Urban farming becoming a viable business proposition in B.C.

Developers across North America are finding profits in building new suburban developments around working farms

As climate change eats away at our food security, a consumer appetite is growing for more diverse food sources, especially ones we can control.

For every degree increase in the Earth’s average temperature, crop production drops 10%. Even a non-farmer can imagine how sudden shifts in rainfall, drought and pest habitat will make it harder to grow food.

Increasing concern about the impact of climate change on food supplies is just one reason “local food” is in such demand these days, notwithstanding finger-wagging from economists like Pierre Desrochers.

In his book Locavore’s Dilemma he says we should be increasing our dependence on efficient, cheaper (for now) global food exporters, not wasting scarce economic resources on local food. Obviously not everyone shares his confidence that global industrial agriculture can keep our food flowing in the face of soil erosion, unsustainable water consumption, pesticide loading, rising oil prices and disappearing bees, never mind competition from the world’s growing population.

Consumers clamouring for more local sustainable food are now being joined by entrepreneurs and investors who can see where all this is going. Last week’s column mentioned SOLEfood’s two-acre downtown Vancouver farm, one of five sites bankrolled by mining/film magnate and philanthropist Frank Guistra. While it is dependent on subsidies (as is much agri-business), some of its smaller sisters are not. There are now a couple of dozen urban farming businesses eking out a living in the Lower Mainland by harvesting on “free” unused city lots and backyards. The most lucrative sell niche products like, say, sprouts to a few dependable buyers, typically high-end restaurants or motivated foodies who prepay for a season’s worth of weekly deliveries of fresh food boxes.

In the economically desolate rust-belt cities in the U.S., urban agriculture is morphing into more serious business.

The poster boy for the strictly business approach to urban agriculture is Detroit financier John Hantz. He’s investing in urban farming as a way to take abandoned properties off the hands of a near-bankrupt city. He thinks shrinking the land base will stop the drop in real estate prices. He’s waiting for approval from the city to buy 170 acres of mostly foreclosed city-owned land (for $3,600/acre, which is higher than appraised value!) so he can invest $5 million in cleaning up the property and planting 70,000 hardwood trees for commercial harvest.

Developers across North America are finding profits in building new suburban developments around working farms – “agriculture as the new golf.”

Century Group’s Southlands development proposal in Tsawwassen aims to build one of these here, in spite of political and bureaucratic resistance. The development would use profits from housing on agricultural land to support intensive local food production in collaboration with Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Food retailers are also realizing that with new technology, food can be grown onsite to cut down transportation costs. I visited the first grocery store in London, England, with a farm on its roof, Thornton’s Budgens. They brand the greens as “Food from the sky.” In Montreal, Lufa Farms is breaking even growing 25 varieties of vegetables on its 31,000-square-foot greenhouse on top of an office building. It’s planning to expand to buildings in Boston, New York and Chicago.

UrbanFarmers AG has just launched the world’s first rooftop aquaponic farm in Basel, Switzerland.

Closer to home, Vancouver-based Verticrop is about to start construction of a 6,000-square-foot rooftop commercial greenhouse on the top floor of a Richards Street parkade. Whole Foods is already selling spinach grown in an automated hydroponic warehouse in Surrey.

In short, growing local food even right in the middle of cities is now becoming a viable business. It may not work in theory, but it’s starting to work in practice. •

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