Organizational Planning for Urban Farming Network

I think that many of the key challenges around building a successful urban farming movement/network have an organizational basis.

One likely key to the success of urban farming is in developing and maintaining a cohesive organization to maintain relationships between farmers while simultaneously building opportunities for farmers and advancing the image of urban farming as a legitimate employment sector

    • Such an organization could play many roles:
      • Lobbying municipalities for changes in bylaws and regulations
      • Lobbying municipalities to make land available to for-profit urban farming ventures
      • Organizing educational opportunities for urban farmers
      • Organizing social/networking events for urban farmers
      • Building and maintaining a dynamic website as a resource to both the public and urban farmers
      • Assisting farmers in locating land and negotiating lease agreements
      • Acting as an Extension Agent for urban farmers
      • Liaising with community gardens, small-scale urban food processors, and other urban agriculture projects
      • Actively engaging with urban farmers while recruiting new farmers and identifying current ones
      • Generally working to build and strengthen the urban farming industry in Vancouver.

However, there are  a number of challenges in creating and maintaining such an organization:

  • Long-term commitment.  My research and experience currently shows that a lot of people come and go in urban farming – probably a good sign of the difficulty in making a living in this field.  Without long-term, knowledgeable people, it is hard to build and maintain a movement.
  • Funding.  Not an issue isolated to urban farming, funding is often the key to success in many movements.
  • Organization.  Even with funding and commitment, general organization challenges can hamper progress.  However, this is often due to a lack of funding.
  • Legitimacy.  Urban farming is a very small economic sector.  A paid position for an overseeing organization seems a bit excessive.  In theory, it probably is.  But in even more sound theory, if such an organization existed, it could accelerate the success of urban farming.

These challenges may exist in varying degrees at different times.  It seems to me that the most important start is in organization, since this can help build cohesiveness between farmers and a vision for the future.  With more cohesiveness, work can be spread amongst many people to advance the success of an urban faming network.  Hopefully organization can lead to more long-term commitment, more funding, and more legitimacy for the urban farming movement.

In saying that (though I am sure I have more to say), it leads me to the present.  I have counted ten urban farming operations in Vancouver (including my own).  To date there is no organization that serves the needs of those farmers specifically or even works to join them together. I think such an organization would be beneficial and, as part of this thesis, may be working towards the development of that organization.  My challenge is how to take a structured, systematic, organized approach to doing so.  Here is some of what I have in mind from now until May 2011:

  • In developing an urban farming network/organization I think it needs to start with urban farmers and grow from the ground up (pun partially intended).  While I have talked to a few farmers already, there are several others still to contact.  While originally I thought I would want to start with just a few for initial brainstorming, I can now see that the more farmers we have in the beginning the better.
    • Because there is such a diversity of people in the urban farming ‘scene’ it will be important to get input from everyone right from the beginning.  Further, because the group is so small, it seems dumb to risk leaving anyone out at all.
  • The first meeting of urban farmers will serve a number of purposes
    • Initial meeting of peers
    • Introduction to this thesis and its goal of, basically, promoting and growing their business
    • Solicit feedback on the idea of an urban farming network/organization
      • Much of this thesis rests on the assumption that such a thing would be desired!
    • A chance for me to share some of my research thus far and discuss basic barriers to successful urban farming in Vancouver.
    • Solicit feedback on meet & greet and working groups for early 2011
    • Drink beer (its inevitable)
  • It may be good to have a few non-farmers, but potentially important partners, also at the meeting.  This may include representatives from BOB, FF/CF, UBC, Food Policy Council.

The first meeting would take place in the next several weeks and help lay some foundation for the meet and greet and working groups that would take place from January to March.  Here is how that may look:

  • Meet & Greet (Early-mid January)
    • This is essentially a publicity event that gives urban farmers, urban farming advocates, and politicians a chance to mingle.  This catered event would also serve as a chance to gather more information on the topics we should discuss in the working groups.  The Meet & Greet would include a number of activities for participants to engage in to catalyze conversations and the generation of ideas.
  • Working Groups (February – March)
    • A series of working groups will follow the Meet & Greet based on my own research plus ideas generated from the Meet & Greet and the initial farmers meeting.
    • These groups will mainly be for urban farmers, but we may want to bring in some guest participants for certain subjects (e.g., business development)
    • I am currently thinking of a strategy where each group has a specific focus.  For example:
      • 1st meeting:  identifying challenges in urban farming (within a range of t0pics)
      • 2nd meeting: identifying ways to meet those challenges
      • 3rd meeting: identifying benefits of urban ag. (including personal stories)
      • etc…
    • I am still spending a lot of time thinking about this structure and how to make it most effective.
    • The groups may take place every two weeks or so.  The idea here is to get the groups happening in the winter when farmers have more time. Also, to ensure that we can compile info generated at the groups into a paper we can use to advise the city on the state of urban farming in Vancouver.
  • Present Findings (April/May)
    • At this point, it may be best to present the findings t the Food Policy Council who may then take this info to the city.  What is likely to come out of the groups is a number of bylaw barriers that exist to further urban farming (I already have a list of some somewhere).  To approach the city as a group of farmers through the food policy council will get us better results than me grumbling at the city’s business license office manager.
  • Begin development of network (If so concluded)
    • This would mean start looking for funding as well

Another aspect of all this is how to keep this process organized.  While I can do so quite well to a certain point, one of the challenges may be to successfully organize and carryout the Meet & Greet and Working Groups. I am hoping to talk to a number of supportive organizations to see if they can offer an in-kind donation of skills to help with this.  Perhaps someone who can help organize and mediate these events or who may be able to offer me some useful resources and techniques for getting and keeping participants engaged.  While I do have some experience at this, I think there is a real skill in effective group mediation that would be very helpful for these groups.

Well, I think that is it for today.  it is good to get a lot of that written and out of my head.  Now I need to go back and finish some of my earlier posts.

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