Street Farmer: an interview with Michael Ableman

Sole Food Street Farms has transformed acres of vacant and contaminated land in the poorest neighborhood in Canada into an urban farm. Employing people who are struggling with poverty, addiction, and mental illness, the urban farm grows food for the top chefs in Vancouver. Below is an interview Bioneers’ Restorative Food System Program’s Director Arty Mangan did with Sole Food Street Farms Co-Founder, Michael Ableman, who will be joining us at the 2017 Bioneers Conference.

Arty Mangan: In your latest book, Street Farms, you quote Masanobu Fukuoka, “The goal of farming is not growing crops but the cultivation of human beings.” Is that what Sole Food is all about?

Michael Ableman: I love that quote, but I would probably qualify it by saying it’s both. I don’t necessarily like to disconnect the two. But definitely with Sole Food, if you were to ask me what the primary goal, the core mandate is it’s very much a social one versus an agricultural one, although the agriculture supports the social one, not the other way around.

This has been quite a journey for me as well as it has been for the people I’m working with because as a farmer, when I started, I had no interest in being involved in a project that would have its hand out forever. But I quickly realized that the work we were doing was not like the work that I had been doing in a number of my farming ventures. It wasn’t just about stewarding land, growing amazing food, and feeding communities. It was really very much about trying to provide an opportunity to people who were really struggling in pretty significant ways around drug addiction, mental illness, and material poverty. I had to put aside, as a farmer, my production goals and let go of the kinds of perfection that I was usually trying to achieve agriculturally in order to support the needs of the people.

The result of that has been profound. I remember the first year, we had 11 people on the first day of planting; I showed up with a van full of plants. It was raining and early spring. I looked at the plants and the scale of the farm we were going to start, and I looked at the people and thought to myself, my God, what have I gotten myself into?

Now I see some of those same people who were at that same first meeting, people who had not held a job previously for more than four or five months, still employed with us after eight years. Addiction is a lifetime experience. You’re never entirely clean, but their lives have really come together in many ways.

Alain, for example, a hardcore crack addict, became one of our supervisors. In fact, a guy who has become such a skilled, efficient and good farmer that I would hire him on any farm. This is a guy who I would never have dreamed saying that about seven or eight years ago.

It’s nothing we’ve done for anyone, and I have to emphasize that because, first of all, the amount of perseverance and courage that it takes for somebody in the circumstances that our staff are in to get themselves out of bed and get to work requires an effort of monumental proportions. In many ways, they did this for themselves. All we did was set the table.

We provided the soil and the boxes, and a little bit of know-how, the markets, the structure, and the result are people who will honestly look you in the eye, people who are not bull-shitters, and tell you the reason they are still alive today is because of the work they’re doing here. And that’s not about me or Seann or anybody else.

Michael Abelman

AM: Years ago, I visited the Garden Project in San Francisco, which was working with people who were formerly incarcerated, they had a very stringent standard: if you do drugs you lose your job. Sole Food Farms has a different approach

MA: You don’t lose your job if you fall off the wagon or we’d have nobody working. If somebody vanishes for a week or two, which happens, when they return, the question is not: Where have you been? The question is: How are you doing? Those are two very different questions, and the project itself is a touchstone. It’s a safe zone. It’s a place people can feel they’ll always be connected to.

Most social service agencies’ goal is to train them and move them on. We have an opposite goal. Our goal is to keep people connected and involved, which means we have to bring on new people and expand. We have to bring on new sites, which is a bit challenging.

We have a business we’re operating. The social needs fundamentally rub up against the business needs. They don’t necessarily make sense together. On a Friday, we may have 500 bunches of radishes to harvest, and a 100 bunches of carrots, and so many pounds of this and that – there are restaurants who’ve placed orders, and their businesses and livelihood depend on us showing up on time; whether somebody shows up for work or not, it doesn’t matter, the job has to get done. So we’ve had to design our system so there’s always backup. You always have to know there’s someone available for backup if somebody doesn’t show.

AM: You occupy a very narrow space where business and social service overlap and yet the marketplace has its own demands.

 MA: I don’t really want people buying our food because they like our story or out of some sense of charity. I want them buying it because it’s the best food. If not, they should go somewhere else. I tell our staff that. I said I don’t care what kind of problems you have or challenges, or what happened to you last night or whether you got into a fight, or out of jail, it doesn’t matter. We have to operate on the same high standards as everybody else. We’re supplying Vancouver’s top restaurants. You don’t have a monopoly on suffering.

We have these conversations. It’s an honest scene. But it is hell for me personally. It has become less so, this opposition between quality of production, beauty of farm, and the social piece. Sole Food has really been working on me as much as it’s been working on anybody from the Downtown Eastside. In many ways, I have grown up to the same degree that they have because it’s forced me to accept that it’s not about the quality of the tomatoes; it’s about the quality of the soul, the person. I’ve been whipped into shape and it hasn’t been easy.

AM: One of the themes in the book that emerges for me is the dichotomy of privilege versus poverty.

MA: Well, we’re sitting right now at the corner of Main and Terminal, one of the busiest intersections in Vancouver, in the middle of a producing orchard with things like persimmons, figs, quince, pears and apples, with cars all around that. But second of all, that orchard on this corner exists within a city that is now considered to be the most expensive real estate market in the world, not just in North America. Yet within that most expensive city is Canada’s poorest neighborhood, the downtown east side, home of the term Skid Row, Ground Zero of the low track. It’s a world renowned location with the highest concentration of intravenous drug use, HIV, you name it. We now have five deaths a week from Fentanyl overdose.

In Sole Food, we are seeing embodied the collision of those worlds. The food goes to the wealthiest segment – to restaurants and farmers’ markets. The people growing that food are from the poorest part of the country. There are so many aspects of this project that are like that, completely contradictory to each other. In a way it’s great poetry. It is what it is. It’s a complete and total contradiction.

AM: Some years ago when you and I co-produced urban farming workshops on your farm in Santa Barbara  County, at one point you said, “I want to see farmers make as much money as possible.” La Donna Redmond, a food security activist in Chicago’s inner city said, “Does that mean organic food for rich people?” I agree that access to healthy food is a serious issue, but blaming the farmer for an economic system that results in poverty is misguided.

MA: I’ve spent most of my 43-year career as an organic farmer, with the majority of the food going to a very narrow segment of the society, which is those who can afford it. As a result, I have felt this incredible need to do something to reach out to people who can’t.

Is it giving away the food? I don’t think so. I’d rather teach people how to grow it. I’d rather have them work with living soils and plants, and have the responsibility of people expecting food from you, and that there’s a community of farmers who expect you to show up, I’d rather all those things provide the basis for someone to get well, if they’re not well, to raise themselves up within a community that’s underserved, to have some new skills that can actually support them.

When we first started this project, everyone was saying, Of course you’re going to grow all this food and give it to the downtown east side kitchens. I said, No, we’re not. No. What’s important here is the jobs. That was our determined focus. Yes, we give away lots of food every year, but for every pound of food I give away, that’s a dollar out of somebody’s pocket. I don’t like to give the food away. It was given for various reasons – it has a problem, it was cosmetically imperfect, who knows what. I want to sell all that food so I can pay people and hire more people and train more people.

AM: You use the portmanteau “Farmily” to describe the blend of social and professional life at Sole Food Street Farms.

MA: Nova, who was a street kid on Granville Street in Vancouver and addicted to meth, came up with that term, and it’s just beautiful. I titled one of the chapters of the book Farmily because in a way it really encapsulates the whole experience. I love it. It suggests, for the people who we’re working with, that this is their only meaningful engagement, and coming together on a daily basis on the farms with a group of people and doing this good work, having your hands in the ground and growing food for your community, creates a great sense of community. It creates a great sense of family. It creates a sense of belonging for people who don’t have much of that.

AM: You designate your staff as farmers, how important is that?

MA: I think when outsiders come and refer to our farms as gardens, and a Downtown Eastside staff member is present for that, they get really upset. They don’t think of themselves as gardeners. That’s insulting. One of our sites is an acre and a half, almost two acres. When you’re producing 25 tons of food per year, that’s a lot. That’s not exactly gardening. They think of themselves as farmers, and that’s a source of pride.

I never thought I would see the day when our staff identified themselves as that, and were proud walking down the streets of the city with soil under their fingernails, or tomato or strawberry stains on their hands, and felt proud of the way they felt at the end of the day. That’s awesome.

Michael Ableman will join our conference in October. Come hear his amazing story at Bioneers!

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