Solid Waste & Recycling


City Farmer

This is the second installment in the Composting Pioneers series that takes a look at some of those that have made significant impacts on composting, in the last twenty years. Educators, and there are many, have made a great impact. They make...

This is the second installment in the Composting Pioneers series that takes a look at some of those that have made significant impacts on composting, in the last twenty years.

Educators, and there are many, have made a great impact. They make connections.

For people to understand composting on a larger scale they need to connect to it on a smaller scale. Backyard composting offers a number of clear and simple connections about our waste and the food we eat.

Few in the public have a clue of the connection between the wastes we generate and the food we eat. The foods that we waste are directed to landfill, where all natural connections between the food and land are broken.

There are those who try. Local food is all rage these days. It’s as if we discovered something new that, yes, people do grow food close to where we live and it can taste pretty good.

And while agreeing with the intent, so disconnected have we as a society become from agriculture that we have to resort to creating gimmicky eat local initiatives like the 100 mile diet (to remind us to do what, until the last 50 years, was pretty much all we could do) and then try to give it legitimacy by slapping on dubious climate change benefits.

Often where there is hype, somewhere in the background are the people that have been making quiet long-term efforts that are making a real difference.

Vancouver’s City Farmer has been around for about 33 years. Romanticized rumour suggests it was started by hippies. The facts show what an ongoing grassroots difference they are making.

I first came across them in 1992 with the release of their practical Urban Home Composting booklet. After two years of reading nothing more than academic papers, this was one of the documents that made me realize how to make what I had learned practical. This booklet and others like it were but support for their on-the-ground activities that include a long-running compost garden and a variety of workshops on composting and urban gardening.

There are many that have learned and continue to learn about how to compost the wastes they generate at home. More importantly they completed the link to City Farmer’s real raison d’tre, which is to teach urban people how to grow food. While the composting part of what they do is important, it’s more the means than the end of what they do.

The handbook, which is no longer sold today, outlines good how-to composting information, that (save for photos of now unfashionable people) is as relevant today as it was then. It included some great plans on how to make your own composters.

“We were 1970s environmentalists and social activists who saw the benefits of using urban food gardening for both ‘green’ education and the transformation of our community. The City Farmer a small newspaper produced in August 1978 communicated their earliest thoughts,” says Michael Levenston, a founder and the executive director of City Farmer since its inception.

“Our mission has always been very clear: City Farmer promotes growing food in the city, urban agriculture.”

Although we have disconnected ourselves from so many things, reconnecting ourselves is easy.

“It’s easy to grow something you can eat, Levenston continues, “an herb to include in your recipes, or some salad greens to provide you with fresh food.”

The other simple connection is that you can turn 40 per cent of your waste back into food.

“Composting food and yard waste is central to urban agriculture. Organic waste, transformed into a useful product at no cost and used as fertilizer, will help cities provide food for residents,” Levenston says.

City Farmer runs a very active demonstration garden close to downtown Vancouver. It operates a regional Compost Hotline from the garden. The garden is open 365 days a year, which allows them to test compost bins, demonstrate the production of many fruits and vegetables, and showcase a wide variety of home “green” technologies such as compost toilets, green roof, and water-wise plantings.

They provide learning opportunities through workshops on composting, urban organic gardening, and alternatives to pesticides. Finally, they operate the city’s subsidized worm bin program, the largest such program of any city in the world.

Their web site ( is widely used and has provided the best information on urban agriculture online since 1994. They are the longest continuously running group promoting urban agriculture in the world.

When City Farmer was started in 1978 the idea of growing food in the city must have been considered a bit wacky. Even today I imagine some people view it as the domain of the Birkenstock set. In our world of hyper consumerism and sometimes thoughtless “disposalism” we may not want to reconnect; but maybe we do. Maybe we want to reduce our environmental impact. Reconnecting was simple in 1978 and it is still simple.

Since their inception interest has ebbed and flowed.

Levenston notes that, “Right now the interest in urban agriculture is very strong with government leaders supporting the work of community groups to provide local food and jobs. Composting remains at the top of people’s ‘green’ agenda. It’s a perfect example of recycling and it also feeds the soil, which helps food plants flourish.”

For the last 30 years the impact that groups such as City Farmer have had on people that wanted to learn about composting and growing their own food is profound — it makes an impact today and is a gateway that introduces them to other ways to better manage their environmental impact.

Asked to look into his crystal ball I asked him do you think that people will be more or less interested in backyard composting and growing their own food in 20 years?

“It’s impossible to say. It will depend on the conditions surrounding them in their urban environment. Is there poverty, is there land available for growing food, and are there reasons, which will motivate them to spend time producing some of their food?”

It seems almost inconceivable that this need will lessen.

Paul van der Werf is president of 2cg Inc. in London, Ontario. Contact Paul at

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