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.”