Q&A with Michael Ableman: How Urban Farming Can Improve Society

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Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood.

Street Farm is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves. In this Q&A, author Michael Ableman speaks with Senior Editor Fern Bradley about urban agriculture, finding inspiration, and the healing effects of farming in one of the worst urban slums in North America.

You may also be interested in Ableman’s 15-point Urban Food Manifesto.

Chelsea Green: In your dedication, you include Sole Food’s Downtown Eastside Crew, saying that they have inspired you with their courage and perseverance. How does that manifest itself in the day-to-day of the farm work? Or are you reflecting on a more personal level here?

Michael Ableman: I think that anyone who has had to deal with addiction knows that just getting out of bed each day can be challenging, let alone keeping a job, having relationships, etc. Many of our Sole Food staff have come through some heavy stuff—poverty, violence and abuse, mental illness. No one gets a pass on suffering, but my own life has been relatively privileged, and so I am truly inspired by these people who show up to work, grow good food, and demonstrate real caring for each other and for what we are doing.

CG: Your description of the Downtown Eastside neighborhood is a little disturbing. Drug use and prostitution are part of daily life. You also write about keeping your assumptions in check. Did you have assumptions about the neighborhood and its residents that turned out to be false?

MA: Before Sole Food, my relationship with Downtown Eastside in Vancouver was just like that of most people. It was a place that I drove through and kept moving. Secure in the protected capsule of my car, I could look at the scene outside like a movie, no engagement with the lives and humanity that was playing out on those streets. I have to admit that I had a lot of attitudes, false perceptions, and judgments about folks who were addicted to drugs or living on the edge. I’ve learned that no one chooses that life. My coworkers at Sole Food have taught me so much, made me a more compassionate person, and shattered so many assumptions I held.

CG: You write, “Is it possible to create viable farming enterprises on paved and contaminated land in the heart of our cities?” You’ve been working with Sole Food Street Farms for seven years, so how would you answer that question now?

MA: We use language like “urban agriculture” but don’t always think about what those words really mean and whether such a thing really exists. And while I have been working with this idea for over thirty years, given the costs of the infrastructure required to farm safely on contaminated urban sites and the scarcity and value of urban land, I am still not entirely convinced that production agriculture in the city is economically viable. I think we need to look at these enterprises from a broader perspective and see their social, educational, nutritional, and community values as their greatest strength. In the end, the economics have to work to keep these enterprises viable, and I think that is possible, especially if the goals are kept focused. Sole Food has attempted to address some deep social challenges and also be viable economically. Those two goals sometimes rub up against each other.

CG: There have been some amazing coincidences that helped you find land and funding for Sole Food. For example, you met one of Sole Food’s benefactors through a woman who once gave a ride to one of your sons when he was hitchhiking. Is serendipity like that essential to success? Or can you find funding for projects like Sole Food completely through deliberate outreach or by legislation?

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MA: I think that serendipity is always essential. There is nothing I have done in my life that I am trained or qualified for. So much of who we are and what we achieve is reliant on forces beyond our control, we just don’t always give credit to those forces. Creative work in the world is about 20 percent vision, 20 percent commitment, 40 percent hard work, and the rest synchronicity, serendipity, and unexpected gifts from the universe.

CG: Here’s another quote from the book: “We build something like church and offer opportunities for community, but we cannot save people. . . . I know from experience that salvation can come from the soil.” How does the soil offer salvation?

MA: I think it’s safe to say that any farmer would have to admit that there is something very healing that goes on in our daily interchange with living soil. Many of us have had the hunch that living, biologically diverse, fertile soil not only produces good food but makes those who work with it feel better. Now the researchers and scientists have studied this and corroborated our anecdotal experience. There is the physical and physiological piece of this, and there is another piece. Making food from soil, planting tiny seeds and watching and nurturing them to fruition, gathering that food and sharing it with the community is another form of salvation. For folks whose lives have revolved around getting the next fix, the experience of nurturing, growing, harvesting, sharing, caring for something that is wholly dependent on you can be powerful.

CG: From your description, in the book, of the way the Sole Food stand is run at Vancouver farmers markets, it’s clear you’re a born salesman. What keeps you motivated?

MA: If I were selling cheap trinkets or scrawny chickens, I would not feel so good about the colorful, theatrical, and creative ways that we engage at the markets. But the food we sell is so good, it is essential and necessary nutrition. I love the challenge of selling an entire truckload of highly perishable produce in a few hours from a tiny temporary market stall. Farmers markets represent that brief time when we can engage with those who eat our food, share some wisdom or experience from the land, learn from our customers. I want every person who passes by or enters our stall to feel like they had a special experience, tasted something new, talked and laughed with someone they normally would not encounter anywhere else in their lives.

CG: What do you see for Sole Food five years from now?

MA: Sole Food’s farms are all on short-term leases. We always face the possible need to move on short notice to make way for the next new development highway or park. In some ways our farms are similar to the population that we work with: homeless or always facing the possibility of homelessness. While we have designed and developed some very innovative systems that address this challenge—which is common to every city—we are working on securing one permanent central location in the city of Vancouver that could become a stable base for the project. A permanent location and long-term funding to support the social part of our initiative would go a long way to giving our staff and all those we serve the rock-solid stability that is lacking in the rest of their lives.

CG: You’ve been farming for more than 40 years. What motivated you to take on yet another new farming project at this stage of your life and work?

MA: When I left the very public community farming work I was doing in California, I thought I wanted to retreat and slow things down a bit. But after a few years on our family farm on an island off the coast of British Columbia, I started to feel the pull to get back into the trenches and do something more with my skills. I love my island neighbors, and I love growing food for them, but for the most part they are privileged, and I needed to do work for those who were less so.

CG: What’s the biggest difference between your family farm on Salt Spring Island and farming in the midst of the city of Vancouver? What is the same?

MA: Aside from the rural context, the scale, and the different goals of my 120-acre rural family farm, the physical difference of farming on open fields versus farming in boxes is significant. The farming principles, though, are the same, applicable to any situation anywhere.

CG: In any food justice project or social justice project, we come up against contradictions, unfairness, and ironies that seemingly can’t be resolved. You’ve seen that with Sole Food. How do you respond to that?

MA: The longer I live, the more that I have to accept that there is no black and white, only many shades of grey. When I was younger I was more strident and struggled with accepting that, while we might seek perfection, in the real world it does not exist. Life is messy, and life in the Downtown Eastside is especially so. It’s crazy, but one irony I have experienced all over the world is that often those with the least are willing to give the most. This has proven itself over and over with those we work with at Sole Food.
Our model is terribly imperfect, managed and run by imperfect people. We hold to high goals, and we learn to accept that, each day, we fall short of those goals, sometimes dramatically so. There is contradiction inherent in every decision we make: We have to balance a market economy with natural systems agriculture; support the very special needs of our staff while maintaining a working farm business; and provide a place for people to work and find some purpose while not demanding sometimes unattainable goals like sobriety, dependability, stability.

CG: The final chapter of the book is called Urban Food Manifesto. In it you address some of the most prominent challenges in our food system. You call for radical shifts, including a publicly supported agricultural training center in every municipality and a year-round covered farmers market space in every community. Do you expect this change to unfold in your lifetime?

MA: I started working on my manifesto more than ten years ago. At the time many of the ideas I was expressing seemed a little radical. It is remarkable to see that a number of those ideas are now accepted and even implemented. Things are changing quickly; many people are recognizing the challenges in our food system and rolling up their sleeves to do something about them. This is encouraging, but we have a long way to go to make good food available to all and to educate ourselves and the world that food and how it comes to us is essential to our individual, ecological, and social well being.

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