British Columbia·Photos

Shipping container microfarm stuck in red-tape grey zone

A Vancouver restauranteur's project to grow greens in a converted shipping container microfarm doesn't fit within existing city bylaws. The City of Vancouver is working with the local businesses behind the project to to navigate the setbacks because it fits well with the Greenest City initiative.

City vows to work with growers and innovators to help reach 'Greenest City' plan targets

A Vancouver restaurateur is hoping to bring the farm-to-table movement one step closer to her kitchen with a "microfarm" in her restaurant's back alley. But her efforts to go greener have run into some red tape.

Kitsilano's Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company recently installed a retrofitted shipping container in the back alley, with the intention of using it to grow greens for restaurant use.

The shipping container farm-in-a-box is designed by Vancouver's Urban Stream Innovation, and cost upwards of $15,000.

The unit includes a composting unit that allows the restaurant to dispose of its food waste. The compost is then used to help grow herbs, microgreens, sprouts and mushrooms year-round. Vertical shelves help maximize the yield for the farm, which takes up the ground space equivalent of roughly one parking spot.

Despite the up-front cost, which required a farmers' loan from Vancity, Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company co-owner Suzanne Fielden felt the microfarm made sense from an economic and environmental point of view.

"The cost of hauling your compost away every month is the same as paying back a loan for one of these units," says Fielden.

She points out that new Metro Vancouver regulations mean that restaurants will no longer be able to put food scraps in their garbage by 2015.

"The bonus is you get greens... and your footprint will go down to zero, which is amazing," she says.

Fielden is Urban Stream Innovation's first commercial customer, though founder Nick Hermes has been running a pilot project behind Luke's Kitchen since February 2013.

Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company's microfarm has been on site since May, but the container currently lies empty, because it falls into a zoning grey zone. The City of Vancouver has implemented a stop work order until the unit can be deemed earthquake- and fire-safe.

Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston, who helps over see the Greenest City Action Plansays that innovative green projects often encounter growing pains when first integrated into existing city structures and bylaws. 

"We face it when we're dealing the everything from electric car charging stations to new types of green buildings strategies, [to]waste strategies to growing food," says Johnston.

Johnston says the shipping container microfarm concept fits well with the Greenest City Action Plan's goals around food and food security, which include growing more food within the city, creating more jobs related to urban farming, and providing Vancouverites with more access to locally grown food.

And so, the city is working closely with Fielden and Hermes to find a way to bring the microfarms up to code.

"Our building codes don't account for this kind of structure. That raises questions that we need to look into and understand," Johnston says.

Nick Hermes began working on the Urban Stream Innovation microfarm as part of a university thesis. (Margaret Gallagher)

Hermes says the city has been very supportive and he is confident the issues can be resolved shortly. Once the units reach compliance, Hermes sees a large potential market, beginning with other restaurants who've expressed interest.

"They've generally led the charge on these food movements," he says.

Other potential "microfarmers" include schools, stores, multi-unit residential buildings, work camps and any other place that has to dispose of food matter and bring in fresh greens. "We see it as kind of endless," Hermes says.

Despite the time delays and potential extra cost of bringing the unit up to code, Fielden feels her venture into microfarming will pay off for everyone involved. She says in the long run it will help Urban Stream Innovation further refine its product, and it will also give the city a blueprint for similar installations across the city.

Fielden also looks forward to "growing some yummy greens to top our pizza with it," and bringing kids in to show them how a microfarm works.

"In the end, it's all going to be worth it," she says.

Fielden hopes the bylaw issues are resolved in time for her to plant a summer basil crop.


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