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Urban farming success in Vancouver inspires book about lessons, challenges

Urban agriculture was a far-fetched idea when Sole Food first started in 2009, said co-founder and farmer Michael Ableman

Workers from Vancouver’s DTES grow about 25 tonnes of food every year that goes to some of the city’s top restaurants.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Workers from Vancouver’s DTES grow about 25 tonnes of food every year that goes to some of the city’s top restaurants.

The success of one of North America’s largest urban agriculture projects inspired its co-founder to write a book about the journey.

Workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) grow about 25 tonnes of produce every year at Sole Food Street Farm – food that is sold at farmers markets and to some of the city’s top restaurants.

“That is serious food,” said Sole Food cofounder, Michael Ableman.

“Especially when you’re thinking about salad greens – they don’t weigh very much,” he said, laughing.

But trying to find agricultural success in an urban setting was a risky step, back when Ableman and co-founder Seann Dory created the venture in 2009.

“Back then, when you used the words urban and agriculture in the same sentence people gave you weird looks,” Ableman told Metro in a phone interview.

But the risk was worth it because their primary goal was to provide jobs and access to nutritious food to people who have addiction and mental illness issues. Working with living soil has physiological benefits, said Aleman, who has been farming since he was 18.

“We know that when you have something that you have to take care of, that you are responsible for, a living thing, there is a sense of a need to get out of bed and get there and deal with it.”

Now 62-years old, Ableman has seen his company grow into four inner-city sites that include a 500-tree orchard, and 8,000 containers of crops. Sole Food employs about 30 people from the DTES every year, many who have been with the company since it started.

Michael Ableman is a lifelong farmer and co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms.

Shari MacDonald/Contributed

Michael Ableman is a lifelong farmer and co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms.

But his new book, called Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, also takes a “frank” look at the challenges Sole Farm has experienced so far.

For instance, Sole Food loses up to $20,000 worth of food every year from rodents and theft – a problem that farms in rural areas do not have to contend with to the same degree.

This year, someone stole a couple thousand dollars worth of figs from the orchard near Main Street SkyTrain Station, said Ableman.

“That level of theft is not for nutrition, its for re-sale.”

As for the company’s future, much of that hinges on the availability of space in a city increasingly crowded with developments, said Ableman.

“When we started there were lots of sites available, but now, every square inch has high value so it’s a precarious and fragile system that we’re living with.”

The company’s fate rests on the community and city’s willingness to support it, he said.

Sole Food is holding a fundraiser Oct. 6th in its orchard at Main Street and Terminal Ave, featuring a dinner cooked by six of Vancouver’s most well-known chefs and live music.

People can find tickets when they become available on Sole Food’s website

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