Food security is a foundational cornerstone of resilience, which is why here at Peak Prosperity we recommend sourcing a substantial percentage of your food calories locally. Buy from nearby sustainable farms and, if at all possible, grow some of your own food yourself.
While many of our readers are now doing exactly this, we commonly hear how difficult it can be to follow these steps for those living in the suburbs or large cities.
Today, we welcome Michael Abelman to the program to share a successful urban agriculture model he’s helped to pioneer. Michael is the founder of the non-profit Center For Urban Agriculture, and has recently authored the book Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier — which focuses on his efforts to transform acres of vacant and contaminated land in one of North America’s worst urban slums and grow artisan-quality fruits and vegetables.
In today’s discussion, Michael walks us through how farming in our cities is indeed possible. In fact, it not only results in healthier foods, but in healthier communities, too:
Our Sole Food Street Farm started when I received a phone call, eight or nine years ago, asking me to attend a meeting in Vancouver on the downtown eastside. The downtown eastside is a distressed neighborhood where the term “Skid Row” was coined. The invitation was to meet with several social service agencies in the neighborhood to discuss some interesting strategies for helping people in that community — the entire neighborhood is almost entirely inhabited by folks who are dealing with some form of long-term addiction, mental illness, and certainly, high levels of material poverty.
The group of people meeting had access to a half acre parking lot next to one of the dive hotels, and we decided there was a desire to do something agricultural. We decided that the most important thing that we could achieve was to try to create a model that developed meaningful work employment; a reason for people to get out of bed each day. And so, we developed that first half acre as a model — we created a technical system that allowed us to safely grow on either pavement or contaminated land using innovative boxes we designed that isolate the growing medium.
And we eventually expanded to over almost five acres of land on four different sites — including a production orchard, 16,000 square feet of high tunnel unheated greenhouses, and large open parking lots — to the point where we’re now producing 25 tons of food annually and employing close to 30 people.
And we now have people employed with us who before had never held a job for longer five or six months, but they’ve been with us now for almost eight years in supervisor positions, having in many ways cleaned up their act, learned new skills, and found some sense of purpose.
Click the play button below to listen to Adam’ interview with Michael Abelman (58m:23s).
Adam Taggert: Hello, and welcome to the Resilient Life podcast. Resilient Life is part of peakprosperity.com. It’s where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. I’m your host, Adam Taggert. Those of you living in cities or densely-packed suburbs should find this podcast of particular interest. My guest today is Michael Abelman, founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture and we’ll be talking with him about how innovative farming methods with concrete social goals, help create healthier and more resilient communities.
Today, we’ll be talking with Michael about his recent book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, which focuses on his efforts to transform acres of vacant and contaminated land in the inner city and grow artisan quality fruits and vegetables. Deaths due to overdoses of heroin and opioid pain relievers are on the increase, just one sign of the urgency to rejuvenate marginalized communities and provide networks that empower individuals to heal themselves. Urban agriculture presents a unique opportunity to address both these goals.
In Michael’s new book, Street Farm, he shares the inspirational account of residents in one of the worst urban slums in North America, who join together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. In the downtown eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia, a broad menu of drugs are for sale along every street. It’s also home to one of the continents’ highest concentrations of open prostitution. In this squalid setting, Abelman and co-founder Seann Dory, along with a ragtag crew of local residents, launched Sole Food Street Farms in an abandoned parking lot.
Sole Food has since grown to transform acres of vacant and contaminated urban land in Vancouver into street farms that grown artisan quality fruits and vegetables. The Sole Food Project, now one of North America’s largest urban farm initiatives, has empowered dozens of individuals who are managing addiction and chronic mental health problems by providing jobs, agricultural training, and the chance to be part of a vibrant community of farmers and food lovers. What a great mission.
Michael, thank you so much for joining us today.
Michael Ableman: Oh, it’s so nice to be with you, Adam. Thanks for having me.
Adam Taggert: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Well, look, let’s just start with the general background. Can you start by giving us kind of your path as to how you came to get involved in the urban agriculture movement?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, certainly. Well, first of all, I started at the age of 18 as a more traditional farmer, organic farmer. I farmed for Sunburst Farms back in the mid-70s in California. Sunburst had 4,000 acres of organic farmland, we were producing everything from dairy products to grains, to fruits and vegetables. And we had our own distribution company and restaurants and natural food stores. And so that’s kind of where I learned how to farm. And continued on that path, and again, this what a time when I probably knew everyone in North America who was farming organically. Now, of course, that movement has grown dramatically, and now we have kind of many permutations of that, urban agriculture being one of them.
When I was farming in California, I was on a piece of land there for 20 years in Southern California that became completely surrounded by suburban and urban development. That 12.5 acres was essentially an island floating in a sea of tract homes and shopping centers. And on that agricultural island, we grew 100 different fruits and vegetables, we employed 30 people, we generated close to one million dollars in gross income. It was one of the kind of the early progenitors of the farm-based education and organic farming movements, but it was also one of the early examples of what was possible on a small piece of land within more of an urban or peri-urban context. And so, I got to play out a lot of the challenges that are happening between — the collision between urban and rural and the transition of valuable and rich, fertile land into development, which was happening all around us.
And we started a nonprofit there, in the early 1980’s, called the Center for Urban Agriculture. It was initially founded to save the land we were on from development. We had to raise a bunch of money to do that. But we also were invited to participate in projects in places like Watts and communities like that, where we started some very interesting urban agriculture projects. And those are the days when you used the words urban and agriculture in the same sentence, people looked at you rather strangely. Now, as you know, there is an international movement tied to that. I’m not sure all of it is what’s being called urban agriculture is truly agricultural, but that’s another conversation.
Adam Taggert: Great. Well, so your book focuses on what’s going on in Vancouver. What was the inspiration behind starting the Sole Foods Street Farm Project there?
Michael Ableman: Well, I was — I received a phone call, it’s been eight or nine years ago, asking me to attend a meeting in Vancouver on the downtown eastside. The downtown eastside is the neighborhood where the term “skid row” was coined and you mentioned in your introduction a little bit of a description of that neighborhood. The invitation was to meet with several social service agencies in the neighborhood to discuss some interesting strategies for helping people in that community, which the entire neighborhood is almost entirely inhabited by folks who are dealing with some form of long-term addiction, mental illness, and certainly, high levels of material poverty. And so, I agreed to attend that one meeting, and one meeting led to a next, to the next.
The group of people meeting had access to a half acre parking lot next to one of the dive hotels, and we decided there was a desire to do something agricultural. And we decided that the most important thing that we could achieve was to try to create a model that developed meaningful work employment; a reason for people to get out of bed each day. And so, we developed that first half acre as a model to kind of prove our systems, created a technical system that allowed us to safely grow on either pavement or contaminated land using these boxes, these innovative boxes that we designed that isolate the growing medium.
And we eventually expanded to over almost five acres of land, four different sites, including a production orchard, 16,000 square feet of high tunnel unheated greenhouses, large, open parking lots where we’re growing, to the point where we’re now producing 25 tons of food annually, employing close to 30 people. And we now have people employed with us who never held a job for five or six months, they’re with us now for almost eight years in supervisor positions, having in many ways, cleaned up their act, and learned. new skills, and found some sense of purpose. So that’s really — the social piece is really big for us. That’s at the top of the list.
Adam Taggert: All right. And I want to talk about that social piece in a moment. But we’ve got a bunch of people who read peakprosperity.com and listen to our podcasts who hear about us talk about building resilience, and Chris and I talk a lot about our own personal experiences with growing some of our own food calories on our properties or sourcing from local farms because we both live in pretty rural areas. But we know a lot of people who are listening live in the city, or live in really densely-packed suburbs, like Silicon Valley, where I lived before I moved up to where I live now. And a common question we get from them is, well, what are the options that we have, where we live in a much more urban setting? One of the reasons that I was very excited to get you on the podcast here.
So I’d love to talk the nuts and bolts of the how you farm in an urban environment, and then I definitely want to delve into the social issues. But getting into those nuts and bolts, how do you go about growing food in a place that’s paved over and contaminated, as you mention earlier? I know people are dying to kind of hear the nuts and bolts and I’m sure there’s all sorts of other issues, like zoning, and permitting, and all that stuff. So if you wouldn’t mind giving us kind of your best cheat sheet, how do you guys go about doing this?
Michael Ableman: Well, sure, yeah. I mean, I think that’s a very good question and it’s always important to try to bring it home to what people need personally. I will say that the project that we’re doing is very much on an agricultural scale. It’s, in fact, one of the few projects that uses the word urban agriculture, that is truly, from a scale and production level, agricultural. But I think that all of what we’ve learned in achieving that goal is applicable to very small scale. And I’ve always been a big proponent, through all my books and lectures, etcetera, of trying to encourage families and individuals to grow more for themselves.
I think that the fundamental problem with the food system is not what we think it is. It’s not all these big things like pesticides, or genetic engineering, or soil loss, it’s the crisis of participation is not as much a food crisis, as a crisis of participation. It’s the fact that food production, something as fundamental to our existence, and our survival, and our well-being, has been relegated to a mere one and a half to two percent of the population. And the results of that have been incredibly negative.
And in my view, the solution to the food crisis is to somehow, encourage, inspire, and train every individual to have a much greater role in how their food comes to them. And I think, to some degree, we all can do that personally, even if it’s just a window box. Perennial herbs, for example, can be grown in a very small space. Salad greens, these things all can be done on a scale that it’s remarkable how much can be produced on a very small area.
There are some real challenges. Most urban land, most urban soils are too contaminated to grow in, so that has to be considered. In our case, all of the soils we’ve had to deal with are either contaminated or paved over. And so, we developed a box system that we design these boxes, they have forklift tabs so they’re moveable, they’re stackable, they’re nestable, they have little hoop plugins, drainage is inner connected so you can recycle the drainage as you’re watering. They are virtually indestructible and the most important thing is that they sit above and on top of either an impervious paved area, or land or soil that’s too contaminated to grow in.
Any soil that an urban dweller would want to grow in has got to be tested first. It’s not safe to grow vegetables in soils that are contaminated. So that’s the first step. There are certainly creative ways of attempting to buy or remediate contaminated soils, but that’s a long process, and one needs to be very careful. So I would suggest, if you’re either dealing with an impervious layer, or you’re dealing with contaminated soils, to find something to grow in that will isolate the growing medium from the soils beneath it.
And to start with products that are both easy to grow, and will give a high level of success early on, and can be produced in quantity in small spaces. And so, I always focus on things like salad greens, which are really easy. They have a disproportionately positive effect on the table, and they’re harvested and served. Add culinary herbs. Add some roots to that, as you get more comfortable. And then, if you have enough space, of course you can build into other things.
Adam Taggert: Great. To the boxes that you were talking about, are those proprietary only to the projects that you’re working on, or if someone’s — I’m jumping ahead a little bit, but if somebody is looking to kick start something like this in their own neighborhood, can they procure those from you or from other companies out there?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, it’s really awesome. It’s a great question. I think that we probably could sell far more boxes than the vegetables that we currently grow in them. And we actually have discussed creating a sub-enterprise to do that. One of the challenges that we have in this climate is that we’re not able to keep our staff employed during the dark, rainy winter months, which are the worst months for our staff to be laid off. And we though, maybe if we were producing these boxes and distributing them, that would be a source of winter employment. So we are, in fact, looking into trying to begin manufacturing these boxes and making them available to the public.
But there are, in every community, there are existing containers of various sorts that could be used for the same purpose. Whether they’re stock feeders, or stock watering containers, or even plastic, or metal, Dutch bulb boxes, fruit bins, there’s a range of things that could be used that would achieve the same result. We’ve kind of taken our design a little bit further, as I described, and I hope that maybe, if we talk in another six months or a year, that I can say, yeah, go to this website, and they’re available. But we’re not there yet.
Adam Taggert: Okay. I love the concept, especially if it’s what keeps your employee base employed over the winter months there. So I am correct in –?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, I mean, I’m always looking for — it’s Wendell Barry who many of us who have read over the years and who I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten to know, has a wonderful term called solving for pattern. And too often when we try to solve one pattern, we create numerous other problems. But the concept of solving for pattern is finding one elegant solution that solves numbers of problems at the same time. And certainly, the boxes that we have created already do that. They allow us to move on short notice on expensive land, isolate the growing medium. They could, as well, become a additional economic enterprise. So I think this is a good example. So, yeah, sorry for interrupting you.
Adam Taggert: No, no, no. I’m glad you did. Where I was going was just, is the progression sort of, look, you can start with something as simple as a window box, plant some herbs like you mentioned. If you’ve got a patio, maybe a couple of pots. If you’ve got a little patch of grass somewhere, maybe you can put in a raised bed or two. But if you can find yourself with access to a lot, which it sounds like, that’s what you’re working on in Vancouver there, you’re finding these vacant lots, that’s when you really want to have something akin to the type of boxes that you’re talking about.
Michael Ableman: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think that — I’ve always said, and maybe to the consternation of my commercial farming colleagues, that I look forward to the day when individuals and families put us out of business by growing more for themselves. I think, really, this is the fundamental problem, as I’m repeating myself. And so, I will do anything to encourage individuals to begin to embrace creative ways of growing more food for themselves and for their families, for their neighborhoods, and doing it in ways that address the particularities of where they’re doing it. Whether that be climate, and the need for season extension, or whether it be soil contamination issues, or whether it be the limitations of space. All those things can be creatively addressed. And there are ways to grow food in every situation, and I have certainly seen that all over the world.
When there is a real need, and I can tell you, the creativity is stronger in those parts of the world where the need is greater, where food security is a bigger issue, you see the most remarkable creative endeavors that people are putting into place and ingenuity that’s unbelievable, in order to solve what is really as fundamental as a thing as we can get to. And that is, how we feed ourselves; how we secure our food. So I think that certainly in North America, which I assume is most of your listeners, we have a much greater opportunity. And I think I want to see this happening in every household. It should be required, really.
Adam Taggert: Well, I totally agree, for so many reasons. And one of the things that I embraced when I lived in the suburbs, and now that I’ve moved out to the more rural area, I find that it was very accurate, was when I built my first raised beds and was growing just a little bit of produce in my little square foot garden beds there. I knew that it wasn’t going to do much more than just kind of compliment my dinner plate, I was never going to feed my family off of those boxes, but I was doing was, I was sort of looking at as tuition. In other words, I was beginning to develop the skills for how to grow things. And as anybody who has become a gardener knows, is your first couple of years you’re basically more learning how not kill things than you are how to grow things.
Michael Ableman: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that it’s one of those things, you could read a book, or go take a workshop, or watch a YouTube or something, but the truth of the matter is, this is something that you just need to do. And really, what you need to develop more than any and most important or agricultural or horticultural skill is observation. It’s not all these other techniques. Is, you just really develop a keen sense of observing what’s happening in and around the places where you’re growing things, and the plants and their responses to things you’ve done. And this becomes your great teacher. And really, in the end, without sounding too woo woo, it’s absolutely true that the plants will actually tell you what they need. I’m not talking about hearing voices, I’m talking about, your observation will then translate into real action. And so, I just encourage people to jump in and do it. Not a large scale to start with, but on some scale. And consider that part of your responsibility as a human being today, is to, you described it as tuition, I describe it as a basic, fundamental responsibility that every human has. To participate in some real way, with their own hands, in how their food comes to them. And again, that does not have to be anything but a few herbs in a box.
Adam Taggert: Right. Well, so, for those who are looking to, or inspired to take action here, so you talked about, ways in which you can secure the right kind of soil to actually do the growing in. But in terms of actually securing the space itself, what’s involved there? Do you need to have some pull from the community first, looking for a neighborhood to revitalize, or can you just go knock on the door of a city council? I mean, how does — what are some of the ways people can actually this kick started in their own areas?
Michael Ableman: Well, it’s a good question. And there’s an entire chapter in the book called “The Urgency of Spring”, which really was about the fact that we were — the first year we were trying to get going, we were waiting for the wheels of the city to move fast enough to give us the amazing array of permits that were required to do what we’re doing. I have to tell you that the scale we’re operating on in Vancouver, there are no municipal codes that actually address agriculture on that scale. So we essentially had to invent the process. And we were fortunate, we have a mayor, former organic farmer, friend of mine, city manager, and a city council who were extremely on board. But in the end, in spite of the high-level permission and support, by the time all this made its way through the complexity of the municipal bureaucracy, we still were paying thirty, forty thousand dollars a site just for all the permit process, and the environmental assessments, etcetera. And the process was so cumbersome.
That is all now beginning to shift, not just in Vancouver, but in cities all over North America. I think if people are wanting to do something on the kind of scale we’re doing it on, it’s a big haul to pull it off. Money has to be raised, and bureaucratic support has to be generated, and you really have to have a lot of patience. If you’re talking about something about doing something on a family scale, or neighborhood scale, which I really encourage, I think the options are much greater and the cost and municipal challenges are much fewer, much less. And so, I think that backyards and front yards are such an incredible resource that is terribly wasted, for the most part, on things like lawns, which have no place in especially Western landscapes. That’s the worst possible idea.
And California, where I farmed for over 30 years, I will say to my fellow Californians, the drought may have been relieved this year, but California is still essentially an arid climate. And I encourage people to grow within the ecological limitations of where they’re growing. So, California, you can grow everything, but please consider that a lawn is not an appropriate use of resources. Food would be a wonderful thing to be doing in front and backyards. And when you look at the vast amount of land that is dedicated to lawn spaces, the conversion of those alone would have a dynamic and profound impact on food security in those communities, on the level that’s just —
Adam Taggert: Not to mention water security, too.
Michael Ableman: Not to mention water security, exactly. Which, I think, you can’t talk about one without discussing the other. So I think that — I don’t see obstacles as much as I see opportunities. And I certainly see incredible opportunity for communities to take more responsibility for this and use those smaller spaces.
Adam Taggert: Great. Great. All right. So just a couple last, quick tactical questions, and then we’ll get to the social side of things. So, Michael, in terms of the food that’s being produced by the employees there at the Street Farm, is that food mostly just going to them and their families, or is it actually being sold at farmer’s markets, or in stores, or whatnot?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, when we started meeting with organizations on the downtown eastside, all of whom are devoted to the social improvement of the members of that community, which as I described, these are folks who’ve had a pretty tough go. People from those organizations, they wanted to do everything. They wanted to feed the community, they wanted to provide jobs, there was a whole range. And I said, look, we can’t do everything. Let’s find out, let’s really get down to what is really important here. And in the end, for the population we were wanting to serve, it was the jobs.
What we’ve set up, had a profound impact on people’s lives, but it was such a simple solution. It was meaningful work. And so, as a result of that, we have stayed very focused and while we give away, probably, I don’t know, around 10,000 pounds of food every year to local soup kitchens and organizations, the more food we give away, I always look at that as dollars we’ve taken out of the pockets of the people we’re employing, or the potential additional people we could employ. So I don’t see that — although it sounds strange to say, but for our folks, we want to sell every single leaf, every fruit, every root in order to provide income — because these are paid positions — to our staff and to be able to hire more people. So while I’m happy that the seconds, the culls as we call them in the farming business, are going to local soup kitchens, I’m not happy that they’re not sold because for us, our primary goal is employment. And we’ve stayed focused on that.
Now, our staff have access to that food for their own personal use, but again, we’re producing 25 tons of food annually. So way more than staff could use, and so, we’re selling to high-end restaurants, we’re selling to farmer’s markets, we have a community supported agriculture program. So we’re involved with marketing most of that food.
Adam Taggert: That’s great. So you actually run a CSA off of that, those properties?
Michael Ableman: We do. Until this year, it was a more traditional one where we were either delivering boxes of food, we had a couple corporate chairs, corporations that were — had solicited all their staff and we were delivering truckloads of boxes. Now, we’re doing strictly a full choice, market-based debit system CSA, where people actually come to the market with a card and they pick up, they can choose whatever they want. Because we found that, choice was really a big deal for folks. They did not want the farm to be choosing for them, some people didn’t want kale every week, they wanted something else.
Adam Taggert: I was involved in a CSA last year and we used to call that season, fifty shades of kale.
Michael Ableman: That’s great. That’s a good line. Can I borrow that? I like it.
Adam Taggert: Yeah, feel free. Steal away. Yeah. Well, that’s great. And are you finding that the community is really receptive to truly locally grown food? I mean, I’m sure when you’re knocking on doors initially, it’s got to be sort of a foreign concept to some of these people, wait a minute, you grew that here?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, well, you know about local food systems, this is uber-local. In our case, we can say the food was grown down the street, let alone 10 or 20 miles away. And so, yes, there are a lot of folks who really love what we’re doing. I’m very careful about this. We have this very strong social mission, which is, as I said, our main goal. But I don’t really want people buying our food out of some sense of charity, or because they support our mission, or even if it’s because it’s organic or otherwise. I want them to buy it because it’s the best food. And if not, if we’re not living up to that standard, they should go to somebody else. And because, I think we first and foremost have a responsibility no matter what the issues are of the people we employ, to grow food at a very high level. We really hold all of our staff to that level. We’re supplying many of Vancouver’s top restaurants, with chefs that are extremely discerning. And so, we’re trying to do something at a very high quality level.
We have a policy at the farmer’s markets, whereby, our downtown eastside staff, we have one or two people from the downtown eastside front and center at every market, that’s part of our policy. We don’t hide them away. And that gives the public a chance to deal with their own issues when they see somebody offering them a sample of food, that doesn’t look like a farmer, or looks like somebody who’s definitely been on the streets. They can deal with those issues, and for our staff, it allows them to work on and improve their own social skills, which they’re sometimes uncomfortable with. And so, this has proven to be a very successful strategy. We’re trying to hold the high-quality products and the social piece front and center for all to see.
And there’s been some negative repercussions to that approach as well. I can tell you that some people steer away from us because they might be worried about the food grown by somebody that doesn’t look like a farmer. But it’s our responsibility to our staff.
Adam Taggert: Right. Well, and it sounds like that’s not constraining your growth. It sounds like there’s a lot more people who are openminded than there are closeminded.
Michael Ableman: Absolutely. And again, if the quality of our products was not good and we were just trying to sell stuff based on our story, it would not work. The products are really good quality and hopefully people see that and they buy on that basis. And we have a good following as a result of that. And we’re up against, we’re in the marketplace competing with some Big Earl farms and we have to hold our own.
Adam Taggert: Well, and that’s great because the long-term sustainability of any endeavor like yours is definitely rooted in its financial sustainability. And so, if you’re able to make this thing profitable, a. great kudos to you and I’m hoping it inspires all those listening that this is not just a good thing to do, like we talked about earlier in the podcast, but it can actually make good business sense.
Michael Ableman: Yeah, and just a comment on that, for clarity’s sake, I mean, we generate about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gross income in earned revenue annually on products grown and sold. But our budget is closer to seven hundred thousand dollars a year, and the other half of that budget goes to support the social component of what we’re doing. If you were going to run just a farm business in the city, you would hire people who were capable, who were not dealing with personal issues, drug issues, etcetera. But we are not able to operate on the same playing field, and so, we do a lot of trainings, we have a breakfast program, we have to buy rain gear for people, we have to take people to the hospital when they need it, we have to go — I mean, hook them up with various social services. There’s a whole range of work that we do that is certainly out of the normal farm operations purview for their staff.
And all this costs money. We can’t always operate on the same — with the same production levels or efficiency levels as a regular farm would, although, we’re pushing for that. So just to be clear, as the charitable end of our operation, we do have to raise some money as well, to support the half of our budget which we can’t support with products grown and sold. And that was something I’ve had a hard time with because as a farmer, I never felt that I wanted to have this operation — we won’t have our hands out forever, but it really is very much tied to the social agenda that’s key in our work.
Adam Taggert: Right. Well, I appreciate you clarifying that and let’s go in there now. Because you really are — you do a mission, right? You’re trying to create high-quality grade produce in an urban environment, and you’re trying to rebuild communities by providing jobs to people who have really fallen pretty far down life’s ladder. I’ve got a copy of your book here in my hand. And for those listening, it’s full of really beautiful pictures of what they’ve been able to do, and also, a lot of pictures of the farmers themselves, and Michael’s right, a lot of these people don’t look like your traditional farmers. I think the tattoos on many of these folks are more colorful than the produce itself. But in addition to the pictures, there’s lots of great individual stories in here about people who talk about how this not only turned their lives around, but in many ways, is sort of a lifesaving endeavor for them. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get into this, Michael. Talk to us about how your project has helped these individual people but also helped rejuvenate some really very broken communities.
Michael Ableman: Yeah, I mean, I have to be honest. I didn’t get into this to save anyone, except maybe myself in some regards. Honestly, when I started, my expectations of what was possible through this were kept in check, and many of those expectations, I have seen things that I never believed were possible. As I mentioned, individuals who are still working with us after eight years who didn’t ever hold a job for eight months. People like Alan, who came to us full on into his crack addition, who now, is a supervisor and highly skilled farmer, somebody I would hire for any farming operation. A lot of great success stories. We’re not in the business of trying to get people off of drugs or save them, merely have just kind of set the table, if you will, and provided the space, and the place, and the community support for folks to have some reason to get up and go to work, and to choose between something that will bring them down, and something that’s going to potentially lift them up.
Enormous power in the simple act of putting your hands in soil, planting seeds, and watch them emerge. There are physiological benefits that we now know about, working with living soil. There’s the aspect of having plants that depend on you each day for their survival. A community and a neighborhood who’s waiting and relying on the food. And your coworkers who depend on you to show up every day. All these things have contributed to results that I never believed were possible. And we’re careful. We don’t like to play the kind of the poverty porn card, which, we have to raise money, but how do you do that in way that does not take advantage of the people who you’re serving and respects their dignity and what they’re doing?
If you walk down, or even drive down Hastings Street, which is the heart of the neighborhood, as I did originally, you’ll see people on the broad daylight, on the sidewalk, with needles in their arms, or somebody pirouetting in the middle of the street, high on crack. And you make judgements. We all do. But I have since discovered that each one of those individuals has a heart and a soul and incredible intelligence and the desire to do something meaningful in the world. And all we’ve done is just provided a simple way to create meaning for people and purpose.
And there’s a lot of complex research being done on drug addiction, especially with the opioid epidemic that’s going on. And really, we’re not addiction experts or therapists or social workers, but we have discovered that farming can play a powerful role in helping people get their lives together, and so, that’s what we do.
And the stories in the book are really in the words of the people who work with us, and they’re powerful, and they’re meaningful, and it’s not a Hollywood ending. They’re not all stories of look at how great we are, or what we did, or Sole Food — they are stories of, a lot of stories in the book of where we fall short, not just on a social level with the people we work with, but on an agricultural level and otherwise. It’s a book that really illuminates the challenges of this kind of work, and it illuminates the incredible ups and downs of the people we work with, and the patience and compassion it requires to support them.
Adam Taggert: Well, just as somebody very inspired by the work, I’m going to tell you how much I admire what you’ve done and been a part of here. And we just I think certainly need more models like this out there. In terms of —
Michael Ableman: Thank you.
Adam Taggert: Oh, well, thank you. In terms of the change that this brings to the community, so we just talked a bit about the individuals who were impacted. I doubt an organization like yours has a lot of extra funding to fund studies and seeing how crime rates may have gone down, or whatnot. But, I mean, what anecdotally can you tell me about the communities themselves that are located where these farms are? How, if at all, have you seen them change?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, well, a couple things. Because I know one of your organizations, Tripod, points is economics and Queens University did a study of the project several years ago. Because I was really — I was struggling as a farmer with this whole idea of, why do we have to fundraise to support this effort? I mean, we generate that three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gross income but then, we have to raise all this additional money. And so, I really wanted to know, what were the external benefits of the work we were doing? And so Queens University spent a year studying the project. And they determined for every dollar we paid our staff, there was a two dollar and twenty-five cent savings to the healthcare system, the legal system, the social system system, and to the environment. And it was interesting. I mean, the protocols for those studies are now getting better and better. But that meant a lot to me because I realized that our benefits to the society as a whole were far greater than the products on the shelves at the farmer’s market.
And then, I take it a step further. Those are the, certainly, the very direct economic benefits and ecological benefits. But then, just seeing the lives of the people we’ve employed and knowing some of those people now for seven, eight years — not all — but I can see that in many ways there has been a stabilization in many of their lives. This, unlike many social service agencies, our goal is not to train someone and move them on. That’s a fairly common in social service agencies. We feel like we want people to stay with the organization. We feel like the farms, and the community that surrounds the farms, is kind of like a touchstone, if you will. It’s a place for people to come back to. We know that people are going to fall on and off the wagon and that they’re going to disappear for periods of time into their addictions. But we want them to know that they can always come back to the farms, that’s always going to be a steady; a place they can return to. And that has been powerful, in and of itself. So we have seen the result of that, having that one, for many of our staff, the one and only meaningful engagement, that’s what we represent. Having that always there is pretty cool and pretty helpful.
Have I seen — has everyone on our staff cleaned up their act? No. But that’s not our goal. I have come to recognize that addiction is a lifetime thing. It doesn’t just go away. Even people who have been clean for many years, it’s still sitting on their shoulder; it’s always there. And so, very difficult for me to say on a personal, psychological, emotional, social level, to point to four or five things that I’ve seen improve in individuals, except to say, their sense of community, their sense of purpose around the farms, and their pride, unbelievable amount of pride, it’s really amazing. And this work is so remarkable. And so, that I think is a huge success. It may sound like a little thing, but it’s big.
Adam Taggert: No, no. It’s not little at all. So go with me here. Pick your timeline: five, ten, twenty years. The project has gone as good as you could have hoped for. What does success look like to you?
Michael Ableman: Well, I mean, first, I might question whether it has gone as good as I could hope for. But we’ve had a lot of trouble —
Adam Taggert: No, I’m saying, imagine five, ten years down the road.
Michael Ableman: Oh, I see. Going forward. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Because we’ve had a lot of challenges. Well, look, I would like to see certainly economic stability. I think we’re still, even after eight years, we’re still very fragile as an organization. We’re still dependent on this outside support. We launched an endowment campaign in the fall, we have some good supporters of the project, but it’s still not enough. And we need to really find a long term, and the endowment was intended for that. We’re nowhere near the goal. It’s going to take years to achieve it. So I think, certainly, financial stability is really important because I have to worry about that all the time. I try to leave that out of the conversation with our staff because I don’t want them — they’ve had a life of insecurity, a life of instability. They don’t need to hear that the one organization they depend on has fragility and instability. I can keep that one to myself, right? So I don’t talk about that. It’s not like children where I’m trying to keep away the bad news or protect them from the real world. It’s not that at all. Most of our staff didn’t believe that this project would last more than six months or a year, so I want them to feel it’s there for them and it’s going to continue. So that’s one issue.
I think that the other challenge is land stability. When we started, eight years ago, Vancouver’s prosperity was not as strong as it is today. Vancouver’s now one of the most expensive cities in the world, perhaps. And real estate is very valuable in Vancouver. So eight years ago, there were lots of open lots and places we could choose from. And now, for example, we just lost the lease on our biggest farm, our two-acre parking lot, so we have to move in the fall and that’s our headquarter farm. So that, to me, is a big issue. Even though our system is designed to be moveable, the actual growing system and growing boxes, we don’t want to be moving frequently and we want to have access to land. So we’re hoping for the long term, to have a permanent location. One permanent location from which we would revolve around. And there’s a new park going in, we’re angling — I talk about this in the book — to have a permanent, perhaps two-acre location for Sole Food, which would be amazing, to have one really stable location.
Looking into the future, it’s the cost of doing business is both less and far more expensive in the city for a farm. More expensive from the perspective that, people who work with us, both management staff and downtown eastside staff, the cost of housing is higher. Getting materials into the city. The city is not an agricultural area, so when you need fertility sources, etcetera, that’s sometimes hard to find. Although, the city itself generates a lot of waste. If we were allowed to compost, which, believe it or not, we’re not.
Adam Taggert: Glad you mentioned that. That was one of the questions I had. So you just have to buy your compost from sources outside of the city?
Michael Ableman: It’s crazy. And we are now doing some guerrilla composting and working on strategies to get permission to do that and to work on that. But that’s a big weak point. Here we are in a city that’s generating tons, and tons, and tons of organic waste daily that could be converted on-site into fertility for food that would stay in the city, so thereby, completing the fertility cycle, the nutrient cycle, if you will, and we’re not allowed to do it. They’ve prevented us from doing it. So we’re looking at some closed systems, large scale, closed composting systems which would resolve the city’s issue, which is their concerns about health issues related to composting.
Adam Taggert: And just one of the questions, I’m not sure if you know the answer, but I know it’s something like half the food that gets prepared gets thrown out. Right now, is that food leaving the city to be composted, or is it leaving the city and just going to some landfill somewhere?
Michael Ableman: Both. Yeah, there’s a section at the end of the book called, “My Urban Food Manifesto”, and in that manifesto, I list a bunch of — well, it starts off with a series of questions. And then, there’s a series of proposals. Some of them would seem fairly outrageous, but some of them are pretty obvious. And a couple of them address the fact that the nutrient cycle in our society has completely been interrupted. We have the majority of our world’s population living in cities, the food is being grown outside of the cities, there is no return of the waste. In other words, when a farmer harvests food, and it gets shipped to the city, and either it’s not eaten, or the parts of that food that are not usable, or supposedly not usable are thrown out, the waste from that production, whether it’s human waste itself or the waste of those products, or actual food waste itself, never returns to the sources, to the land where those products were originally grown. And I think that’s a problem. So, essentially, farmers, even really good organic farmers are mining their soils and then having to bring in replacement nutrients.
So this has to be addressed, and that’s the responsibility of society as a whole. I think that food waste is, to some degree, being composted in many of North America’s cities, but there’s a lot of food waste that just ends up in the garbage. And this is both a public education issue, but it’s also an infrastructural issue.
Adam Taggert: Right, right, right. And it just seems, from an efficiency standpoint, crazy that the food waste is leaving the city and either just being disposed of, or if it’s being composted, once been trucked out of the city, then needs to be trucked back in at higher expense to you guys. Where it would be a much shorter route if we could just get the supply to go from the food purveyors themselves straight to your composting facility. But I know that that’s —
Michael Ableman: And we would use a tiny fraction of it. But to do it well in the city, and to make a really good product, it requires a lot of skills, it would require some machinery, and there is the issue that people are concerned about, which are the smells, the rodent potential — rats, etcetera. And those are real issues. I don’t dismiss those. And if composting is done well, generally, the smell issue is minimal. But there is that short time frame between the product leaving, for example, the kitchen of a restaurant or a supermarket and it getting to our — to a composting operation. There’s this interim time where you can have all kinds of things go haywire.
Adam Taggert: Sure, sure. But I’d be willing to bet there are parts of the city that don’t smell so great and probably have some rats already.
Michael Ableman: You got it.
Adam Taggert: All right. Well, Michael, we could talk forever. I’m looking at the time here and I just appreciate how much time you’ve given us. Very quickly, in closing, one, if you could just quickly tell us, what’s the state of the urban farming movement right now? And what, if anything, could provide a catalyst to take the spark that you’re providing and have this happen across lots of other cities in North America?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, it’s a very good question. Well, first of all, when I use the word urban farming or urban agriculture, if I’m using the word agriculture or farming, I’m thinking about kind of a production scale that’s producing jobs and large quantities of food. The words urban agriculture are used to describe so much else, all of which is valuable, but a lot of the time, it’s describing smaller scale, home-sized plots, etcetera. Which, again, are important, but I think from a farmer’s perspective, the terminology’s important.
I think that the potential is enormous and the number of new creative enterprises that are popping up all around North America are really inspiring and amazing. When I started the Center for Urban Agriculture in the early ‘80s, again, as I said, those were considered contradictory words, urban and agriculture. And now, this movement is huge. And I think it’s extremely positive. And I think to move it forward, I believe, requires — I think the skill level can be improved in a lot of cities. I think to apply a farmer’s skills and instincts to an urban zone would be really helpful for every city. In other words, for urban dwellers who want to do this work should go train with a real farmer, even if it’s not in the city, and learn the skills sets, the systems, the tools, etcetera, even if the scale’s completely different and if the context is different.
I think that municipal code has to be rewritten to address and support food systems, full-scale food systems, full-cycle food systems, that’s what I mean to say, in the city, including things like composting. So we really, we need municipal language that actually understands this and isn’t going to saddle urban growers with fees and requirements that make it impossible to do. So we need that end of things to be addressed, policy to be addressed.
I think that we need to develop better infrastructure to farm in contaminated areas and certainly, if we are able to make our boxes available in the future, we will. But I think there are other ways of doing that. For example, how do we creatively and safely restore land soils in the city, native soils, that are now too contaminated to grow in? What’s the solution to that? And I think there’s some creative work being done in that arena.
I think that, ultimately, every person who eats, and I assume that includes most of us, has a responsibility to, on some level, it could be the smallest level, to participate more directly with how food comes to them. It’s wonderful that they go to the farmer’s markets and support their growers, but I think that, take it a step further. Figure out how to grow some of these things for yourselves. A community garden plot, a window box, a balcony, a backyard, a front yard. These things have a profound impact when all put together, when you see millions of people begin to participate in this. I think that’s something I really look forward to.
Adam Taggert: All great advice. Well, Michael, for those people who have been inspired and are interested in learning more about your work and the work at the Street Farm, what resources could they go to find out more about it?
Michael Ableman: Yeah, well, certainly solefoodfarms.com. It’s S-O-L-E, solefoodfarms.com, our website. Michaelabelman.com, and that’s A-B-L-E-M-A-N, is how the last name is spelled. For the book, Chelsea Green is the publisher. Chelsea Green has a wonderful website or of course, there’s always Amazon, I suppose. But the book is a great resource, there’s even some very specific directive how-to stuff in the back that helps, resources. And we are also eventually producing more of a toolkit that will kind of direct people in how to do this more specifically. The book is more focused on the spiritual, inspirational storytelling of how we did this, the people we’re working with. But some of the more tactical stuff, we’re working on producing as well. So all those resources, solefoodfarms.com, S-O-L-E, michaelableman.com, and Chelsea Green, and if you have to, Amazon for the book.
Adam Taggert: We’ll provide links to all of those in the write-up the companies that podcast here, too.
Michael Ableman: That’s great. Hey, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Adam Taggert: Oh, it’s been a real pleasure. And I’d love to have you back on in a year or two to get an update on how things have been going there.
Michael Ableman: Awesome. Nice speaking with you.
Adam Taggert: Great speaking with you, too, Michael. Thank you.
Michael Ableman: Okay, take care.
Adam Taggert: Bye, bye.
Teaser photo credit: Sole Food Street Farms website.