By Wrenna Robertson
On a small acreage in Lantzville, B.C., history is being made. For the past year, Dirk Becker and his partner Nicole Shaw have been embroiled in a legal battle against the District of Lantzville for their ongoing act of civil disobedience.
On their two-and-a-half acres of residentially zoned property, Dirk and Nicole grow food—mountains of incredible food on the most beautiful and biologically diverse piece of property I have seen. Mountains of wholesome, organic food that they have been ordered to destroy.
Dirk and Nicole have been farming in violation of a zoning bylaw, which states that residentially zoned property cannot be used for agricultural purposes.
While many cities in North America (including Vancouver and Victoria) have amended their bylaws to support urban agriculture as a legal home-based business, the small community of 3,500 residents north of Nanaimo has not. When Becker acquired the property in 1999, it was stripped bare, the previous owner having mined the land to sell off soil, then sand, and finally gravel, reducing the level of the property by four feet. The land has been painstakingly restored by Becker (joined by Shaw in 2006), one wheelbarrow at a time.
It now stands as an oasis, a model of urban agriculture and organic farming. It utterly teems with life, and absolutely sustains life.
A carpenter by trade, Becker took up the plow as a political action. Refusing to follow the industrial model, he grows a highly diverse array of crops without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It is low-paying, back-breaking work, but his commitment to change does not stop there. He has twice run for politics, once municipally and once provincially, founded Nanaimo’s most successful farmers’ market, served on many boards ranging from social to environmental, and raised awareness about the dire state of our food system.
Yet for all Becker’s work to protect our ability to eat, he has often been painted the enemy. Recently the District of Lantzville retained a law firm in further persecution of Becker’s defence of food.
It is crucial that this issue be properly reframed. This issue is not one of Becker versus the District of Lantzville. Becker and Shaw are not simply fighting the system, they are fighting for us all. They are on the front line, paying with their physical and emotional well-being so that each member of our society—from those who purchase their beautiful wholesome food at the weekly Bowen Road Farmers Market, to their neighbour and original complaintant, to Lantzville’s mayor Colin Haime—can continue to feed ourselves now and in our potentially turbulent future.
Becker has, for the past 10 years, been taking a stand for what we all need to stand for—for the very essence of what allows us to stand up and function—the ability to nourish our bodies.
This is not a quaint topic, not an issue of hipsters and yuppies buying trendy foods at expensive grocery stores. This is about our ever decreasing ability to control the quality and quantity of foods that we put into our bodies, and into the mouths of our children. He is a leader and an example of what we can do, what we should do.
Yes, Becker and Shaw are in violation of a city bylaw, but it is bylaws such as this that need to be changed. Their fight is parallel to those of the bright visionaries of our past—visionaries such as Rosa Parks, whose act of “civil disobedience” in refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger in 1955 made her an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. If it were not for brave and bold, idealistic individuals such as Rosa Parks and Dirk Becker, our society would fail to progress.
But Becker and Shaw cannot take on this struggle alone, nor should they have to. This is not their fight. This is the fight for every one of us who wants to ensure our current and future food supply.
It has been said that it takes less energy to condemn than it does to think. We all need to take some time to recognize that when current bylaws are no longer serving us, they need to be changed. We must encourage real thought, deep awareness of the very bleak reality of our current food supply.
It is easy to feel insulated from the global food crisis as we continue to walk into our local grocery stores and see the shelves constantly stocked with goods. We need to see that what increasingly lines those shelves and aisles is not food, but products. Manufactured goods being packaged up and sold to us as nourishment. Our food choices are more and more being dictated not by seasons and regions, but by a corporation’s bottom line.
The fight for access to food is not limited to peasants in Bolivia, or starving women and children in Somalia. Their crisis is indeed deep and immediate, but we must not allow such crises to deflect us from our own dire reality. Vancouver Island produces between just five and 10 percent of our food supply, and there exists just two days' worth of fresh food supply.
There is very strong evidence that our society doesn’t fully understand the precipice at which we teeter. Sustainably minded individuals choose to go vegan, eating lower on the food chain as energy conversion ratios demand. Cookbooks continue to sell as individuals attempt to approach self-sufficiency by eating more foods cooked at home. But if our conscious, deliberate choices are still leading us to the grocery store to purchase foreign-farmed or factory-formed foods, we are getting it wrong.
The only responsible ethic of eating is to focus on local, seasonal foods. But that we may do so, farmers like Becker and Shaw need to be supported.
Eating has lately become a political act. We can no longer count on voting with our dollar at the grocery store. The demand for local foods is growing exponentially, but currently this demand far exceeds supply. Just five percent of the land base in B.C. is active farmland, and only 50 percent of the land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is under production. All municipalities must recognize the urgency with which this issue need be addressed.
It is irrelevant whether you live in Becker’s community or not. The model of urban organic agriculture is the surest means to addressing our greater environmental crisis. When communities everywhere are able and encouraged to grow their own food, we will jointly be addressing issues of greenhouse gas emissions, industrial pollution, waterway nitrification, farmland degradation, and biodiversity depletion.
Food grown without need for long-distance transport, without petrochemical inputs, and with total ecosystem health as tantamount to economic health is the key. Such a model will not only serve to heal the planet, it will also heal our bodies.
Please support the fight to save Compassion Farm. Join “Protect Urban Agriculture, Save Compassion Farm...” on Facebook to learn more about how you may help ensure our current and future food supply.
Wrenna Robertson is a Vancouver Island writer with a keen interest in eating locally grown, sustainably produced food.