Growing Food, Healing Communities: The Sole Food Urban Farming Project

Michael Ableman, a farmer, author, photographer, and one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban-farming movements, is the founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture, Sole Food Street Farms, the Agrarian Elders, and the Center for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture. Sole Food Street Farms―now North America’s largest urban farm project―has transformed acres of vacant and contaminated urban land in downtown Vancouver into street farms that grow artisan-quality fruits and vegetables. Sole Food’s mission is to encourage small farms in every urban neighborhood so that good food can be accessible to all, and to do so in a manner that allows everyone to participate in the process. By providing jobs, agricultural training, and inclusion in a farming community, the Sole Food project has empowered dozens of individuals with limited resources who are managing addiction and chronic mental health problems. Bioneers is honored to host Ableman on our conference stage this year.

In his poignant and inspiring book Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier (Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2016), Ableman chronicles in words and images the challenges, growth and success of this groundbreaking project. The book contains moving accounts of residents in the notoriously low-income, drug-plighted Low Track neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ableman shares his life-changing experience as well as those of the residents-turned-farmers whose lives have been touched by Sole Food. Street Farm provides a roadmap for combining innovative farming methods with concrete social goals, all of which aim to create healthier and more resilient communities. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Halloween day, 2009. One hundred urban farming volunteers recruited through social media gathered at the Astoria Hotel’s parking lot to clean up and haul away abandoned vehicles, bed frames, beer bottles, cigarette butts, shoes, clothing, used syringes, piles of trash, and construction debris, as well as to help build the wooden growing boxes for our first urban farm.

I remember standing in that parking lot on our first day of planting with four hundred 4-by-50-foot boxes full of soil waiting for the first seed or transplant. The transplants I’d brought to Sole Food were grown on my family farm. “Hardening-off” transplants is a practice that normally involves gradually introducing tender plants to cold and sun, allowing for the transition from protected greenhouse to open field. As we unloaded the plants from my van that day, I had the thought that we ought to have piped the sound of sirens, rap music, and car horns into their protected rural greenhouse space before introducing them to this harsh urban landscape.

Among the crew of 11 people, not one of them had ever grown anything before. Yet they’d shown up and their hands were getting dirty. One was a man named Kenny, our very first hire. Kenny had worked with Seann at United We Can and jumped at the chance to be involved with urban farming and help develop a neighborhood farm.

I came to this work with my own package of preconceptions and judgments. When I met Kenny, my first impression of him fit every stereotype about drug addicts and what they look like. Sporting a wispy, slightly graying goatee and wearing multiple chains around his neck, he was desperately thin and hollow-eyed, with a shaved head and a fast-talking skittishness that reeked of crack or speed.

I came to learn that, for someone who has been through hell and has had so much badass shit happen in his life, Kenny is a real softie inside. When ladybugs show up on the produce while it is being washed and prepared for sale, Kenny will go to great lengths to save every last one from drowning.

People connect in many different ways. I don’t need to be everyone’s best buddy; sometimes I just like those relationships founded on mundane things, like a shared interest in cooking or food. I feel a special connection to those who have an eye for organization and an aesthetic that does not allow for things to be buried in disorder.

This is one of the things that I liked about Kenny from day one. He was the guy who noticed when the farm needed to be cleaned up, the tools organized, the fine details attended to. And while some farms worry about pesticide drift or safety around farm machinery, Kenny and the rest of us have different concerns. Residents of the Astoria drop used needles, crack pipes, condoms, and other paraphernalia out the windows, making work in the 8-foot stretch of the vegetable beds closest to the hotel a cause for caution. Kenny gets pissed off when the Astoria treats our urban farm as its dumping ground, or when folks throw trash, and worse, from the windows or over the fence.

One of the roles that I have proudly accepted on every farm I’ve worked on has been head janitor. Most farms match people’s visions—totally junked out with old equipment rusting on the edges of fields, hand tools left where they were last used, and piles of everything left everywhere simply because they might have some use at a later time.

On my family farm on Salt Spring Island, we have our “boneyard,” but it’s organized and managed, so that when I need a 2-by-4 or a piece of rebar or a section of pipe, I know where to find it. Visitors to my farm are always surprised when they see how neat and organized it is. “This is the cleanest farm we have ever seen!” they exclaim with some level of mistrust, as if a messy farm is some sign that everyone is too busy doing the real work of farming to put things away. “I don’t have time to be disorganized or messy,” I respond. I don’t want to spend half an hour looking for a tool or repairing an implement that got left out in the rain. And I have an aesthetic that does not support junk piled everywhere.

At one of our year-end staff parties, we presented Kenny with an apron that says “The Original East Van Farmer.” Given his tenure at Sole Food, “original” works for Kenny in any context. He’s been with us seven years, a long time for someone who has spent the last 20 years of his life strung out on heroin. I consider it a testament to our work that Sole Food is Kenny’s longest-held job.

Unlike many social-service projects, we have never seen it as our role to train people and move them onto other jobs. We’ve always wanted people to stay with the organization; we believe the urban farms—there are now four—and the work we do create safe zones, places to continuously return to. A job on one of our farms is one of the few meaningful engagements that our staff has, a place away from the hustle, the temptation, the noise, and the struggle.

None of us who’ve organized Sole Food really know that much about addiction, and so we don’t diagnose or analyze or pretend that we are anything other than farmers providing meaningful work and a place to connect to. Kenny cannot turn to us for those things we cannot provide.

It might be that all we offer of real value is that rare constant, a touchstone, the stability that many of our staff have never experienced.

But going through the cycles of a year on a farm is also incredibly valuable. People who farm constantly see stuff die and other things come into life. When every day is spent getting down and dirty and close-up with those cycles, it gets into you, and you start to see the world differently, with a little more acceptance and an understanding that each of us is subject to those same forces.

Physically, Kenny is a walking miracle. He’s been stabbed, held up at gunpoint, wanted by police; he’s known most drugs. He’s suffered bicycle accidents, illnesses, imprisonment. He’s faced years of rehab. I am in awe of the life force that can keep someone going with that kind of hard-living history.

Yet when I talk to Kenny now, he tells me Sole Food has been a chance for him to achieve something—personal satisfaction, a place in the community: “It’s a time when I’m happy,” he says. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment.” Sole Food has gotten some media attention, and Kenny, at least in his own mind, is a minor celebrity. As he speaks his hands are moving, he’s fully animated, and his voice rises in pitch. “Everyone comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve seen you on TV. What you’re doing is a really good thing!’”

Kenny says he feels lucky, and proud, to be part of this farm. His work can turn a day around: “I come to work feeling miserable,” he says, “and leave feeling relief and hope.” Although my personal challenges are different, I can relate. There are so many times I too don’t want to get out of bed, cold or rainy mornings when my back hurts and my hands are cracked from soil and water and I’m tired and curse the thought of having to get up and move through another harvest or day in the fields. Somehow, I drag myself up, get dressed, and as soon as I am out the door and immersed in the open air, moving and responding to the myriad sounds and smells and sensations of farm life, I feel better, and I know that this is where I belong, and I feel thankful that I can be on the land.

Kenny tells me, “I’ve worked jobs where I’ve made a lot more money, but now I actually love my job, I love going to work. I still struggle, but this gives me an opportunity to help others.” By Kenny’s accounts, everyone who has stayed with us at Sole Food has gotten healthier. If you stretch your concept of what family is, move beyond the stereotype of Mom and Dad and the kids, you could say that the Sole Food farms and the community of farmers and eaters that rely on us are just that—a family. And for many of our staff, this family may be the only one they have ever had.

As employers—and we are employers—our goal is try to maintain that sense of family, even while balancing the expectations that employees will do the jobs they were hired to do. I won’t say it isn’t frustrating when, with crops ready to be harvested or new transplants waiting to be planted, a farmer misses his shift. But in guiding the farms, we accept that the lives of our employees are sometimes more chaotic and less secure than our own. So our employment model also allows for people to fall off the wagon and still keep a job. For Kenny that has been essential. When he is on, he’s right there, 100 percent present and totally committed to the work and the team. But sometimes he still disappears into his opiate addiction or into rehab.

Though Kenny and I connect in both roiling at disorder on the farm, Kenny has told me that he’s had a hard time shouldering the kind of responsibilities we face at Sole Food, responsibilities that are inherent to farming. Over his whole life, he says, “I’ve gotten away with everything.” Kenny works hard, but sometimes he doesn’t show up. “When I miss work,” he says “it’s not, ‘Why didn’t you come to work?’ It’s ‘Are you okay?’” Growing and selling produce is not the only measure of a job well done. This is a lesson I’ve taken from Kenny.

“I get to be in nature at the farms,” he’s told me, “and working with other people, and also be in the city. If it wasn’t for my job I would be sitting in some basement not caring about anything. It’s not about hurting yourself with drugs, it’s about the damage you do to other people.”

One of the wonderful and strange things that happen when you work with people on a regular basis is that your differences start to drop away. Farming together becomes a great equalizer. The traditional roles of “management” and “employee” are still there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but when there are so many bunches of radishes or chard or kale to harvest and the sun is getting hot and the orders have to be delivered, you’re all just part of the same farm crew.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier by Michael Ableman, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2016.

Don’t miss Michael Ableman at this year’s Bioneers conference! Check out his speaker page and review the full list of 2017 speakers.

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