As a successful farmer and organic pioneer Michael Ableman has many opportunities to apply his craft, but he never imagined he would be farming in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, also known as Canada’s poorest postal code.
“Certainly, it’s the last place one would consider farming but in many ways it’s the best place to do what I am doing,” Michael says.
Michael is the cofounder of Sole Food Street Farms, which is now the largest urban farm project in North America.
Sole Food is on a mission to achieve two things — transform vacant urban land into street farms capable of producing high-quality artisan food, and empower individuals with limited resources by providing jobs, agricultural training and inclusion in a supportive community.
The farm has been running for eight years and showing impressive results. Annually, Sole Food Street Farms produces 25 tonnes of food, which is sold to top restaurants, retail outlets and at farmers markets.
On top of the agricultural production, the farm is growing employee confidence and skills. Sole Food employs people who face major barriers to employment, often juggling addiction and chronic mental health problems.
The farm is an opportunity for meaningful employment, and a chance to get their hands dirty planting seeds, cultivating the soil and harvesting, a process that Michael describes as incredibly healing.
There have been a number of personal transformations for employees. Michael points to one of the farm’s supervisors Alain, who when he started working at Sole Food was addicted to crack cocaine. He’s now an industrious farmer and “one of the best employees” Michael has ever worked with.
“If the eight years of this project only resulted in Alain, the project would have been worthwhile but many others have been affected as well,” he says.
While Sole Food is achieving its mission, Michael has come to the realization that the farm will not become a self-sufficient enterprise. That’s because the people it employs face challenges that can’t compare with typical farm labour.
Half of Sole Food’s revenue is generated from its food production and the second half Michael fundraises for each year. However, those numbers don’t tell the full story. Several years ago Queen’s University researchers studied Sole Food Street Farms and found that for every dollar spent there was a $2.25 savings to the legal, health-care, and social assistance systems as well as to the environment.
It’s the successes, challenges and best practices that Michael documents in his new book Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs and Hope on the Urban Frontier. The book presents compelling portraits of the neighbourhood residents turned farmers whose lives have been touched by the project.
Michael, who has authored several books in the past, says writing a book is an incredibly difficult process but he felt compelled to share Sole Food’s journey so others can learn from it.
“The work that we do should not be private and kept to ourselves, these are powerful stories,” he says. “We have an obligation to tell our story in order to inspire others.”
Michael will be sharing his experience in Calgary April 23, at the launch event for REAP Business Association’s Down to Earth Week, a celebration of social innovation and sustainable business practices. Michael’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion showcasing local initiatives at the intersection of urban food production and poverty.
“I’m really looking forward to exploring some of the possibilities and adventures in social enterprise and urban agriculture we have pursued in Vancouver and seeing what’s already happening [in Calgary] and how some of our experiences might inform what’s happening there,” says Michael.
To learn more about the event, click here.
For more information on REAP’s Down to Earth Week, visit their website.