Emphasizing Product Quality Over Narrative, an Urban Farming Enterprise Thrives
April 16, 2018 | Trish Popovitch
Careful planning, adequate startup capital and experience working on a traditional rural farm are just three of the elements that veteran urban farmer, and co-founder of Vancouver’s Sole Food Street Farms, Michael Ableman feels are necessary to be successful in the new urban agriculture movement. Founded in 2008, Sole Food Street Farms would be considered by many growers as established and successful, but for Ableman there is still much work to be done both at Street Farms and in the development of the city farm movement.
“The skill level required to be a farmer is not something you get just by wearing the right clothes, having the right tools and having started last year. It takes five to ten years to develop that skill level,” says Ableman. “What we’re trying to do is demonstrate that it is in fact possible to have a credible model of agriculture in the city, so the scale and production levels, the volume we produce, the number of people we employ is significant.”
Employing 20 to 30 well trained local residents (most recovering from addiction or managing mental health issues) and producing 25 tons of food every year for sale though farmers’ markets, a CSA and to approximately 50 of Vancouver’s top restaurants and eateries, Street Farms offers a viable agricultural model for city farming based on scale and sustained success.
Street Farms may occupy approximately five acres of space in an urban slum, and it may employ one of North America’s most underserved populations but despite that, Ableman is adamant that his customers should buy his product because of its quality and not its narrative. “We’re not asking people to buy our food out of some sense of charity, or a belief system or our story, which is a good story, but we’re asking them to buy because it is high quality food. We don’t get a pass to be not good farmers,” says Ableman. The farm averages $350,000 in annual income from sales and programming.
For Ableman, who came into the project as a consultant and now acts as Managing Director, the city farm is a social catalyst and its sustainability lies in its larger social mission. “Our experience has proven giving people a reason to get out of bed each day, meaningful employment, a place for people to come to learn new skills, a community that depends on them […]. Really it’s been the people of that community that in many ways helped themselves,” says Ableman. “We provided the setting for it to happen.” A study by Queens University in 2013 calculated that for every dollar Street Farms pays a member of staff, it creates a $2.20 savings to local health, social and legal services.
Street Farms employees grow their fresh produce in custom built growing boxes. As the farm reduces to a skeleton crew in the winter months, Ableman sees the boxes as a way to keep folks employed and meeting their recovery goals. “The boxes address a number of problems. They address short-term leases, they address contaminated soil…if you have to move at short notice…. We get more requests for the boxes than the produce growing in them. We’re looking at trying to find a warehouse. Our idea would be to start manufacturing and distributing them within the next year,” says Ableman. This value added product must be cost effective and currently Ableman and his team are working on how to reduce the per unit cost to make them both affordable to buy and reasonable to make.
Much of what Ableman and fellow founder Seann Dory have learned in the last few years, as well as Ableman’s urban agriculture manifesto and some general advice on urban farming are surmised in Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, a book Ableman released last year which he feels will help would-be city farmers to realize the true scope of commercial growing. “I’m not trying to be discouraging,” says Abelman. “I’m trying to give people a better shot at being successful.”
With over 40 years of farming experience and deep roots in the sustainable city farming movement that stretch back to the 1980s, Ableman hopes that his project in Vancouver will encourage more social enterprise-focused urban farms and for growers to realize that in today’s social and economic climate, profit as priority is old hat.
“We have a responsibility to be self sustaining economically but I also think we have an obligation in any business to address the broader goals and needs of our community and our society,” says Ableman. “I don’t believe it is enough to be in business just to be in business. We all have an obligation to extend the work we do beyond just making money. No-one that lives on this planet, at this time, can solely live and survive without considering the impact of their actions.”