“I took it as a compliment,” says Michael Ableman as he recalls being called a “food terrorist” by cooking celebrity Julia Childs.
It was a charge she made after he spoke to a group of culinary professionals with a bag of groceries at his side. One by one, he took out the groceries and told the story from field to plate. “It wasn’t a very pretty picture,” he says.
While he got a standing ovation, Childs, the next speaker up, wasn’t amused. Ableman says she believed nothing should interrupt the pleasure of the table. By getting people to think about the food system, he squelched that pleasure.
Clearly, he and Childs weren’t on the same side. “My job was to ring the bell and blow the horn and ask chefs to be more responsible about how they sourced food,” he says.
Ableman and his wife, Jeanne-Marie Herman, farm 120 acres on Salt Spring Island, B.C. It’s hardly a typical Canadian farm. Their mixed organic farm includes grains, hay, fruit, vegetables and livestock. They sell at farmers markets and through a CSA subscription program.
Even so, more mainstream farmers are coming to grips with the fact that for a growing swath of Canadian consumers, Ableman is a respected farm voice.
Connecting food with social issues
While his farm is rural, Ableman is well known for his work in urban agriculture. Just across the water in Vancouver, he co-founded and directs Sole Food Street Farm.
Ableman talks about the farm and about his new book, Farm the City: A Toolkit for Setting Up a Successful Urban Farm. The book is based on his experience creating employment through urban agriculture for individuals managing poverty and addiction.
“We started (Sole Food Street Farm) about 13 years ago with two primary goals,” he says. One goal was to provide meaningful employment and training to individuals from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood with very high rates of intravenous drug use, mental illness and poverty. The second goal was to create a credible model of urban agriculture, an economic enterprise growing commercial quantities of food.
Ableman corrects anyone who uses the word “garden” instead of “farm.” “These are very much farms; we’re producing 25 tons of food annually on just under four acres of pavement,” he explains. On the flip side, he feels that there is a lot of inappropriate use of the word “agriculture” in an urban context. “A lot of my farmer friends roll their eyes when they hear the word ‘agriculture’ being used to describe a front lawn or back yard,” he says.
He writes more about this on his blog, where he says, “Calling a garden with a few boxes of vegetables ‘agricultural’ is like referring to yourself as a ‘mechanic’ because you change your own oil or an ‘actor’ because you once performed in the school play. It is important for farmers that the world begin to understand that agriculture requires a very sophisticated and complex set of skills to do well.”
While he’s quick to point out the distinction between garden and farm, it turns out that many of the ideas in his urban farm toolkit could apply to other agricultural businesses.
On problem solving
Ableman sees agriculture as a tradition of trial and error. Talking about Sole Food Street Farm, he says, “We have made a lot of mistakes,” but adds that it’s the pathway of anyone in agriculture.
For example, in an urban setting, paving and contaminated soil can necessitate container-growing systems. So at Sole Food Street Farm they created wooden growing boxes. Ableman describes their first attempt as an expensive mistake, noting, “The loss was quite significant.” So they tried again.
The current plastic growing boxes are moveable, have forklift tabs, and interconnectible drainage holes to capture and recycle runoff. There are holes on the top to install hoops for row covers, and the boxes are stackable and nestable. Ableman says they’re pretty much indestructible. But getting it right took failure.
They created an orchard using the containers. “When we first planted this orchard everyone thought we were crazy,” says Ableman. It worked, but it took a creative approach to solve the challenge. He explains that they used standard rootstock on the fruit trees instead of dwarfing rootstock. While it seems counterintuitive, the trees need the added vigour to cope with the stress of growing in the boxes. They now grow cherry, quince, apple, pear, as well as fig, persimmon and lemon — crops people said they could not grow.
In the book, Ableman says, “People come to farmers markets and food outlets for more than just food.” But what exactly does that mean?
“We’re living in a time and in a society where only two per cent of the population is growing the nourishment for the remaining 98 per cent,” he says. This means that most eaters are disconnected from how their food comes to them — and also from the lives and experiences of those growing the food.
That disconnect makes it important to tell stories that help to connect the dots between land, farms, farmers and the people eating the food.
“People who are buying your food want to know who is growing it, what’s their story, where did they come from, how was their week,” he says.
That week might include challenges such as weather, markets, pests. But it also includes joys and satisfactions, plus a sense of accomplishment.
Ableman notes that these stories are more than a feel-good service to eaters: They provide a return. “All these things make the food that you are offering come to life in a completely different way,” he says. And that increases loyalty and connection with shoppers.
On land ownership
“Ownership is definitely an overrated model,” says Ableman as we talk about access to land.
“From the urban perspective, ownership is impossible,” he says, unless the grower already owns land or has incredibly deep pockets. Leasing land makes far more sense. Yet he feels it’s a way of thinking that can be applied beyond urban agriculture. “I think it’s true to a certain extent as well for rural or peri-urban land.”
When it comes to leases, he says that for peri-urban and rural land, 25-year leases make sense. But the duration is vastly different on the urban front, where land values shorten that window. He says that in an urban setting, a farmer should aim for a minimum of three to five years.
When it comes to lease arrangements, Ableman encourages partnerships with landowners. Whether it be developers or private landowners, he says the lease should involve an exchange that goes beyond financial details. In the case of Sole Food Street Farm, they have facilitated property-tax benefits for owners who lease to them — and they leave sites cleaned up and in a better state than when they began. Ableman says to remember that PR benefits can be a way to give back to landowners — and that the PR of leasing to an urban farm can be valuable.
There is another important thing to remember too: having a clear mechanism to end the lease. “Landowners know they’re not going to be faced with a public relations nightmare if they ask us to leave,” he explains.
Scarcer than land
Ableman says that experiential capital is a huge challenge — perhaps more than access to land. Finding skilled farm workers in an urban setting, where people don’t grow up in a tradition of commercial growing can be challenging.
He has seen many people start farming and quit. The work is hard and the financial return not commensurate.
He encourages people interested in farming to work with a successful farmer for a couple of years to see if farming is a fit for their strengths and interests. “It accelerates your learning dramatically,” he says, adding that reading and YouTube are no substitute for hands-on experience.
In Farm the City, Ableman points out the importance of hands-on learning. When I ask him to talk more about it he says, “We cannot all be sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day.” He explains that we still live in a world where people need to eat food grown by farmers, houses have to be built, plumbing needs fixing, transportation requires manufacturing. They all take people with hands-on skills.
Ableman points out that carpenters and chefs go through apprenticeships. He doesn’t see farming as being any different. “Agriculture takes a minimum of 10 years of experience to get a handle on things,” he says, adding that because farmers deal with changing and evolving biological systems, the farmer is always learning.
“We do a great disservice to our young people by putting a greater value on things like computer science or math without giving equal attention and value to real-life skills such as building and growing things.”
Ableman is articulate, thoughtful and affable. He hardly seems a terrorist. But over 20 years later, he continues to ring the bell and blow the horn about food-related issues.