by Dana Gordon
I spoke with Michael Levenston, Exexutive Director of City Farmer in Canada and was completely fascinated with everything he had to say. Such experience and devotion to the green movement for over 30 years says something about the establishment that has foundations built off sweat and labor, research and trials.
What or who inspired you to become an urban famer? We started in 1978, working on energy conservation programs with the government to teach people how they could conserve energy in the city. A few of us looked into growing food. The City People’s Book of Raising Food by Helga and William Olkowski was instrumental. It introduced us to growing food at home in the city and I found it fascinating. Then I was walking in the back lanes in Vancouver where you can see into people’s back yards and seeing their gardens growing all these food items and it was then that I became aware that people were growing huge gardens in their back yards. I mowed lawns back then and so this was new to me to see all of these plants growing and I became very excited by what I saw.
You said you were excited by this, why? Did you feel it was important to be as sustainable as possible? The word sustainable has come quite recently in our vocabulary, it was more that here were these people were making more productive use in the land in the city. It was enjoyable. As a city boy I didn’t have access to food that came from a garden and I remember eating fresh peas in a pod, and it was so delicious, and that was very novel to me because we ate from the store. So here were these people that were growing this food and eating it right off the vine instead. I had found something that I enjoyed and I investigated it. It was all brand new to me, like compost. To take waste we were created at home and create compost instead of sending it off to a land fill was new to me. These people who were doing these gardens were doing great things for the environment by gardening and composting. They weren’t celebrating it and we were seeing what they were doing and thought this was worth sharing with people.
You said you were doing this since the ‘70s? Yes, I went to the University and articles from magazines and such like, Mother Earth News were writing about going back to the land. But I love the city. So we took all that information and moved it into an urban landscape. But because we’re in the city we had to learn how to do some of this differently and so we started researching at that time. The influence we could have where there are 2 million people in one area, to be able to reach so many people back then. And now you have botanical gardens and things like that, so it is very different today, even those who have demonstration sites around the country.
What type of successes have you experienced? There are things we are proud of, we are such a tiny group to have this type of influence, its one person working in a non profit society with one other who handles other things. To have the kind of influence where people use those terms, “Urbanite Farmer” or “City Farmer”, to have them maintain an idea that city farming is a good idea. And then the idea, regarding the internet, of being up and running in 1995, piecing them together in the early years of the internet when there was no html, etc. It was very exciting! As other countries joined us on the internet and I spent my time looking at what other countries looking at the site. I think the internet was it, personally. We were no longer just reaching our community but now it was global.
We are also quite proud of putting composting on the map. We talk about sustainability, who can survive, who can survive the course the longest. We haven’t given up, for 32 year years. We hope to maybe give people direction and that is a start.
What about failures? Hmm, that is a good one, I don’t usually work with those too much. I don’t really fail, I don’t really think that ever. You can’t think that way. We start here every day, it is exciting, it has been fun for 32 years and I always look forward to what is coming up. It is spreading the work and being honest, about whatever, composting toilets or whatever, in 4 or 5 weeks, we have the winter Olympics coming to Vancouver and there will be a lot of journalists and hopefully some of them will be spreading out in the city and focus on urban agriculture while they are here and informing the whole world.
That is a pretty big dream: It is, and you have to think about who is coming, like Colbert who is coming to cover the Olympics, and who knows what kind of reach he will have. We started a tiny website and how many people have we reached, like you with me now and what you do, how many people have you reached? It is just fascinating to me, this surprising technological reach, you know, you and I can create TV shows and get them out there to everybody. It is exciting going from ancient, food and soil, and matching that up cell phones and computers. It is fascinating.
Our day to day life here is pretty much hands on with the garden, we have four walls, lights and equipment, but really our office is a demonstration garden and we have to staff it M-F. We just built a new small porch and getting our seedlings ready for the garden because we want people to see them. And giving tours, showing the wheat and corn, harvesting it off and giving it to a charity. I think it is important, what we do, because we are not just an office with a light and some books, that would be very different.
What other services does The Urban Farm Store offer? We jump around all day long. We go to the schools and they come to us, we teach vermiculture, the kids get to learn about soil and the food plants. We do outreach too, with booths set up at Home and Garden Expos. Some of the staff speak at some of the garden shows. We really are called on to do many things, we produce some amateur videos, on composting in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. We are constantly consulting on every level, the University will call to find out how to compost materials they have or people setting up roof top gardens. The YMCA wanted to set up a huge garden and we have helped with that. We teach, we tour, we test. We are growing Shiitake mushrooms on a log and we’re looking into growing truffles, you know the ones where the dogs and pigs are trained to sniff them out, and we’re looking into wasabi. So we do a lot, we have people calling all the time, like now people want to know where to take their Christmas trees. So there are a lot of services we have to respond to.
When did you decide to turn it into a business and open the Urban Farm Store and how did you decide to do this? First, we are a non-profit organization, we get grants, and we’re primarily funded by the City of Vancouver to teach composting. We really believe in compost because in an urban setting you need good soil. If you can get everyone in an urban setting to compost you’re doing a service to the city. We aren’t selling things at the market to make dollars and cents but we are in the education business because of the grants and that caught on in 1978. We started the non-profit organization at that time and we published little tabloids back then. Now we’re doing it on the internet. Back then we had to cut and paste it all together, make copies, drive it all around, we sold them for $25, there was no profit margin, it was insane. But these days on the internet we can reach so many people and put in graphics and expand and cover so much more. So we’re not really a business we’re an organization that reaches out.
How else does the community benefit from your expertise? I think all the gardening information. Our head gardener answers their questions but it isn’t just gardening. There are the green aspects, greener living. A school in Hawaii wanted to know about greener living this morning, wanted to learn about the compost toilet that we have had for years. We have a number of green technologies that we teach, how to work them, how to maintain them and we share this with people that are beyond just composting. Even in the composting world, change is good, I’m quite excited about this new electric one. It is about waist high and from Korea, and you put your food scraps in there and the sawdust and starting enzymes will break all of that down. So even in the composting world things are always changing. And even with what Patti Moreno does, some of these things we don‘t work on, such as vertical gardening, we cover them but we aren’t currently practicing it because we have so many other things going on.
If there is a piece of advice that you can give someone who wanted to be greener what would it be? Start small, grow things that will do best for you, there is no area that has all the knowledge, there is the internet videos and books and plenty of resources out there to help you. I see it as when you first learn to cook, if you think back to when you cooked your first egg, it was a mystery and then as time went on, it wasn’t a mystery anymore, you know how to cook eggs. So will composting, gardening or whatever you choose to do. It’s not just for one group of people, I guess I’m proud of City Farmers, because we have tired to reach everyone, age wise, political wise, globally and that is what it is all about.
Is there anything you’d like to add? I think we could talk all day, you and I are in the same field. It is very difficult to make it because it isn’t paying well but it is an exciting field. I get up so early and look for these types of stories on the internet and enjoy what I do!
After 32 years of service to the community and to the world, City Farmer News is a massive collection of news and information on the internet. The staff includes:
For almost 30 years, City Farmer has taught people how to grow food in the city, compost their waste and take care of their home landscape in an environmentally responsible way. In our Demonstration Garden you will see a compost toilet, green roof, cob shed, organic food garden, permeable lane, natural lawn, waterwise garden, worm and backyard composter and much more. See urban agriculture at http://www.cityfarmer.org
Country farmer in childhood turned urban gardener in adulthood with emphasis on indoor gardening, Dana Gordon, who is a wife and mother of two, has been gardening and preserving food since childhood with the guidance and knowledge of three generations.
Visit her blog at: http://alotgreener.blogspot.com/
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