Green Acre

April 2, 2011

Ken Vallee makes an unlikely farmer. But after the many career paths he's wandered down (chef, massage therapist, builder), this one seems to be sticking. The 40-year-old Downtown Eastsider was hired in 2010 as a farmer and fix-it man for SOLEfood-the first downtown farm in Vancouver capable of full-scale food production, meaning (unlike community gardens) it sells its produce. The farm itself occupies a half-acre lot next to the Astoria Hotel on East Hastings; if you linger by the fence, as many curious passersby do, you'll see earth in raised beds, hoop houses, and a greenhouse, all built and maintained by local folks like Vallee, who says-coming off two surgeries and what he calls the worst year of his life-that he's proud of his work. "Most people talk like their lives make a difference," he says, surveying delicate late-winter sprouts of kale. "Mine actually does."

Three years ago, SOLEfood (the acronym stands for "Save Our Living Environment") was just an idea germinating in the minds at United We Can. The enterprising Downtown Eastside eco-pioneer best known for the Hastings Street bottle depot wanted to expand its green initiatives. Progress was slow, but when it brought Salt Spring Island-based urban farming guru Michael Ableman onboard, he took project manager Seann Dory and friends in hand. They had too many goals: feed the community, green the city, hire the locals. Ableman forced them to focus on priorities (local jobs), and a year in, the discipline is paying off. SOLEfood grows kale, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, and peppers to sell at the Trout Lake, Kits, and Terminal Avenue farmers' markets and to local restaurants like Boneta, Radha, and wine-and-cheese bar Au Petit Chavignol just down the block.

The farm donated a small portion of the food it produced last year (1,000 pounds) to community groups like the Potluck Café, but it's no charity. Though it appreciates donations, mostly from Van­city and Nature's Path, and has received money and land from the green-minded city government (grants subsidized construction and initial setup), it already supports its eight employees with revenue gained selling 10,000 pounds of food in 2010. Ableman predicts it will be economically self-sufficient in three years.

"There's a small window for progress," he says with determination. Ableman, who's quietly fought the "good food revolution" for nearly 40 years, started out farming in California sites like Fairview Gardens where, on a 12.5-acre oasis surrounded by suburbs, he grew enough food for 500 families, employed more than 30 people, and grossed a million dollars a year. In National City, California (home to the Mile of Cars, America's first auto mall), he started a citywide initiative to plant protein-rich nut trees. He recalls "there was not a single living thing; there had to be some natural break from the endless, mindless pavement. Humans need to touch the earth." Touring rural farms in China and Peru, he witnessed poor urban areas getting creative with gardening-at garbage dumps, railroad tracks, tiny plots of land. In Nairobi, destitute urban women survived a recent drought by cultivating vegetables in hanging sacks in their slum apartments. He describes Cuba's flourishing city gardens as "the best example of successful urban agriculture-but they didn't do it just because it was the right thing to do." 

To Ableman, SOLEfood is the "future model for urban agriculture in North America." He envisions, akin to a downtown university campus, "a big farm with different sites citywide, with contiguous fields and crop rotations, and trucks delivering just-picked produce on harvest days." But, he stresses, the farm needs to secure more land immediately. "And that's a tough one." Surrounded by Vancouver's ever-spawning condo skyscrapers and shrinking supply of empty lots, it's hard to convince anyone that tomato stalks are the better choice.

He's not alone in his concern. In January, over 700 people turned out for a free talk at the Croatian Cultural Centre given by basketball player turned urban farming hero Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power Community Food Center. The retired NBA star came from Wisconsin to preach the gospel of sustainable food, showing photos of unused basketball courts in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green neighbourhood made over as beds of lettuce and of smiling young gang-bangers in Milwaukee knee-deep in compost. He grins whenever he settles on a close-up of his hands holding clumps of soil or masses of compost earthworms. He half-jokes that planting flowers offsets violence and crime; in a Milwaukee neighbourhood rife with car theft, "people were too busy looking at the flowers to steal cars."

Already, demand for SOLEfood produce, processed and distributed through a food hub in the basement of Save-On Meats, outstrips supply. The farmers have secured a second site, a former scrap yard just up the road from the Astoria, but the soil is seriously toxic; other options include several empty school board sites or a now-barren spot on Terminal, but Ableman knows they need to move quickly. They'll need an investment of $500,000 to $750,000 to fund expansion, and there's no time for a breather. Planting time is upon them.

For now, SOLEfood is growing in a different sense. As part of this spring's WE Vancouver exhibit, the farm has planted over the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery: from February to April, and possibly longer, neon-sprayed tubes and raised beds arranged by Ableman and his team "like spokes in a wheel" sprout brightly hued kale and Swiss chard, making the statement that good food really can grow anywhere. (The nod to Michelle Obama's First Garden doesn't hurt.) More than the remote East Hastings location, this installation gives SOLEfood a public voice in Vancouver. Ableman, Dory, and the rest of the team are changing views on what's possible in the stigmatized Downtown Eastside; in doing so, they're revealing a city fertile with the possibility of change.

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