UBC farm brings city slickers back to earth

University leads the pack in today’s grow-your-own revolution

The rhubarb is ripe for the picking, the strawberries are about to turn a luscious red and the hens are clucking merrily in the breeze at Vancouver’s only urban farm.

On this day, the 24-hectare farm and research site for sustainable food production at the University of British Columbia is an oasis for over 700 fresh food devotees who have gathered for a fundraiser.

The Friends of UBC Farm hope to raise enough money to buy a tractor, pay for operating costs and run programs for children.

Chefs showcasing culinary creations with fresh ingredients including goat cheese and wild arugula have also joined the cause as part of what some are calling a food renaissance that focuses on eating what’s locally produced.

Writer Michael Pollan, who’s about to speak to the crowd as part of a book tour to promote the paperback edition of his “In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (The Penguin Press), said there’s an increasing awareness about consuming food versus “edible food-like substances.”

“The food movement is popping up everywhere, and it’s not just limited to a few cities,” he told The Canadian Press.

“I go to cities where there’s a renaissance of farmers’ markets, where they’d had this industrial food even though they had the best soil in the world.”

Pollan said “a perfect storm” of events, including recent food safety issues, has meant that North Americans are rejecting food produced by a mammoth industry in favour of growing their own produce or buying locally.

“Every time we have a food safety problem, whether it’s E. coli in the spinach or salmonella in the nuts most recently, it kind of pulls back the curtain a little bit and people get a look at how their food is produced and they’re really shocked.”

He said books including “The 100-Mile Diet,” written by a Vancouver couple who tried to live for a year by only eating food produced within a 160-kilometre radius, have added to the awareness, as have documentaries including the just-released “Food Inc.,” in which he is featured.

While Pollan is a huge advocate of people growing their own food, he said getting involved in a community garden is one way to get in touch with the land.

“It helps with your understanding of where food comes from and that daily reminder that nature feeds you, not industry.”

Community gardens are taking root in cities across Canada as people get their hands dirty planting, nurturing and harvesting food close to their neighbourhoods.

Vancouver has at least 55 community gardens, said Devorah Kahn, the city’s social planner.

“People want to garden and this is an opportunity for them to do so,” she said.

Next week, the city will release information about walking tours of community gardens around Vancouver, with each tour under three kilometres.

Farmers’ markets are also becoming increasingly popular for people who want to buy local, organic produce, said Brent Werner, executive director of Farmers’ Markets Canada.

He said 508 such markets are flourishing across the country, including one that opened last year at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

“It is a 100-per-cent certified market, which means every vendor in there has been inspected, every vendor is a grower, producer, maker of the product they’re selling.”

In Calgary, the year-round farmers’ market generates over $30 million in sales every year, he said.

Across Canada, such markets pumped $3 billion into the economy last year, according to the non-profit group.

“People want local food and they want to actually put a face on the food they’re eating and to meet a farmer because less than two people out of a hundred these days have any connection with a farm,” Werner said.

The high cost of oil to ship food is just one reason to eat food that’s grown closer to home, he said.

“Young parents are really concerned about what their kids are eating and in general they’re really not educated about the food system anymore.”

People concerned about the high cost of organic food would do well to consider their health instead, he said.

“In North America we spend somewhere between seven and 10 per cent of our disposable income on food. In Europe they spend 20 per cent.”

“We just have in our mindset, the way we’ve been educated, that food should be cheap. For a whole generation or maybe two we have not related to the fact that food is health.”

Back at the UBC Farm, would-be chef Kate Boutilier said city slickers would do well to acquaint themselves with the taste and quality of fresh ingredients.

“I grew up in the Okanagan and my grandparents taught me how to farm. But a lot of kids in Vancouver don’t know the difference between kale and spinach.”

– The Canadian Press