Solefood launches urban orchard in Vancouver

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      The idea of launching an urban orchard has been on farmer and Solefood cofounder Michael Ableman’s mind for more than 30 years.

      Today, the project came to fruition with the official opening of the social enterprise’s latest operation at Main Street and Terminal Avenue, on land that has sat vacant for over a decade.

      The city-owned lot that was formerly occupied by a gas station is now lined with hundreds of movable containers filled with newly planted trees. 

      In three to five years, the urban orchard is expected to reach commercial production, offering unique varieties of fruit, including Meyer lemons, Santa Rosa plums, French butter pears, persimmons, figs, and quince. In the meantime, 50 to 60 types of culinary herbs will also be grown in the boxes.

      With more than 400 trees planted on the one-acre site and a production model designed to generate both jobs and significant quantities of food, Ableman describes the operation as the largest urban orchard of its kind on the continent. 

      “What you are seeing are not only extremely unusual types of tree crops, but on a density and scale that to my knowledge and from people I’ve talked to, does not exist in North America,” Ableman told reporters today (July 7) at the site.

      While he first envisioned the urban orchard concept 35 years ago, Ableman said installation of the Vancouver operation has taken place over the past year and a half, with the most intensive work occurring during the last two months.

      The orchard is Solefood’s fourth project in Vancouver. The nonprofit organization also operates urban farms on East Hastings Street, on 1st Avenue and Clark Street, and at its largest site on Pacific and Carrall streets, below B.C. Place.

      As part of the enterprise’s goal to provide jobs and agricultural training to people with multiple barriers to employment, the sites employ 25 people during peak season, many of whom are Downtown Eastside residents, and dealing with addiction, mental illness, and poverty.

      “We have people employed now for almost five years, some of whom probably did not hold jobs for four or five months,” said Ableman. “So that part of it is critically important, and is really the driving kind of foundational piece of what we do.”

      The urban orchard is expected to generate year-round work for some employees, helping to address the organization’s current challenge of having to reduce work hours during the slower winter months.

      “There’s nothing worse than having to reduce people’s hours or even lay them off in the winter because our production is low,” said Ableman.

      “This will in a very limited way allow us to employ people in the winter because there’s a fair amount of orchard work in the winter time. I think our hope is to continue to develop systems and ways that we can keep our staff employed year-round.”

      Ableman also hopes to set up a retail location at the corner of the Main and Terminal site that would offer produce from all of the Solefood sites on a “pay what you can” model.

      “That’s the approach that we would like to take,” he said. “And so people will have a suggested price list, and people will pay what they can. We believe it will balance out.” 

      “There is a lot of foot traffic here, and I think it’s a great opportunity to get our food six or seven days a week into the hands of people in this neighbourhood,” he added.

      Solefood currently supplies produce to about 30 local restaurants, and to farmers markets around the city. About 10 percent of its produce is donated to Downtown Eastside agencies.

      The containers at the Main and Terminal operation, like those used at the other Solefood sites, are movable in the event that the city-owned land is needed for another purpose.

      Mayor Gregor Robertson, who formally opened the site with Ableman today, said the former gas station site has been “basically unusable” for typical uses due to contaminated soil.

      “This is high leverage of land in the middle of our city that otherwise we wouldn’t get anything from,” he told reporters.

      “The great thing about the Solefood projects is they’re portable. Ultimately, they can be moved, and we can keep acres of farmland effectively moving around the city to wherever there’s blank space.”

      The City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Foundation provided a “greenest city” community grant of $50,000 to Solefood to support the operation. The organization also received a grant from the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., The Central City Foundation, Eco Soil, and the Radcliffe Foundation for the project.

      The land is currently being leased to Solefood for a fee of $1 a year. 

      Ableman called Solefood’s model for the Main and Terminal site “a jump off the cliff” in terms of urban agriculture.

      “Everybody looked at me like I was crazy when the orchard idea came up,” he said. “But I think we do have to be willing to take some risks, and I think this is going to be a very exciting alternative concept for urban food production in the future.”



      The 99

      Jul 7, 2013 at 9:24pm

      Umm. Huh? "largest urban orchard of its kind on the continent"? At just an acre?

      Anyone in the media do any fact checking anymore?

      Seattle's 7-acre Beacon Food Forest!
      Portland's Sabin, Green Thumb, Killingsworth, and North Portland orchards!
      The Boston Tree Party's Orchard in the 281-acre Arnold Arboretum!
      San Fran's Urban Orchard Project at 1000+ acre Golden Gate Park!
      The 1-acre Bloomington Community Orchard!
      The Philadelphia Orchard Project's Bartram and Fair Hill orchards!
      LA's 10-acre Franklin Canyon Orange Tree Orchard!
      Toronto's Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard!
      Calgary's Hillhurst-Sunnyside, Baker, and Ralph Klein orchards!
      And finally, really close to home, Richmond's Sharing Farm Fruit Orchard!

      Great that we are catching up with the world, but now who's going to be watering all these elevated planters suspended over this toxic soil? Why aren't we finding or providing clean, naturally-irrigated soil for such projects? Don't we have ANY clean ground in this city?

      Forget it. This is all about just about a sizeable corporate commercial tax abatement and consequent tax shift onto the residents. It's hardly about the food, and development will clear this site sooner than you can say "community plan."

      Never mind.

      John-Albert Eadie

      Jul 7, 2013 at 10:01pm

      So what happens with the Viaducts removal? The rich in Vancouver are it's worst enemy ...

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 7, 2013 at 10:41pm

      The 99:

      Thanks for the post. By "largest", and Ableman says so, he is speaking about "density", in this case more than 400 trees per acre.
      I'm not sure if any of the ones you mention are over that density.

      Living in the Westside of Van

      Jul 8, 2013 at 7:53am

      Thanks Michael Abelman for your idea and contribution to Vancouver.

      If you want to see an inspiring video regarding inner city gardening, here is one from the TED talks. Just search for this talk....

      "Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA"

      Go to


      Jul 8, 2013 at 9:34pm

      - What are wages? How far above minimum wage? Can they live on this, buy one of the many condos going up and displacing people in the DTES? Or is it just a small respite that does not help in the long run?
      - To categorize the human beings who are working there by problems they may or may not have, as if this is some "socially aware" proj
      ect, is inhumane and is another way of poor-bashing, for those who can understand that?
      - Is this food going to the expensive, elite restaurants that are part of the gentrifying - not revitalizing - of the DTES? That is the gentrification city hall is behind which is destroying community; it is destroying community, a community that is not just a bunch of sick and addicted as this article purports, but certainly one that middle class people are incapable of seeing and/or understanding. If this food is going to those restaurants that many who call the DTES home could never afford to eat at, then this project is working against the good of the DTES and does not help "green" the area.
      - And the so-called jobs, unless a good wage and long term, although helpful to a couple of people, cannot help in the long run when decent, affordable housing is not part of the city's selling package.