For more than three decades, author and farmer Michael Ableman has been dreaming about turning a vacant lot in Vancouver into an orchard that would provide food to the city and jobs to disadvantaged locals. Now the organization he co-founded, Sole Food Street Farms, has made that dream a reality.
"I finally got to do it on the scale that I wanted to and with the intensity that I wanted to," Ableman told Strombo.com in a telephone interview. "It's a remarkable site."
The urban orchard is located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), which is sometimes referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code," on a site that used to be a Petro-Canada gas station. It's the fourth urban farming site that Sole Food has created in the city, and like all the organization's projects, it employs recovering addicts, people with mental illness and those living in poverty.
Most of the produce grown at the farm is fruit, including lots of varieties that are unusual for Vancouver: quinces, rare plum and cherry trees, persimmons and Meyer lemons. The facility also produces culinary herbs.
There are about 500 fruit trees at the site, and all the produce is grown in 800 large tubs, all of which were specially designed so they can be picked up and moved if the site ceases to be available. At the moment, two of the Sole Food farm sites are leased from the City of Vancouver, and two, like this one, from private owners, at the rate of one dollar a year.
Ableman told Strombo.com about the challenges of getting the four farms up and running.
"Beyond the availability of the land, it has required a great deal of creativity to try to do something that has never been done before, and I think we've had a lot of cooperation from the city," he said. "What we're doing here is not exactly on the books."
In all, 25 people work at Sole Food's four farms.
"We've essentially built a farming enterprise supplying Vancouver's top restaurants, with folks who have not only never farmed before, but who are all dealing with various challenges," he told Strombo.com.
"The second piece is to provide a credible model of urban agriculture. [In] the urban agriculture movement... most of what you see is horticultural, not agricultural. It's garden-scale work," he says. "This is a fairly large-scale production-oriented project."
Ableman (pictured at right) says people have told him the new site may be the largest urban orchard in North America — but he's most proud of the effect that working with Sole Food has had on many of its employees (although he's wary of clichés about "lifting people out of poverty").
"I have seen some remarkable changes in the individuals that have been working with us," he said. "That is incredibly satisfying."
Via Fast Company