Over three years after starting its first urban farm in Vancouver, Solefood continues to grow.
In May, the social enterprise plans to expand with a one-acre urban orchard located on a city-owned site at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.
Michael Ableman, cofounder of Solefood, said the orchard will feature nearly 1,000 trees, bearing fruit such as quince, persimmon, Meyer lemons, pears, and plums.
“I think this is exciting, because it’s breaking new ground, if you will,” Ableman told the Georgia Straight by phone from his home on Salt Spring Island. “Relative to anything else in the city, it’s pretty significant, and I think that if we can prove it as a potential system, we could see these types of trees lining the boulevards of all our streets and changing the atmosphere of our cities.”
The site will be the fourth food-producing location Solefood has established in Vancouver, including a two-acre farm on the corner of Pacific Boulevard and Carrall Street, near B.C. Place.
Ableman and Seann Dory started Solefood with the goal of transforming vacant urban land into farms while providing jobs and agricultural training to people with multiple barriers to employment. The urban farms supply high-quality produce to farmers markets and around 30 local restaurants.
According to the nonprofit organization, employment is used as an “outreach tactic” to people dealing with addictions and mental illness.
“I have so much respect for people that we work with…the courage, patience, and determination to [do that work] and their skill levels have been amazing,” Ableman noted.
Last summer, the organization employed 25 people; they hope to eventually increase this to 100.
Solefood’s expansion plans include a produce stand at Main and Terminal. In addition, Ableman said the organization is working on an urban-agriculture manual for other municipalities and has spoken to another city in the region about starting a spinoff project.
Ableman hopes the expansion on Main Street will provide longer-term work for employees.
“One of the things the orchard addresses, and one of the things that we’re desperately trying to sort out, is how to create a year-round employment model in an agricultural system that is actually seasonal,” he said. “Because there’s nothing worse than the end-of-November laying people off for the winter.
“We feel we need to find a way to keep people employed year-round—and the orchard will help with that, because there will be a little bit more winter work to do.”
The cofounder is quick to note that Solefood is not a social-service agency, but is intended to provide “meaningful jobs”.
“We don’t feel like we’re out there saving anybody; we’re just trying to give them decent work,” Ableman said. “We feel like if people can get up in the morning and come to work and take part in something that’s incredibly meaningful on so many levels…then maybe other changes will happen in their lives. And we certainly have seen that to some degree.”
Ableman admits that Solefood has faced its share of hurdles, including theft and vandalism, and a staff that is frequently changing.
“This has been the most difficult, challenging thing you can possibly imagine to do,” he said. “We see where we’ve been successful, but we see so many areas where we need lots of work.”
But the urban farmer, author, and photographer has also witnessed what he describes as some remarkable things.
“I wish I’d photographed everyone when they arrived, and now, honestly, people look different,” Ableman stated. “The truth is that the simple act of planting a seed, and seeing it emerge, and nurturing that plant to production, and then being able to market it…and actually nourishing other people, and getting the feedback loop—that whole process is so incredibly powerful.”