Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on an Urban Farm

Every year, Farmers on 57th hosts student projects and research. This is a guest post offered by graduate student Giulia Cecci, edited by Karen Ageson.

Hi, my name is Giulia. I am a Cantonese-Roman Vancouverite and a recent graduate of the Local Development Program at the University of Padua, Italy. My Master’s thesis explored the impact of COVID-19 on urban agriculture in the Metro Vancouver Area, partly to address a lack of research on urban agriculture in the Global North. I’m here to share my research on how urban farms like Farmers on 57th have weathered the pandemic.

March 2021, I first encountered Farmers on 57th in Farm Folk City Folk’s online webinar: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Food Security. Focusing on farms with a social mission I selected Farmers on 57th as one of eight case studies. Farmers on 57th is a non-profit organization which seeks to contribute to the greater community by providing CSA harvest shares, educational opportunities and therapeutic gardening programs. Some beneficiaries of this project are the residents of George Pearson Centre (GPC), the edible garden learners and the neighbours that enjoy the beautiful green aesthetics and eating local foods.

In my research I found that Farmers on 57th has been a benefit to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic showing sustainability and resilience. This amidst land insecurity on property operated by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and slated for development by Onni, a real estate development company.

Social and Environmental Sustainability despite the COVID-19 Pandemic

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Farmers on 57th in 2020 were multiple: loss of reliable access to washrooms, indoor storage and programming space and increases in the cost of agricultural inputs, while at the same time, a growth in CSA membership.

In March, when COVID-19 began to spread, areas of the gardens, offices and indoor programming spaces were closed off from farming and renovated to clinical standards for a COVID-19 recovery unit. As of Winter 2022, Farmers on 57th and the residents of GPC have not fully regained access to indoor office and programming space while there have been investments to upgrade the VCH facility and the raised garden beds outside.

Photo Credit: Farmers on 57th. Tuesday Garden Club in the George Pearson Centre ArtStudio adjacent to the residents’ gardens, 2018. This indoor programming space was lost to the George Pearson Centre residents at the onset of the pandemic to make way for a COVID-19 recovery unit and then as a VCH flex ward. Modified through the pandemic, the Garden Club program now delivers 500 volunteer grown bouquets to resident’s bedrooms June-September and assists with resident’s gardens one-on-one.

On the plus side, CSA memberships sold out by mid-March in 2020 and 2021. Prior to COVID-19, CSA memberships would sell out a couple of weeks after the harvest share program had already begun the last week of May.

At the onset of the pandemic three Farmers on 57th programs had to be suspended when Ward 1 of GPC and its surrounds were fenced off for VCH priorities. Most impacted were the residents of GPC who, for the 2020 growing season, lost wheelchair access to the Ward 1 patio gardens and Garden Club, a weekly therapeutic garden program running since 2009. Modified community and therapeutic garden programs resumed in 2021. Group visits and community gatherings at the farm are canceled indefinitely as the farm has not regained access to washrooms that can be made available to farm guests.

To recover lost program revenues Farmers on 57th pivoted to increased vegetable production and grew the CSA membership by 11%. Fortunately, they were able to pay additional labour hours with funding from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and increased CSA revenues. Furthermore, COVID-19 social distancing measures were implemented and affected the number of volunteers that could garden at the same time. An increased number of volunteer shifts were spread through the week to respect safety distances. More staff and volunteer hours, and daily work at the market garden, resulted in increased yields to provision the growing number of CSA members and volunteers.

The pandemic caused supply chain disruptions and increased the cost of certain inputs such as seeds, amendments and water irrigation systems. Therefore, rather than sourcing from a local Home Hardware Store Farmers on 57th had to purchase goods online from a multinational e-commerce platform. Also, the loss of access to proximal restrooms caused loss in labour time, as it takes an estimated 20 minutes for staff and volunteers to walk and follow sanitary protocols to use the restrooms in the GPC Residential Home.

Despite these challenges faced with the pandemic, Farmers on 57th continues to provide a plethora of social and environmental benefits to locals through the act of cultivating a socially and environmentally sustainable community urban farm.

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