In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a new model of urban agriculture is creating employment opportunities for inner city residents, greening the streets and improving food security in the neighbourhood.
SOLEFood Farm is an Enterprising Non Profit established in 2009 by United We Can (UWC). United We Can—well known for starting the first bottle refund depot in Vancouver— creates employment for 150 inner city residents who have multiple barriers to traditional employment. Projects include recycling services for local businesses using non-motorized foot and bicycle carts, a bike repair shop, a used computer store, and street cleaning services. Each project aims to create a self-sustaining urban enterprise that cares for the environment.
With SOLEFood Farm, UWC is breaking new ground in Vancouver, and not just in raised beds. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is known for high rates of poverty, drug use and sex trade activity. It may seem to be an undesirable location for a farm but local community activism, for which the neighbourhood is also known, is challenging that assumption.
From composting to farm building
In early 2009, UWC met with other downtown nonprofits to discuss new ways to green the city while creating jobs. One idea was for UWC to collect and compost food waste from downtown restaurants, and sell the compost to generate revenue. From these discussions, an idea emerged—starting an urban organic farm that could use some of the compost, provide food to a community with little access to fresh produce, and create inner-city jobs.\
In the end, the farm project was launched before the inner-city composting facility. Logistical obstacles to the composting facility included the cost of adequate composting infrastructure and vermin management.
SOLEFood Farm, however, generated significant enthusiasm from the get-go. In October 2009, a twitter call-out brought together approximately 100 volunteers for a day of urban farm-building, where over 155 raised beds were created.
In the following months, UWC realized they needed to “amp up” one crucial element: farming knowledge. The farm’s founders dedicated much effort to consulting with experts from related fields including organic growers, urban farmers and horticultural therapists. One expert they approached is urban agriculture pioneer, farmer and author, Michael Ableman. Ableman is the founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Southern California—a significant community and education centre that has become an international model for small-scale and urban agriculture—where he served as director from 1981 to 2001. Ableman now farms at Foxglove Farm, also home to the Centre for the Arts, Ecology and Agriculture, on Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Having agreed to guide SOLEFood’s planning process for the first year, Ableman helped project managers maximize the use of space and develop crop planning schedules, as well as develop farm management plans. This year Ableman is taking his involvement one step further and signing on as co-director of SOLEFood Farm.
Parking lot farming
SOLEFood Farm is currently located on the half-acre parking lot of the Astoria Hotel at the corner\ of Hastings Street and Hawks Avenue.\ The lot is leased by SOLEFood from the Astoria for the equivalent of the value of the property taxes. It is a two-year lease with an option to extend the lease to five years. From the street, you can see rows of 155 raised beds (4 ft. x 12 ft. in size) with a high tunnel, used as a greenhouse, running through the centre of the site. But this urban farm is about much more than a demonstration farm. SOLEFood is, above all, a social enterprise— meaning it is a business with a social mission.
SOLEFood’s core mission is to create employment opportunities for inner city residents, many of whom have barriers to employment, including mental illness and addiction issues. Most also suffer from material poverty. As the sale of produce pays for wages and dayto- day operations, the mission is directly funded from the revenue generated by the enterprise.
Current SOLEFood workers are inner-city residents with no farming background. Although SOLEFood Farm operates like most farms—early mornings and long days filled with seeding, harvesting, cleaning, pruning and watering—the schedules are tailored to fit people’s needs and accommodate individuals with various disabilities or addiction issues.
The balance between fulfilling a social mission and managing a revenue-generating urban farm is not necessarily an easy one to strike.
Ableman points out that many urban agriculture projects are heavily funded. He cautions, “If we are going to use the term ‘urban agriculture,’ there is an implication that the farm be, to some degree, self-supporting, just like other rural or peri-urban farms.” He argues that production and economic viability is as important in urban agriculture as it is in any other food producing enterprise. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is no exception.
SOLEFood’s co-director and project manager, Seann Dory, explains that for SOLEFood to achieve its primary mission, they must succeed at growing the best food possible. He believes that “By focusing on growing a few crops extremely well and very efficiently, we are laying a strong foundation for generating more employment and making more fresh food available to the inner city.”
To generate a return from a small space, SOLEFood focuses on crops that offer multiple cuttings such as chard, corn salad, spinach, lettuce, arugula, kale and collards. In the summer, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are added to the crop rotation. This season, ten-foot “poles” made of PVC pipes that have been perforated and filled with soil will be secured to the end of each raised bed. They will be planted with several thousand strawberry plants—maximizing the limited lateral space by making use of vertical space. In early April of this year, harvest began with radishes—an exception to the multiple-picking guideline because they grow quickly and can be planted with other crops. SOLEFood Farm makes its produce available in three city markets, delivers produce to four restaurants, and sells produce on-site every Thursday.
“Urban agriculture projects have the potential to really change the face, the dynamics, of the city.” —Seann Dory
A growing vision
SOLEFood Farm is barely two years old and is already considered a success by UWC. A financial support from key partners, such as the City of Vancouver, Vancity and Nature’s Path, has been crucial for the initial phases of the project. However, SOLEFood Farm’s short-term objective is to operate without any outside funding by 2012 (excluding expansion-related costs which will likely require more initial capital).
Expanding to several half-acre or one-acre growing sites is expected to take place in the near future. Ableman explains that the idea is to use different growing sites throughout the city in a typical field rotation pattern. Expanding ultimately means more jobs and more fresh food; there is lots of room for SOLEFood to grow.
SOLEFood’s short to mid-term vision also includes moving ahead with the creation of the inner-city composting facility, which is now being funded by Vancity. As well, SOLEFood has opened a space for cooling, processing, consolidating and distributing the food from the gardens.
Part of the long-term vision of the organization is the creation of a world class model of urban agriculture. SOLEFood has already started offering various workshops and will develop educational material for communities interested in adapting the SOLEFood model to their neighbourhoods. Ableman emphasizes the need for a pragmatic approach and reiterates that while the main focus of SOLEFood is to provide meaningful employment to inner city residents, “We want to demonstrate that those jobs can be paid for by the business of farming in the city. We need it to be a serious farming venture for it to be a viable model.”
SOLEFood is providing not only jobs but an opportunity for people to work with living things and produce living foods.
Community, jobs, food and dialogue
What is perhaps most meaningful in the SOLEFood story is that the enterprise has been well received by the community. In the words of Ableman, “SOLEFood is providing not only jobs but an opportunity for people to work with living things and produce living foods.” There has been no vandalism or theft on the SOLEFood property.
Overcoming urban agriculture challenges: The case of SOLEFood Farm
Challenge: Accessing land is difficult in the city, mostly because it is highly priced and because securing long-term leases for agricultural purposes remains uncommon.
Opportunity: Be creative and grow where most people think you can’t grow.
Challenge: Much of the soil in the inner city is contaminated because it is an old industrial neighbourhood. Decontamination is feasible but very costly.
Strategy: Growing in raised beds.
Challenge: Living costs, especially rent, tend to be higher in the city than in rural contexts.
Opportunity: Making the most of the proximity to the customer. Keep in mind:
Seann Dory is equally positive about the project: “Urban agriculture projects have the potential to really change the face, the dynamics, of the city. The lot we are on was a dump surrounded by an active sex trade. The sex trade still takes place nearby, but now people come to this parking lot to chat about what is growing. It is no longer a shooting gallery but a place where people hang out and connect with food and the community.”
SOLEFood is, above all, a social enterprise—meaning it is a business with a social mission.
Both Dory and Ableman acknowledge that urban agriculture has to be viewed within a broader context where cities will continue to depend on periurban and rural farms for their food. But, as Dory points out, in urban agriculture lies the unique opportunity to open up the food dialogue in a context often disconnected from the broader food system. SOLEFood invites everyone to participate in the discourse of how our cities and economies are developed, and how our communities are fed.More information visit the SOLEFood Farm website. For information on urban agriculture workshops and other programs, visit www.foxglovefarmbc.ca or www.fieldsofplenty.com Virginie Lavallée-Picard’s farming experience and her interest in sustainable food systems are rooted in her studies in human ecology. She divides her time between writing, sustainability consulting and managing Wind Whipped Farm, a small market garden.
Photo credits: SOLEFood Farm