Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Quiet Revolution

A quiet revolution is stirring in our food system. It is not happening so much on the distant farms that still provide us with the majority of our food; it is happening in cities, neighborhoods, and small towns. It has evolved out of the basic need that every person has to know their food, and to have some sense of control over its safety and its security. It is a new agricultural revolution that provides poor people with a safety net, and opportunity to provide nourishment and income for their families. And it provides an oasis for the human spirit where urban people can gather, preserve something of their culture through native seeds and foods, and teach their children about food and the earth.
The revolution is taking place in small gardens, under railroad tracks and power lines, on rooftops, at farmers' markets, and in the most unlikely of places. It is a movement that has the potential to affect a number of social issues - economic justice, environmental quality, personal health, community empowerment, and cultural connection. It is especially important for the world's poor, a majority of whom now live in cities.  Source.

Windsor can attest to the power of this revolution sweeping the developed world.  While many of us have always had vegetable gardens in their backyards, a number of changes have occurred recently on the locavore front:  The Windsor Downtown Farmers' Market completed its second successful season, we have several community gardens, with a new one starting in the spring.  We can buy meat from local farmers and have it delivered to our doors - Trusty Food to You and County Connect are just two available services.  We also have a CSA but if gardening is not for you, Natural Earth Organics will deliver a weekly veggie box to your doorstep.   There's a lot more happening behind the scenes too.

There's one major food, however, that is not covered by these great initiatives:  eggs.

Most of us eat eggs every day, whether we consume them boiled, scrambled, fried, or indirectly, such as when we eat baked goods, desserts or fortified breads.

It's not easy to obtain fresh pastured eggs in Windsor:  for one thing, farmers are not allowed to sell their ungraded eggs beyond their farm gate.  You also can't freeze whole eggs, so buying them in bulk is not an option.  And it's impossible to buy free range eggs in the stores, since they are not commercially available in Ontario.

So if you're looking for a locally-produced source of eggs from chickens that have been outside in their lifetime, your only option is to take a drive into the county.  It's not an efficient option if you don't happen to have business that takes you to the county on a regular basis, and it's not at all feasible if you don't have a car to begin with.

Isn't it strange that Canada's southernmost city doesn't have a comprehensive locavore strategy at the forefront of its political agenda?  If this quiet revolution is spreading throughout the developed world, Windsor, struggling for recognition as a serious player when it comes to green energy manufacturing, cannot afford to ignore it. 

We need to be looking at all the different foods that we eat, and ensuring they are all readily available.  It makes no sense to have plentiful locally grown vegetables and meat, but to decide upfront without any further investigation or discussion that eggs are not important.

I don't like to admit this, but in my opinion, the city's willingness to consider backyard chickens is even more important than the final decision on whether to allow them.  That's because it displays a recognition of the importance of the local food movement and the fact that eggs are missing from our locavore menu.

Progressive cities are "getting it" more quickly than others when it comes to embracing locavorism.  In the final analysis, those are the cities that are going to win out when it comes to economic development.  Because just as cream rises to the top, the best people tend to choose the best cities to live in.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I agree with Mayor Francis on Urban Hens

City Hall cannot allow constituent concerns to occupy all of its time.  Not when it should be focused on fulfilling a vision for Windsor.  Are we going to spend the next three months debating chickens?
That is Mayor Francis' opinion, and I happen to agree with him.

This is exactly why the Licencing Commission recommended a working  group that would look at the issue.

That's the way efficient councils work.  They delegate the work to subcommittees who quietly perform the task behind the scenes, so public time is not wasted.

We don't have to have lengthy debates on the issue, especially not now, before looking at the facts.   Looking at the facts includes researching the pros and cons, and learning from other cities that have already gone through this process.

The working group should also look how urban chickens, together with the larger story of food sovereignty, will help Windsor project a more forward thinking, progressive image that is conducive to attracting new residents, and keeping Windsorites from moving away.  Economic development is unarguably a major strategic goal.

We don't need a large cumbersome working group. We need one with just enough resources to do the job efficiently.  This process has been done already in many other cities, and there are a number of volunteers available to help with this task, so very few City resources need to be expended.  Let's just get on with it.

This fits in well with the City's mission statement :

The City of Windsor, with the involvement of its citizens, will deliver effective and responsive municipal services, and will mobilize innovative community partnerships.

And the City's vision:
Windsor, Canada's southernmost city and international gateway, is a diverse community of safe caring neighbourhoods, with a vibrant economy and a healthy sustainable environment.
Let's stop the debates.  We should establish an innovative community partnership involving our citizens and lets get to work on our vision to live in a healthy sustainable environment.  An effective and responsive municipal service will see the sense in that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Copy of a letter I sent to Council this afternoon

Dear Councillors:

I am writing to urge you to be open-minded as regards opening the discussion on backyard hens in Windsor, which has important ramifications for the locavore food movement in this region.  It goes far beyond a handful of residents wishing to achieve better control over their own food supply.

I am aware that many of you feel backyard hens are a no-go for our city.  At first glance, I can’t say I’m surprised, given how far removed chickens have become from our daily lives.  The risks of disease and contamination from large-scale factory farming have had the unfortunate effect of mistakenly convincing some people that those risks are likewise present in small backyard coops. 

You may be surprised to learn that backyard chickens have broad support in Windsor, as shown by over 200 supporters of the region’s Facebook page, and over 300 votes in favour (against just 6 against) in a public poll.  Many of those people do not wish to own chickens themselves, but feel our community will benefit from being tolerant towards those who do.

Last week I was at the Dr. David Suzuki School when the Samsung wind turbine announcement was made.  I feel strongly that the long term success of the region’s green energy strategy, as well as its economic revival, depends on our ability to follow through with green initiatives that touch the way we conduct our lives on a day to day basis.

In that regard, Council needs to show its unconditional support for environmental initiatives, especially those that have the potential to improve our food supply – from backyard hens to support of farmers’ markets and community gardens.  By embracing a locavore strategy, we can make Windsor an attractive place for the creative class so many of you talked about in the run-up to the election.

Windsor is lucky to have one of the best and longest growing seasons in Canada.  We have almost unlimited potential to rebrand the area as an eco-hotspot.  However, we are currently hamstrung by a conservative blue-collar mentality which prizes automobiles over green forms of living, and an over-concentration of fast food outlets that have led to above average obesity rates. 

The chronic difficulties of attracting enough medical professionals to this region are well-documented.  I am sure you are keen to attract other highly qualified professionals too, as well as stemming the brain-drain to cities that are perceived as being more progressive.  Case in point: this afternoon’s shock announcement that John Morris Russell, the conductor of the WSO, is moving to Cincinnati.  There is no doubt in my mind that this decision was related to a perception that Cincinnati has more to offer his young family than Windsor ever could.

I can tell you quite frankly that your decision to indefinitely defer the Licensing Commission’s recommendation to form a working group on backyard chickens was more disappointing to me than a no-vote following a comprehensive review of all the facts could ever be. 

To me, this was a clear message that Windsor’s Council is not particularly interested in ideas submitted by residents.  Dismissive comments from councillors, the lack of any response at all from my own ward councillor, the 15 minute discussion just to arrive at a date to put the matter back on the table, as well as the recent back-and-forth about the location of the Downtown Windsor Farmers’ Market send a clear signal that “hot topic” locavore food matters are way down on Windsor’s priority list.

I fully agree that control over our budget is a high priority, and I would be the last to suggest the expenditure of huge resources in this regard.  Instead, I would recommend “working smarter, not harder”.  For example, instead of lengthy debates to establish dates and other fine details, I urge you to minimize the deliberate use of bureaucratic obstacles that hamper, rather than help the proposal.  You can also reduce costs by taking advantage of volunteer help from residents and local aid organizations.

As regards backyard hens, I would be honoured to serve as a volunteer on a committee, as recommended by the Licensing Commission.   It is my understanding is that several other residents are also available in a volunteer capacity. 

Please feel free to contact me to discuss this matter further.
Philippa von Ziegenweidt

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why the push for urban farming?

It's a good question, and that might puzzle a city person who has never considered growing their own vegetables. If you are one of those people, have you ever wondered why the landscaping industry is so much larger than the vegetable gardening industry? Why do we tend to hide our vegetable gardens at the back, giving centre stage to the ornamental landscaping?

For me, I can say without a doubt, that there's nothing more satisfying than heading out to the garden (just 10 feet from the kitchen door), to grab a carrot and some herbs for something I'm cooking. No refrigeration or storage, no need to peel or even wash, the food goes straight into the pot. It's perfect for people who hate the chore of shopping for produce - it's heavy and bulky, and if you don't eat it quickly enough it spoils in the fridge. I find we waste less food from the garden because we only pick what we need. All the leftovers go to the compost bins, and return to the garden the following year to enrich the next season's crops. This reduces the volume of garbage we send to the landfill, and we benefit directly from having way less stinky dirty trash - especially in the heat of the summer, it makes a noticeable difference.

I also love it when I see my children raiding my garden for strawberries, raspberries or peas in the pod. What better way to get them to eat fresh seasonal produce and connect with where they come from?

It's easy to take our grocery stores for granted, with their shelves stocked full of shiny produce and cartons of eggs. But do you know how much food we buy in Windsor comes from elsewhere? Even tomatoes and cukes are often shipped in from Mexico or California. How is it people living in Canada's Tomato Capital, in the country's southernmost region, eat imported tomatoes? Does that not strike you as absurd? Not only that, but it means that a lot of fuel goes into the price of putting that produce on your table. The varieties also have to be longer lasting, with thicker skins, which can require some sacrifice of flavour and nutrients. Doesn't it make more sense to obtain your food from closer to home?

There is a food security aspect to consider. Much of our food comes from us from across the Windsor-Detroit border, as well as from warehouses and supply points closer to Toronto. If anything were to happen to break those supply lines, we wouldn't have more than a couple of days of food in the region to sustain us. Even worse, if something happened to our fuel supply - either a significant price spike (with peak oil upon us, that's something you just have to consider), or a disruption in the actual supply - this would undoubtedly push our region into a very difficult situation.

These are just some of the reasons why urban farming is important to me and my family. Adding backyard chickens to the mix takes it another step further, but the underlying reasons to keep them are exactly the same. Chickens, by virtue of the high quality protein from their eggs, provide a complex form of nutrition, but they also take the composting cycle a step further. They eat the food scraps we currently throw in the compost bin, processing it more rapidly, which in turn provides fertilizer for the garden. In this way, chickens and vegetables can coexist very efficiently in our backyards.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why can't Windsor be more like Ann Arbor?

This is what two of Windsor's councillors said about urban chickens last month:
"I think most people are opposed to chickens in the city," said Ron Jones.
 "People in this community don't want chickens running around in their backyards*," according to Councillor Drew Dilkens, adding that it would be "clucking ridiculous" for city administrative staff to be tied up in a committee investigating something that might benefit only "a very small handful of people."
Really?   I would like to suggest strongly that many more than a very small handful of people stand to benefit from the proposed working group and a supportive council.

I do agree that it is unlikely that many people will want to acquire chickens, at least at first.

But that doesn't make it unimportant.

I would argue that food security, access to healthy food and local food that minimizes the use of fossil fuels, and a city council that actively supports them make for an exciting, vibrant city where people want to live.   And since we don't have a whole lot of that in Windsor at the moment, if we want it (and who doesn't?), a good way to get started is to start small.  A small number of residents with legal backyard hens would be a good start.

Ann Arbor is a great example of a similarly sized city that is wonderful to visit, and it's only an hour away.  I would almost give an eyetooth to live there.  Our family heads to the downtown area periodically for the day just to feel better.  It has a vibrant farmer's market, a variety of restaurants, CSA's, food co-ops, numerous litle tea and coffee shops, and last but not least, urban chickens are legal there.  You could say Ann Arbor got the foodie formula right. 
This past summer the Windsor Downtown Farmers' Market committee ran into roadblocks with Council when they tried to secure a long term lease on their location.  This grassroots initiative was one of Downtown's first unmitigated success stories.  But instead of wholeheartedly embracing the idea and running with it, our Council tried to convince them to move to a different location.  I'm not privy to the discussions that went on, so I don't want to read too much into this, other than to point out that Council does not appear (to the public, at least) to champion the market 100%.

As regards urban chickens, it's important to note what was NOT argued when Council voted to indefinitely defer the matter:  They did NOT say they would prefer to be considering local/urban/organic food initiatives that would directly benefit a greater number of people.  They did NOT say they thought poverty in our city could be more effectively addressed via a different strategy.  They did NOT contact the urban chicken committee to say that they would prefer to start this public discussion with a bigger picture strategy.

No, they did not do any of the above.  By deferring the issue in a meeting without public input, they sent a clear message that it's not important enough to them.  End of story.

I find this puzzling.  On the one hand our mayor goes overseas, bringing back Samsung and a huge green energy contract.  On the other hand, an environmentally-minded grassroots residents' initiative is too low on the priority list.  Does that make sense to you?  Just because it doesn't involve billions of dollars, it's not important?  Shouldn't a green energy strategy for the region involve not only big industrial projects that provide jobs, but also small projects that enable residents to live environmentally consciously on a day-to-day basis?

At first, I might have believed it's the fact that the issue involves urban chickens.  But the Downtown Farmers' Market ran into similar issues.  So I prefer to think the problem is more likely to be rooted in Council's priorities, and the way they deal with resident-driven ideas, rather than the idea itself.

*  Note that Cluck Windsor's online poll shows overwhelming support for backyard chickens, and very little opposition.  That seems to contradict the Councillors' statements.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

More on prioritizing resources

On January 24th, Council will decide whether the issue of legalizing urban chickens is sufficiently high on the priority list to warrant looking at it in more detail.

It's not about whether to legalize them, though if you haven't been following the discussion closely, you might be forgiven for thinking that.

The Commission wrote that:
The issue of backyard chickens....has become a hot topic in municipalities across Canada and the United States....The community needs to consider this issue in an open and transparent manner and allow all interested parties to engage in the discussion.

Nobody is expecting large numbers of Windsorites to go out and acquire coops, so if you are disinterested in the discussion (perhaps having missed the linkage to food sovereignty), you might also be forgiven for thinking the issue is not particularly high up on the priority list.

Except for one thing.

Everybody agrees that Windsor is in a recession.  Attracting well-qualified people to the area is a priority.  Our shortage of doctors has been going on for years.  Stopping the loss of well-qualified professionals and jobs to other areas is a priority.  Keeping graduating students in Windsor is a priority. Attracting new business to Windsor is vitally important - after all, why else did our Mayor travel to South Korea last week?

Each family lost to another city is a loss to our tax base.  That is a loss of resources.  Added up together, the lost resources far exceed the cost of striking a committee, especially if that committee is set up efficiently and gets right on with the job.

And because of this, it's really important to think about what those families would see as attractive in other cities relative to Windsor.

I'll admit urban chickens probably aren't the main issue for the vast majority of them.  But I'm pretty sure they would love a place that is buzzing with organic food, community gardens and farmers' markets.  A place that is making the most of its location, which happens to be the country's southernmost, and warmest, region.

What is also vitally important is that they see Windsor as a city that is open to ideas, discussion, and debate.  That residents can speak up when they want to do something that will improve the quality of life in the city, and that they will be listened to.  That the city is in tune with environmental movements that are sweeping the continent and open to adopting them here.

I really like a lot of what Richard Florida has to say.  His creative class was mentioned quite a lot in the run up to the November election, though I suspect most people used him as a buzzword and probably hadn't actually read his books.  (If you are one of them -  they are available at the Windsor Public Library - I could sum up his premise as follows:  metropolitan areas with blue collar concentrations will continue to lose ground to those with non-transferable skills that are cool places to be.)  His message is quite depressing when you find yourself living in one of the cities losing ground and you don't see it doing absolutely everything it can to position itself to be a creative city, pandering instead to "old guard" constituents who don't know too much about life on the other side of the fence.

The good news is that our economic development strategy includes a piece that sees Windsor becoming a leader in the green energy sector.  That's right up there with the creative cities.  Yesterday's Samsung announcement was a big-picture plus for Windsor.

But an effective creative city goes further.  We need to see evidence of our green strategy in the small stuff.  Plenty of it.  Windsor needs to be an attractive place for the creative class to live.

And that means that we need to be prepared to prioritize ideas that improve our urban sustainability, especially if those ideas are already hot topics in other municipalities across Canada.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Won't urban chickens use up more city resources?

This question was brought up by the Licencing Commission while they were researching the subject of urban chickens in Windsor, and I've heard people ask the same thing.

The thinking is that a small number of law-abiding chicken owners might be ok, but what if somebody decides to have a flock of 30, or keep roosters?

Well, for argument's sake, let's say the City decides residents may own up to 3 hens, and no roosters, reflecting what has been allowed in most cities that allow backyard poultry.

As of today, it is against the bylaw to own a flock of 30 chickens. After the hypothetical law-change, this would stay equally illegal.

So rather than worrying about additional resources to challenge homeowners who flaunt the rules in the future, shouldn't we start by looking at how much of a drain on public resources it is today?

As a matter of fact, Sarah Kacso is looking into that already, and she'll report on it in her blog when she gets the information she has requested.

This question also highlights the importance of a well-formed working group that invites (and uses) input from all interested residents.  If the bylaw is changed to reflect a consensus opinion from the vast majority of future urban chicken owners, there is little reason to expect any of those people to flaunt the rules.  It wouldn't be in their interests.