Travel & Culture » Canada

Book review: Vancouver’s Street Farms

Michael Ableman’s ambitious urban agriculture project is germinating seeds and hope.

Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier

By Michael Ableman
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016, paperback, 256 pages, $41.95

Fragility and strength. In Michael Ableman’s latest book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, these counterparts stand hand in hand, a testament to the commonalities shared by all living things, plants and humans alike.

Street Farm recounts the struggles and successes of Sole Food Street Farms, an urban agricultural feat set against the backdrop of Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside slums. It is, at its core, a story about people looking after one another. Soil, seeds, plants and produce play the aptly assigned role of change agents, offering respite, employment and a sense of belonging to people far too used to being swept out of sight and out of mind by society.

One of the central characters, Ableman, along with Seann Dory, turned an ambitious, some might say crazy, vision into a reality, against all odds. And in a seven-year (and counting) odyssey that involves municipal bureaucracy, drug addicts, urban farming and highly coveted plots of land in one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, the odds were truly stacked against the two co-founders.

Despite Ableman’s key role in bringing Sole Food Street Farms to its current status as North America’s largest urban farm project, he rightly places the focus on the story’s true protagonists: the Sole Food employees and the farms.

From heroin addiction to homelessness, from young women to old men, Ableman has carefully crafted the book’s chapters to weave the stories of Sole Food’s “family” with those of the farms themselves. For example, Ableman’s first meeting with Frank Giustra, the benevolent billionaire who would come to be a major supporter of Sole Food, is recounted immediately following an introduction to Donna, a mother of four and former crack user who worked on the farm during its early years but departed during the organization’s difficult growing pains. The juxtaposition of billionaire philanthropist and struggling former drug addict is thought-provoking and jarring.

With a matter-of-fact tone, Ableman details the many setbacks and realities the Sole Food team and its supporters (including city staff and funders) have had to overcome, such as rigid municipal bylaws, land-hungry condo developers, vandalism, kale-loving rats, contaminated lots and no-show staff. The result of the team’s tenacity is five commercially viable urban farms capable of producing high-quality, artisanal fruits and vegetables to satisfy Sole Food’s customer base of market-goers and chefs at high-end restaurants across the city.

The most remarkable of those farms is the urban orchard that Sole Food opened in 2013. From the beginning, Sole Food faced monumental challenges centred around the need to plant all of the orchard’s trees in containers, lest the team needed to move the orchard from the vacant lot it was leasing. Unlike their vegetable counterparts, trees aren’t typically suited to container growing. Despite many early setbacks, the orchard is now a thriving oasis filled with fruiting trees and herbs, a delight for people and pollinators alike.

With a wisdom and humility that reflect his decades working on social-justice agricultural projects across North America, Ableman dismisses any sort of heroic notions the reader might want to attach to Sole Food Street Farms. None of the staff are going to be “saved” by Sole Foods alone, and there are no big “miracles” to witness.

And yet there is no denying that for many of the staff, Sole Food has been an important part of their life’s story. Meaningful work, a reliable source of income and a sense of community—for those dealing with drug addiction, homelessness and other challenges, that trifecta is imperative to creating a sense of stability. The farms end up being fertile grounds for not only the growing of produce but also the growing of people. Many of the employees that Ableman profiles have shone bright in the farming environment, discovering or recovering skills and abilities that any employer would be wont to have in his or her staff.

Though Ableman’s descriptions of the farms and the Sole Food employees are vivid, his use of stunning photography throughout the book bolsters the overall impact of the success of his vision. Ableman’s photos are straightforward and raw, much like his storytelling style. They depict the staffers in their day-to-day work at Sole Food: one (Nova) has a black eye, and another (Kenny) a big grin and large bunches of rainbow-coloured beets under his arms. The evolution of each farm—from vacant lot to flourishing farm—is also captured. The images enrich each chapter’s focus, thanks to thoughtful placement.

Ultimately, Street Farm is an impressive achievement unto itself. It’s a compelling chronicle of perseverance in the face of adversity, and of human compassion in a concrete city that now has a bit more green in its cityscape and a bit more hope in its Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.