Farming in the city is no longer a paradox to most urbanites. But farming, quite literally, on the street provokes a whole different way of thinking around the idea of urban farming. The urban farm is no longer a cloistered site of food production within the environs of the city, instead, it’s a fundamental part of the urban fabric. Such thinking requires a different set of ideas, maybe even a new vocabulary. Sole Food Street Farms is generating some of those new words.
Take the word “farmily”, coined by one of the staff members. It encapsulates the rich social connections that can come about through meaningful employment in farm work. Sole Food is an urban agriculture project with a social service mandate. Its street farming operation trains and employs people from the Downtown Eastside (DTES), one of the most economically depressed and drug-afflicted neighbourhoods in Vancouver, Canada. The DTES is also where Sole Food grows its fruits and vegetables in liminal spaces, abutting liquor stores, in the shadow of freeway overpasses and on the hard pavement of city parking lots. Started in 2009, Sole Food Street Farms now has five sites totalling 4.5 acres that together supply 30 restaurants, five farmers’ markets and one CSA.
From finding early donors to navigating municipal codes, from hiring the ‘hard to employ’ to finding space to grow in a city with the world’s third most expensive real estate, all the odds seemed against the project at the beginning. In his book Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs and Hope on the Urban Frontier, co-founder and current director Michael Ableman details the vision and hard work that has transformed trash-strewn lots into orchards and fields and made farmers out of those who had once been lost to the streets.
What sets Sole Food Street Farms apart as an inner-city agricultural operation with a social mission?
One is the scale that we’re operating on. We produce 25 tonnes of food annually, on under five acres. The second element is the social piece. Not only are we employing people who don’t have agricultural skills but they are dealing with some heavy health and addiction issues on a daily basis.
Because of the value of the land that we’re on, we’ve had to design a system that’s movable and transient just like the people we employ. We have to use high density and vertical plantings, and basically do whatever we can to produce more food in less space.
What are some of the specific challenges that you face?
If you were going to run a viable urban agricultural enterprise, you’d probably hire people with all the skills and none of the issues our people are dealing with or if you were just running a social enterprise you’d focus on that.
We get visits from cities all over the world, but I don’t know of anything else on the same scale. There are some really hard physical challenges, not the least of which is that in almost every city, the native soils are too contaminated to grow in, and the land values are too high for landlords to want to lease their properties out for farming.
And for me, the jury is still out as to whether urban agriculture as a social enterprise is viable on an agricultural scale. I started The Center for Urban Agriculture [at Fairview Gardens, California] in the 1980s when that was still a new concept. So I have been playing with this stuff for a while, but I am still not convinced. It might be more powerful socially and educationally for urban dwellers than it is economically.
What are the economic issues that stand in the way of scalability?
When we originally started, the intent was to replicate [our model] in other cities. But the reality is that the challenges are so huge, from a social, agricultural and financial perspective, that we’ve had our hands full maintaining what we did in Vancouver. We get visits from cities all over the world, but I don’t know of anything else on the same scale.
There are very few cities in the world with native soil safe enough to grow in. To grow food commercially safely in cities requires infrastructure that isolates the growing medium, and that infrastructure is expensive. We have 10,000 boxes, and at $10- $30 a piece, that is a big hit to start with. Training urban people and getting them up to speed on farming skills is an expense. Land is expensive and hard to access. Then there is the high cost of permits – in our case that was $50,000 – $60,000 a site. Most municipal codes do not recognize the difference between a farm and a bricks and mortar building. Also there are theft and vandalism issues. Those are expenses and challenges you don’t face in a rural setting.
With all your fruits and vegetables grown in containers, what do you do about soil?
We grow in boxes out of necessity, because we’re either dealing with paved or highly contaminated soil, and we also have to be able to move at short notice. The problem with putting a growing medium in a box is that it’s disconnected from the broader ecology that a field has. You’re dealing with a different system. Organic matter burns up very quickly. The soil biology has to be maintained in an intensive way. We use compost tea, worm castings and cover crops on a limited basis, some compost and some mulching. All of these things are beneficial, but we’re still experimenting with different methods. I would never describe our system as being sustainable necessarily, but the primary goal is our social mission.
Why do you say it’s not sustainable?
In my view, there is no such thing as a sustainable agriculture system currently. Sustainability is a series of questions we ask ourselves every day about actions we take on our farms. I don’t think anyone would be able to honestly say that their farms are truly sustainable. I would challenge that for many reasons – including the fact that we are interacting with a market economy and that we are shipping soil nutrients off with each box of food that we sell. There’s the use of water, energy, labour, all of these things. We have not arrived and I don’t think we will ever arrive. We have to continue to strive. Sustainability for me is approaching my farm with a beginner’s mind every morning. I approach it by asking how can I do this better.
In the book you talk about the tension between your two primary goals of providing meaningful employment to people with challenges and creating a credible model of urban agriculture. How do you measure success in that context?
Queens University did a study showing that for every $1 we pay staff, there is a $2 savings in terms of health care costs, legal expenses and social services back to society at large. It was a big thing for me to get a dollar value for those intangibles. Success is not going to just be the bottom line on our quarterly report. Our primary goal is a commitment to the healing, wellbeing and stability of the people we serve. We have many people on our staff who had never held jobs for more than a few months before, who have now been with us for seven or eight years.
At the same time, I don’t want people to buy our food out of a sense of charity. I want them to buy it because it’s the best food.
What are the markers of this transformation?
We expect people to work at a very high level. We are supplying all of Vancouver’s top chefs. No one gets a pass. It requires people to pick up their speed and produce quality food. Bunching vegetables alone is a big deal, and we get into that level of detail. The results have been awesome, not the least of which is the pride and sense of empowerment of having a skillset and feeding a fairly large portion of the city’s population.
Do you think that it is the most marginalised who could or should lead the food revolution?
If we’re going to talk about good food being available to all, then those producing it need to be front and centre in the conversation. I always felt that about the organic movement. Despite organic farming [in North America] being entirely dependent on people from Mexico and points south, where is their voice in that conversation?
Most beneficiaries of the new food movement have been those who can afford to participate. My staff are not cooking from Alice Waters cookbooks. Even after all these years, the new food movement is still an exclusive experience.
In the book, you write: “This thing we now call a food system – is food really a ‘system’? – is about relationships: interpersonal, ecological, biological, social, and political.” How does this view change the way that you work as a farmer, do business, and interact with people and plants?
When I hear the word food system it sounds so dry and academic and I want to change the language around what we do. Human communities and farming ecologies are not separate. If we were to look at community, whether at the farming, ecological or human level, from a broader, more holistic and more inclusive perspective we would have to accept elements that may make us uncomfortable.
If you walk down Hastings Street [where Sole Food Farms is located] even in broad daylight you’d see someone with needle in their arm or pirouetting around high on crack, and that makes us uncomfortable. But these are the people we work with, and like all of us they have enormous energy, intelligence, and the desire to do something meaningful in the world.
We also require that DTES staff be out in public at our farmers markets, selling produce or giving out samples. That means the community also has to deal with someone who doesn’t look like their idea of a farmer, maybe someone who they can see has had a hard life. It requires the community to develop compassion and hold back judgment. Some of the people who might be considered low lifes by the community are now my heroes because of their perseverance. This has been a lesson for me.