Compared to the kinds of conventional farming associated with large-scale food production, urban agriculture is sometimes treated like a distant cousin – like a curiosity, detached but relevant to the family, and seldom invited to the table for big decisions.
Things, though, are changing.
Urban agriculture is small-scale commercial farming (not gardening) between city blocks. By definition, urban agriculture is carried out closer to consumers than most conventional farms.
That means urban agriculture could serve an important role introducing people to farming overall, and the huge numbers of unfilled jobs in the sector. With the agriculture sector battling misinformation, along with the never-ending challenge of making its voice heard, help is welcome.
The key is harmony and cooperation. The sector doesn’t need any divisive efforts that pit modern farming against its smaller counterparts – in other words, urban farming versus rural farming.
Instead, it needs united, cohesive approaches that appeal to consumers’ desire to make measured, balanced, informed decisions that are not driven by hysteria or hyperbole about how one system is better than another. A bad light is thrown on all food production when even one system is viewed with suspicion.
Durham College in Whitby has a chance to contribute in a positive way to the overall understanding of agriculture, and to Ontario’s position as an agri-food powerhouse. Last week it ceremoniously accepted a $5-million donation from the Barrett Foundation, founded by packaging entrepreneur Jim Barrett and his family, to create the Barrett Centre of Innovation in Sustainable Urban Agriculture.
“The knowledge and experience gained from turning unused fields into a vibrant crop-bearing farm serves as a solid foundation for what The Barrett Centre will accomplish,” says college president Don Lovisa.
Durham College already offers some field-to-fork education, with a focus on food: microbiology and chemistry labs, an apple orchard, a 1,700-square-foot greenhouse, two acres for production and applied research, a walk-in growth chamber, a growth chamber and a craft beer brew line. Its faculty members research plant pathology and integrated pest management, primarily with horticulture crops, along with robotics and information technology.
With the centre, the college wants to kick that up a notch, to become what it calls an internationally recognized hub of excellence in urban agriculture practices, research, education and training.
Hopefully its education mandate will have a broad reach and help consumers more deeply understand the entire food system.
The new centre could benefit by strategic partnerships, particularly with the University of Guelph main campus and Ridgetown campus, Canada’s leading agri-food research institution. Reinventing the wheel is inefficient and Guelph already has globally recognized expertise and amazing facilities in some of the areas the new centre is eyeing.
The bottom line is that agriculture needs all hands on deck to help people understand it and its many aspects – rural and urban.