Image: Dirk Becker
by Jeff Nield, Vancouver, British Columbia
Last week Colleen brought us the story of a woman in Michigan who is facing jail time for planting a garden. Sadly, this type of heavy-handed by-the-letter enforcement of bylaws exists at the same time as people embrace urban agriculture as a viable source of high quality nutrition. A man in Lanztville, British Columbia is facing a similar battle with the local government after converting his 2.5 acre "residential" lot from a gravel pit into a thriving organic farm. His refusal to "cease all agricultural activity" could land him six months in jail.
Acting on a single complaint from a disgruntled neighbor the regional district sent a letter to Dirk Becker giving him 14 days to "remove the piles of soil and manure from the property." The quoted bylaw states that property owners will ensure their property doesn't become or remain "unsightly". Specifically this refers to "the accumulation of filth, discarded materials or rubbish, which includes unused or stripped automobiles, trucks, trailers, boats, vessels, machinery, mechanical or metal parts." Admittedly, it can be argued that, to some a manure pile could be considered "filth". But, considering how Becker regenerated his 2.5 acres (see photo above) this characterization is an insult.
Becker explains the character of his neighbourhood and the evolution of his piece of property in an article he wrote for Synergy Magazine.
We have 2.5 acres in total, as do several of our neighbours. Three doors down our road are both cows and horses. As you can see from our photographs, the area we live in can hardly be considered "urban". However, we are using the term to describe our situation as our property is zoned "residential" and we are doing small scale, organic growing of fruits and vegetables on one acre. Lantzville is a small community (population 3,500) just north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Even the name, Lantzville, evokes images of small town comraderie, walking down main street, basket in hand, to see the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. It's surprising that on such a quiet, rural, two-block long, dead-end road, with forest across the street and acreages on either side of us, that we would end up being ordered to stop such an essential activity as growing food for others because of a particular bylaw.
The previous owner used an excavator and dump truck to mine and scrape the land bare. He had a soil screener set up on the property, selling the soil, then sand, then gravel, which resulted in lowering the level of the property by about four feet. When Dirk assumed ownership, all that remained was gravel. There were no worms, no grasshoppers, no birds, no butterflies; essentially - no living creatures!
Since 1999, Dirk has made a tremendous effort to heal the land, beginning slowly - one wheelbarrow at a time. Nicole joined him at the end of 2006. It has been a gradual, organic process from planting a few fruit trees and having a small growing area, to expanding with more hand-made soil using wood chips from local tree companies and a small amount of horse manure from local, Lantzville stables. Now we have four kinds of bees, several types of dragonflies, numerous types of butterflies, frogs, toads, snakes, hundreds of birds and much more! We have dedicated our time to supporting hundreds of community members who have sought guidance on how to become more sustainable in their own lives; from educating people on how to support sustainable local initiatives (including 4H and homeschoolers), to teaching families how to grow their own food.
The original letter asking Becker to stop agricultural activities arrived in September, 2010. Since then, there has been a huge public outcry in support of his activities, including a decent showing of 75 people at a support rally last night. Despite this, the municipality has recently hired a law firm to pursue the matter. Becker received a couriered letter in early June, once again asking him to stop growing food or they will proceed with legal action against him. What this could amount to, according to Becker, is a judge ruling that he is "in contempt" of the district bylaw and he could be sentenced to six months in jail.
To follow this story you can connect with Becker on Facebook where he posts regular updates.