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  • Jackie Skrypnek

Town and Country

Every year when it comes time to replenish my garden soil I'm reminded of how we city folk rely on country folk to make our world go 'round; the urban ecosystem just can't sustain itself without outside help. The way nature works, nutrients are forever cycling between bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. When we grow food on an urban plot, we've got the plants and ideally the soil microorganisms taken care of, but animals are often the missing piece. Their manure isn't "waste" as we're accustomed to believing, but a valuable return of nutrients and microbes to the soil that allows plants to flourish again and the cycle to continue.

Many municipalities don't allow urban hens, let alone cows or llamas, so we're left looking to farmers and ranchers to refuel our gardens' growing potential. Sure, you can buy bags of composted manure at the garden centre and that may not be a bad solution for a small vegetable bed or collection of pots. But if you've got a larger patch of ground to cover, or if you're concerned about the source and quality of the product that will ultimately work its way into your food, you may need to forge an alliance with a rural neighbour who has heaps of well-aged dung at their disposal.

It's that gap in soil fertility that brings it home for me, but there are other ways in which towns and cities truly depend on resources from those tending the land outside their borders. Our food is an obvious one, especially grains, seeds, oils, legumes, meats, and such things that aren't feasible for the urban, home-scale grower to produce on their own. And maybe this is okay. Maybe municipalities don't need to be utterly self-sustainable - so long as we recognize and nurture the profound partnership we have with the countryside.

It's got me wondering, though, if the relationship flows both ways. What of value can city folk offer our rural counterparts? A few things come to mind (and no doubt there are others):

BE CUSTOMERS: Farmers, ranchers, market gardeners, beekeepers, wool producers, etc. are serving us up food, fibre, and fertility. One of the most straightforward ways to reciprocate is to simply purchase their products and, in so doing, contribute to their livelihoods. It's an uncomplicated exchange, but it does require us to consciously choose these local purveyors over anonymous, industrial ones.

ENABLE STEWARDSHIP: One of the tenets of a free market is that production responds to consumer demand. As consumers then, we can align our demands with what encourages and allows producers to be good stewards of their lands - lands that surround our urban centres and determine the health and longevity of our watersheds, wildlife habitat, food production capacity and so on. Food grown using organic and regenerative practices, holistically managed livestock, produce with the odd blemish or lack of uniformity (ie. character!)...being willing customers for these things gives incentive for producers to forego chemicals and adopt methods that are healthy for themselves and the earth.

We might use our numbers politically, too, to stand up for policy that favours the wise use and conservation of lands we all depend on. As just one example, an organization like the Nature Conservancy of Canada allows owners of ecologically significant land to benefit from a commitment to conserving it as opposed to selling it for extraction or development.

EXPAND POSSIBILITIES: The concentrated mash-up of diverse minds and ideas that happens in urban centres can sometimes birth society-wide shifts or novel creations that are positive for everyone. Take, for example, the recent Black Lives Matter movement that emerged from cities and has ultimately challenged us all to consider the experience of BIPOC communities and acknowledge racism we'd previously been blind to. Or consider the plethora of chef-driven restaurants taking seasonal ingredients from local farms, transforming them through culinary prowess, and laying them back before us in unexpected, norm-bending fashion. No doubt some of their inspiration derives from the pulse and cross-pollination of metropolitan stimuli.

Oftentimes there's a stark political divide between urban and rural folk; certainly their experiences and needs can differ widely. But if we see ourselves not in opposition to one another, but as partners each with something vital to offer, we become mutually invested in a greater whole. It's not a panacea, but it might just begin with a load of manure and signing up for a local food box.


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