Though Urban Stream is leaning much more towards our composting technology these days, we have a microfarming project on the go with Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company. Rocky Mountain bought our Urban Microfarm container a little over a year ago. And a little less than a year ago, the City of Vancouver issued a stop work order on that project due to a neighbour’s complaint.
Despite the city issuing the stop work order, they were really eager to get us up and running. We worked closely with the city to get the unit up to the city’s code. Because the City of Vancouver had never seen a project like our Microfarm, so we had to work with them to figure out which building codes we have to abide by. Ultimately, we had to change the roof on the micro-farm, upgrade the electrical and seismically anchor the shipping container to ensure that if a big earthquake hits, the container won’t budge.
This week, after the container was inspected by the engineer and our friendly-neighbourhood building inspector, the retrofits were approved! We are so happy to have gotten to this point after almost a year of retrofitting and working with the city. Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company has been so wonderfully patient with us and the city, and we couldn’t be happier to have them as a flagship customer.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be outfitting the micro-farm with our second generation worm composter and Lifespace Projects’ self-watering planter boxes and in no time at all you’ll be able to enjoy Urban Stream’s fresh greens on Rocky Mountain’s delicious flatbread pizzas.
Foodline Radio, a local food and food security show on Vancouver Co-op Radio, recently interviewed Urban Stream’s Wes Regan, Karen Ageson from Farmers on 57th and SOLEfood‘s Seann Dory, on urban farming trends in Vancouver. Local author and previous City Councilor Peter Ladner also chimed in via phone and Truck Farm/Strathcona 1890 Urban Seeds Collective founder Judy Kenzie probed some of the issues further with an opening monologue and some questions towards the end, particularly around urban farming business models. Wes and Karen were also wearing their respective Vancouver Urban Farming Society hats as current Treasurer and Vice-President of the VUFS.
The interview weaves through several areas but chief among them include:
- the generational context of urban and rural farming (the average age of farmers has steadily increased, yet urban farming has been embraced largely by younger, often university educated men and women)
- How can we reconcile interest in local food, and the need for urban farms to be financially feasible, with food security issues and access to healthy local foods for lower income communities.
- The economics of food production, and urban farming. Often times farmers are charging premium prices at farmers markets or in local stores or are growing for restaurants (often high end). This relates to the previous question of food equity/food justice and food access, for lower income earners in cities like Vancouver. But there is also a strong argument that we have undervalued or forcibly devalued the true costs of food production – farmers deserve to make a decent living feeding us and the current economics of food production rest on often exploitative and entropic forces, poor labor standards and wages and ever increasing economies of scale – which in turn drive prices down. Not to mention the exclusion of negative externality costs like water runoff causing eutrophication. This issue of recalibrating the economics of food production while enabling better and broader food access for locally grown foods is a broader policy problem that Karen Ageson suggests should not just be on the farmer’s shoulders, we need to find ways to reconcile these two things, farmers shouldn’t just be told they charge too much and be expected to sell their foods for as cheap as possible.
- What does urban farming look like? Similar to a previous blog post here the discussion also ventured into the practice of urban farming vs urban horticulture and gardening, technologies or processes being developed or adopted, infrastructure gaps etc. What are the newest trends and how do we differentiate these various things?
This is just a bit of a fun post but we hope it gets you thinking.
The author William Cronen in his epic and highly enjoyable book Nature’s Metropolis, a geographical and economic history of Chicago, shows how America’s “second city” rose to prominence not so much because of where it was located but how it was situated between the populous eastern seaboard and resource plentiful west. Food played a central role in Chicago’s rise as advances in rail shipping (and the creation of rail infrastructure in general) transformed Chicago’s food economy into a mass producing, agglomerating, and processing centre.
To this day the stock exchanges in Chicago are a powerful financial center of the industrial food system. The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (now merged under CME group) influence prices for commodities and ownership of food system assets and have done so for decades. These exchanges trade more than grains and meat, they also trade in minerals, currencies, treasury bonds and other things, and their role in North America’s food system, if not globally, cannot be understated. But they began as farmers and financiers seeking clarity in trading rules, pricing, and opportunities to expand their ventures. Growing from such early bodies as the Chicago Butter and Egg Board. Yes, the mighty Butter and Egg Board!
The role between Chicago and America’s food system, and how Vancouver or other cities relate or integrate with their broader food systems, has fascinated me ever since reading Cronen’s book, which was published about 20 years ago now. As has the relationship between site and situation, which Cronen captures nicely in his study of Chicago. Site being where something is and situation being where it is in relation to other things around it. Urban Stream’s first site for our Micro-Farm is Luke’s Corner Bar and Kitchen on Granville and 14th for example.
Every city has a relationship with the “hinterland” around it where our food mostly comes from. This is a situational relationship. We transport it in, sometimes process it, usually prepare it, consume it, and then disregard what isn’t consumed there to be taken back out to landfills and composting facilities. Though everything might seem fine for the most part, stores with cookies, bread and lettuce on their shelves, this system is massively wasteful, energy intensive, inefficient and unsustainable. One of the many things that inspired Urban Stream to form our company! Chicago was transformed by its relationship to the hinterland and the broader food system that grew up around it between centres of production and centres of consumption. As cities increasingly densify and increasingly grow more food locally what does that mean more broadly for urban design and planning?
Dickson Despommier a professor at Columbia University has written about this and encouraged students and designers to put forward innovative concepts to try and answer that question a few years ago, and the submissions are pretty fascinating. He pretty much coined the term Vertical Farming and has put forward a list of benefits to growing food vertically to mirror our increasingly vertical settlement patterns as we become more urban and more densely packed together in our cities. These are essentially food-centric visions of technological utopian city planning. But how realistic are they today? The amount of capital required to make these things happen, the technology, the financing, the business models, are all pretty daunting. But they are not impossible, and we may be seeing the first steps towards making these kinds of urban agricultural mega-projects happening right here in Vancouver.
I’m fascinated by the dichotomy created by these types of “technological utopian” visions of urban farming in relation to the more pastoral reclamations of urban areas that we commonly see in Vancouver and other cities (Detroit, Havana, Chicago, New York) where lawn conversions have turned front or back yards into lettuce and cabbage rows and rooftops are populated with tomatoes and herbs. What is urban farming? How is it done? The Vancouver Urban Farming Society has done some good work as of late to identify practices in what is a pretty diverse collection of approaches.
Urban Stream, more technological and less pastoral in nature, is perhaps more in line with Despommier’s Vertical Farm concepts. Local Garden (Verticrop) is another urban farming concept that is perhaps more in line with this utopian urban vision. Both of them here in Vancouver, see some images below.
In any case, I firmly believe that our future cities will be farming cities. Much like Chicago we will all discover how intimately and profoundly intertwined our urban matrix is with the food system that flows through and within it. It’s just difficult to envision what shape that will take, what combination of pastoral reclamation of brown fields, front lawns, and what kinds and scales of utopian technological architecture will these cities incorporate. Or will some cities opt for one way over the other? Will it come down to which cities or groups of people in cities can mobilize the finances to create these kinds of projects? Will that further create inequality in our food system? Will it mean control of urban food systems by the same folks who control the finances? Will the more pastoral forms of farming be transforming middle-class neighbourhoods away from the English Lawn syndrome that has plagued us for a century? And if so will we see this reflected in food playing a more powerful roll in the social or cultural experience of our neighbourhoods? I put it forward all of this for your consideration. Below are some photos that I feel capture both visions. Many of them are from here in Vancouver.
We’re excited to share that Urban Stream has new opportunities we’re exploring in Alberta. This is thanks to the work of USI co-founder Jim Sawada (PhD) and a new addition to the team, Richard Hermes. Jim relocated to Edmonton in 2011 where he is now researching at the University of Alberta. Richard and Jim are assessing opportunities for Urban Stream in Western Canada in commercial/ industrial markets. More specifically the application of Urban Stream’s technology in work camps and isolated communities – a growth area acknowledged in our most recent business plan.
We are also excited to note that we have been awarded our second IRAP grant through National Research Council Canada for $30,000 to explore this opportunity, and have also been approved for a $15,000 voucher from the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures program. So that’s a little slice of awesome that can go towards continued R&D.
We’ve contracted TEC Edmonton to assess regulatory/permitting issues for Urban Stream growth in urban markets in Western Canada starting with Vancouver while an RFP has been issued for a technical feasibility study into the scale-up and cold-weather engineering potential of our technology. In response we have received three proposals that we are currently reviewing.
A BIT ABOUT ARCTIC FOOD SECURITY AND REMOTE COMMUNITIES
Remote communities, work camps and disaster relief deployment have all been areas of interest for Urban Stream over the past couple of years but we have not actually put significant resources into these areas until now. Vancouver is an amazing city, and the political will to support innovative greentech or urban ag projects is obvious here. Our mayor takes it on the chin from his detractors regularly, and for that we are truly appreciative of his commitment to a more sustainable food system and city. Nonetheless the bureaucratic thickness and complexity of a City like Vancouver has proven difficult in the past and remote communities, resource sector camps and even military in many respects appear a quicker growth trajectory as competition for space and the complexity of permits and other regulations less cumbersome. Not to say we won’t still be focusing on cities, and Vancouver in particular, but we’re also beginning to explore these other options more closely now that several assumptions about our technology have been proven (and in some cases dis-proven, which is also good as we continue to dial in our Micro-Farm concept and learn how to better design each subsequent unit)
Remote communities, particularly in the arctic, are facing food security challenges. Urban Stream’s Wes Regan was born in the arctic and spent most of his early childhood there. His parents still live there. It’s an issue that’s near to him. Urban Stream’s Nick Hermes grew up in Edmonton, the northernmost major city in North America and in many ways the Gateway to Canada’s Arctic. Further to remote communities we’ve seen that major industrial and even military procurement has been searching for environmentally sustainable (if not more supply chain sustainable) innovations. One example is one of the largest purchasers on the planet, the United States military.
The United States military has recently begun to invest significantly in sustainable energy. With both cost reduction and carbon reduction benefits to adopting our technology we see a potential market opportunity in defense sector food systems management. The research and development work we are about to embark on in Alberta opens the door to explore these options in the near future once we have a better understanding of how our technology can operate in remote areas, in colder climates, and in rapid deployment scenarios.
USI Media Update:
|This previous November Urban Stream was featured in Utne Reader and the popular City Farmer News. A generous article in Garden Culture (a quarterly magazine) showcased the company. Online journal Ecopreneurist also wrote an article on USI as well as RogeHydro|
Now that November is in the history books we’ve had a moment to reflect and WHAT A MONTH it has been. Urban Stream raised over $7,000 in our first crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and we can’t thank all of you who pitched in enough. We look forward to giving back to all of you soon, canapes, bubbly, mountains of fresh micro-greens and for one lucky contributor an autographed piece of petrified corn stalk signed by Canadian Prime Minister Tommy Douglas. Everything except that last thing is true.
November also saw Urban Stream participate in the 3rd annual Vancouver Urban Farming Society’s yearly Forum. This year held (once again) at Simon Fraser University’s Downtown Campus. It was another big year with over 120 participants and several workshops, discussion sessions and guest speakers. Urban Stream’s Wes Regan, a founding Director of the VUFS, led a workshopping session with Karen Ageson of Farmers on 57th examining the new Mission and Vision Statements of the Society. Nick and he also attended numerous workshops and had a great time as always. The yearly forum is awesome for networking, hearing about new projects, how everyone’s projects or companies are progressing and just having fun. For more information on the Vancouver Urban Farming Society visit their site here. We’re proud to be a member and encourage you to join too whether you’re a grower or supporter of urban farming.
We’re also excited to say that a second restaurant has been approved financing to purchase one of our Micro-Farm units and that with the recent media exposure Urban Stream has received in Canada and the United States that we are starting to field inquiries from all over. Chicago, New York, Victoria, Alberta and even Singapore. For now though we are clearly focusing on our immediate region and a little in Alberta too. More on that soon. We’ll also have more info on the restaurant as soon as we’ve finalized the deal. So stay tuned.
Things aren’t going to be slowing down any time soon for USI as we’ve got two units in the works now thanks to our successful crowdfunding campaign and second purchase. More progress updates on the way!