not like I haven’t tried it. I’ve been brainwashed with all the usual bucolic nonsense that makes me think I too would be happier were I a little more like Sam Gamgee, content to toil in the loam among the earthworms. But it isn’t really like that, is it? Full of contentment, I mean. Gardening, I’ve found, is mostly sweat, dirt, frustration and dead things. And woefully undersized, weirdly-acidic produce.

Case in point: I built a greenhouse this spring in which to grow cucumbers. I read up on them. Got them planted and growing. Then the goddamn things got the goddamn blight and now I basically have a glass box full of dormant fungus.

If the health and well being of this city depended on my ability to grow food, we’d all starve.

And you know what? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone out there in my distaste and incompetence where agriculture is concerned. That’s why so many of us have gathered together here. In the CITY. Which is, by definition, not a farm. It should not come as a surprise if most of us are, on balance, more adept and more content with iGadgets, game controllers and screaming fast WiFi. Many (or, I suspect, most) city dwellers lack the skills to produce their own food and don’t want to learn them.

So I don’t see why there’s all this pressure on, say, me to throw on some overalls, pick up a trowel, and start planting turnips in my narrow inner-city lot that’s been used mainly as a car park for the last five decades.

But hey, I concede, this is a to-each-his-own thing. Maybe you’re a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder* living on your very own Little House On The Prairie On A Suburban Lot. Great!

What I object to is this idea that seeing every square inch of green space in the city as a potential agricultural site somehow addresses the issue of food security.

And I find especially obnoxious this idea that’s been bandied about of late that the hundreds of acres of land the city has recently purchased to the south east should be turned into an urban farm that churns out produce for local consumption.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but we’re kind of already surrounded by agricultural land. The problem of food security in Regina isn’t related to its proximity but rather its distribution. But more on that later.

First, I have to get his off my chest: The south east lands are supposed to exist as a solution to the housing problem. Not the food security one. As that land is developed, the money earned is supposed to go to support the Social Development Reserve, which pays for all of our housing programs. What’s more, we get to decide how that land is developed which means we can decide what mix of housing types will go there. We can set the percentages of affordable, attainable and social housing that get built. If this city is going to have greenfield development — and as much as I dislike greenfield development, I’m realistic enough to accept that it’s inevitable — this is best way for it to happen.

Anyway, so yeah, I’m suspicious of any plan for food security that revolves around community gardens and high-intensity backyard agriculture. I seriously doubt that a city will find that to be an efficient solution to the problem. In fact, I doubt very much that urban food security has anything at all to do with food production. Instead, I’m reminded of something John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian economist, said it in an interview in 1994,

“the thoughts crossed my mind that there wasn’t a hell of a lot of use producing better crops and better livestock if you couldn’t sell them, that the real problem of agriculture was not efficiency in production but the problem of whether you could make money after you produced the stuff.”

In this context, that means grocery stores. (And, yeah, maybe farmers markets. But mostly, grocery stores.) Grocery stores of every size and shape in every neighbourhood. We need to find clever zoning and bonusing solutions to the fact that most of North Central doesn’t have access to one of those within a convenient, walkable distance. And we need to find ways to guarantee that the grocery stores we do have stay as grocery stores and don’t get shut down, left idle for years, then reopened as office parks, as happened with the Superstore on Albert. And as Safeway basically threatened to do with their store on 13th if their redevelopment plans weren’t approved.***

And as for all those urban agriculture enthusiasts, hey, fill your boots. I think growing food is great just so long as somebody else is doing it. And as for what a city council can do on that front, removing impediments to starting community gardens is a good place to start, I suppose. Community gardens are nice. From a distance.

And yeah, maybe we should revisit the whole urban chicken thing. (This post has gone on too long already I’m not going to recap that whole controversy. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s Google.) But I think the limiting factor on that won’t be the warrantless concern about roosters crowing at all hours (urban chicken farmers don’t typically have roosters) but the fact that chickens are miserable creatures and most people, wisely, don’t want to bother with raising them.

There. I’ve blown off all the steam I’d built up over this food security question. I feel much better. And I think I can deal with hearing it again when it inevitably comes up at the Cathedral Area Community Association mayoral forum tonight. Which starts at 7pm. And, I hear, is being moderated by the very excellent Pat Book of CJME.

Hope to see you there. Just don’t ask me about chickens.

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FOOTNOTES
* Laura Ingalls-Wilder and family, by the way, spent most of their lives as farmers in abject poverty, often near starvation, until she started writing stories and selling them to publishers in the city.** Just sayin’.

** Actually, the story is more complicated than that. Laura Ingalls-Wilder was encouraged to write about her life on the farm by her daughter Rose, who had moved to the city and become a journalist and one of America’s leading proto-Libertarians, writing lengthy screeds on how much better off everyone would be if they were self-reliant and living off the land and their own labour just like Ma and Pa Ingalls. Of course, Rose, like Laura, tended to gloss over just how miserable, bloody and surrounded by death and insanity life on a 19th century  farm was. In the background of the Little House books hangs a tapestry of human suffering. The real tale of the American West ought to have been told by Mary Ingalls, Laura’s sister who was blinded by measles, a disease government-sponsored vaccination programs have since nearly eradicated. Her story can be summed up: “Life is toil, loneliness, darkness.” That it was cities, civilization and big government that elevated the Wilders from scrabbling in the dirt is an irony that never seemed to appear in their writing.

*** Although, Safeway didn’t threaten to put an office park there so much as sell the building to a carpet store or something. We need to pass laws to stop that shit.

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Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

13 thoughts on “The Forum Question I’ve Grown To Hate”

  1. I’m with you on this one Paul.

    The one mayoral debate I went to started with the question about food security and I thought WTF?

    This was supposed to be a debate about issues that a Mayor can be expected to deal with: transit, infrastructure, housing, stadium, pension deficit, urban sprawl, traffic.

    It’s not that food security isn’t an important topic (I’d like a definition of what people mean by food security – though not at the mayoral debates), it’s just not an area in which the next Mayor of Regina will have any influence. Let’s keep our questions for the candidates focused on issues that the candidates can be expected to deal with.

  2. Well, as an old farm girl with a long gardening background (wherever I live, if I can put a garden in, I do), I can agree that the work is hard and not always rewarding. It’s farming on a smaller scale, and you have to be prepared to do the necessary research, to tailor your gardening to the conditions you have, to learn from what didn’t go well, and compost, compost, compost. You also have to be a realist: not even a community garden will yield enough produce to take you through the winter, unless you live alone and eat one meal a day. If all you want – or are able to grow – is a salad garden, go for it. If you want to put the whole area into potatoes, be my guest. If something you plant goes toes up, figure out why, and don’t give up.
    That said, again as an old farm girl, I’d rather see people raise backyard gardens than backyard chickens. Chickens take a lot of daily care, especially in winter. You need to keep them healthy, safe, clean, and properly fed and watered. They need grit to grind up their food because they lack teeth; you’ll have to supply that because your hens aren’t free range. Chickens get lice, and they are prone to viral and other diseases which they can pass on to humans. They need clean nests and safe roosting spaces which are predator proof; remember that rats can squeeze through a hole the size of a dime. Chicken faeces and urine STINK, and if put directly on a garden, they will burn up the plants, because like all manures, they need to be very well rotted.
    You can’t pick up and go when you have livestock, as any farmer knows. It’s a heavy commitment, and I don’t think that most urban folk realize this.

  3. Hi, Paul,

    Good ole,food security. I’ve been studying it relentlessly for the last year. You are right, that urban agriculture, in the form of gardens is not really the long term solution. Community gardens are great for building a culture that respects agriculture and understands where food comes from (this is possibly the only problem community gardens addresses) and why it is important. But realistically, it requires 6 city lots to feed one person in an ongoing fashion, so gardens are really not a solution. I sure prefer a nice looking permaculture garden in appearance to a 1/8 acre of lawn but that’s a different issue altogether

    I agree that local grocers and zoning bylaws that make it easier to develop a community grocer is important, but that’s not everything either. Unfortunately, grocery shelves are stocked by products that mostly come through US distribution channels. If the US border closes for any reason, such as war or terrorism or natural disaster, store shelves in most cities will be empty within 3 days. This is a potentiality that was shown to be true in the days following 9/11.

    One thing that is necessary to food security is the development of local food processors. It is a problem all over Canada that many of of our agricultural products are sent south or east for processing and then sold back to us as bread, french fries, mustard, oil and what have you. This reminds us that food security is not a simply a municipal issue. It’s a provincial and regional one.

    Also, consider that in conventional agriculture, with its mass production, heavy machinery, pesticides and herbicides and food-miles requires almost 20 fossil fuel calories to produce 1 food calorie. I’m just saying. local agriculture is important, but not without local food processors and while there’s no way to ignore the global food supply chain, we should still be promoting more smaller and more diverse farms that are resilient to changes in micro-climate (which are also proving to be increasingly profitable)and providing incentives to keep the processing local as much as possible.

    Also, I think there should be chickens.

  4. Yes.

    Food security is a real issue, but its causes are poverty, market failure and lazy governments. Community farming is great and I’m in favour but it’s not the solution to this problem.

  5. As some of you know, my day job is as an agriculture and agribusiness journalist and editor. I couldn’t agree more. Frankly the issue of food security generally is far more complex than most of us think.
    Bulk calories on the Prairies will never be a problem. Leafy greens will. Probably the solution to that is a ‘vertical farm’. Or maybe a huge greenhouse using the waste heat from our natural gas distribution system (apparently each pumping station produces enough heat to put fifteen acres under glass).
    The real problem in most people’s lives is inability to afford decent food and the impossibility of sourcing it without a minivan and the wherewithal to fuel it.
    Hell, the food security in places like Africa is much more complex than you might think. Want to help eliminate starvation there? Raise money to build them grain bins, because they lose something like a quarter of their annual harvest to pests post-harvest.
    There’s also some really interesting stuff emerging that suggests we can make broad-acre commercial agriculture far more sustainable using techniques that could loosely be described as biomimicry — zero till, which was developed on the Canadian Prairies, is something that would fit this category.

  6. I believe the issue of food safety and security could be solved if it came back into the hands of the community.

    We need to get our slaughter plant back so we can provide safe Sask raised livestock straight onto our local markets shelves.

    I agree with the community markets and making them available to all within walking distance too.

    I also believe we should start growing more of our own fresh fruits and vegetables within our own communities. With today’s technology we could be growing tons of fresh vegetables year round for less then we pay now to have it trucked in.

    The only way we can truly ensure our food is safe and secure is to make sure we are the ones inspecting it and watching over it. We are less likely to say ahhh that will pass if it’s used quick if it’s our own families we are serving it too.

    Respectfully,
    Kelly Wills

  7. Sorry, Paul, but your personal bias seems to have caused you to oversimplify the food security issue to the point of caricature. No one I know working on this issue thinks that urban gardening will solve food insecurity. It is, however, a step that helps people think about the food system, where our food comes from, and the real effort it takes to produce good food. Many of the other posters here seem to know what it’s about: more local, small-scale growing and processing; agroecological farming methods; diverse food sources (XL recall, anyone?); solving issues of access and poverty so that everyone can get good food. Take a moment to talk to the people who ask the question about food security, and see what they have to say.

  8. The freedom to grow and produce ones own food is missing in Regina.

    Food is supposedly a right. How are people protecting that right? Not a goddamned finger is lifted by many. What happens to rights that no one struggles to maintain? What happens when we have a week long interruption in the gas or food supply and the military is busy rescuing Toronto from a blizzard instead?

    Gardens are not “the” solution. They are “a” solution. They are certainly not part of the problem, brown thumbs notwithstanding.

  9. “Personal bias” is a pretty strong term to describe Paul’s comical distaste for gardening. How dare anyone write with a sense of humour in Regina?

    Seriously: Paul thinks it’s a little frivolous to repeatedly address backyard urban agriculture during the mayoral debate. I agree. Poverty and access to food are the top priority issues here. Paul wouldn’t write an irritated blog post if the focus was strongly on those. Has it been? That’s not my sense.

    Urban agriculture can be terrific and innovative and frankly, cool as hell. But let’s focus the bulk of our precious mayoral debate time talking about critical urban priorities. Like inadequate housing, poverty and the pretty much criminal fact there’s neighbourhoods in Regina without grocery stores.

  10. And that the most basic issue (food) is supposed to be off-limits as a debate topic because it might bore the media?

    Maybe there’s something BIG going on when a basic need becomes an election issue? Almost like there are people struggling with survival in Regina…

  11. As you mentioned in the article Paul, at many of the mayoral forums “there is a question about ‘food security.’ And invariably the answers all seem to revolve around more gardens.”

    As you also mentioned, food security involves much more than community gardens; however that is the standard answer that is being provided by some of the candidates. So, if you object to an oversimplified focus on community gardens, perhaps it is the limited understanding of some of the candidates that you are actually objecting to.

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