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Urban Farming Series: SOLEfood Farms

by jfaubert on December 6th, 2010

Here is another in my Urban Farming Series from another great urbanfarmer. I really had no idea when I started this that there were so many in this city. It’s been a pleasant surprise to keep finding new ones, like SOLEfood.

 ”SOLEfood is an Enterprising Non Profit (ENP) established in 2009 by United We Can. It is an urban farm consisting of hundreds of planters. The farm provides training and employment opportunities to residents from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to build, plant, maintain and harvest the farm. The locally grown food is sold to restaurants, at Farmers Markets and when possible, supplied to community organizations with similar aims of improving neighbourhood food security. Led by the farmers themselves, educational opportunities during the growing season are available to the public interested in learning about urban agriculture. Employees see the farm as a place for self-growth and healthy community development, while beautifying our neighbourhood.”

Seann Dory is SOLEfood Farms’ Project Manager:

Tell us a little about your business, your background and how you decided to become an urban farmer?

SOLEfood is a non-profit, social enterprise that provides urban agriculture employment and training opportunities for Vancouver’s inner-city residents. Working alongside farmer/author Michael Ableman, (www.fieldsofplenty.com, www.foxglovefarmbc.ca) community residents are trained and employed to install and manage small production farms on leased urban lots. Produce grown from the farms is washed, cooled, and consolidated at a central location, then sold to restaurants, at farmers markets and distributed to community organizations. With few significant food production farms within the city, the project also provides modeling and education opportunities to a population that has little connection to the natural world or to their food sources. The farm provides employees with a place to learn new skills and an opportunity for self-growth.

 That’s the SOLEfood blurb. Personally, I’ve been working on inner-city community development for a few years now and had been looking at urban ag through that lense for a couple of years before SOLEfood started. SOLEfood is one of those rare projects where you get the opportunity to work on a number of sustainability issues through one project. We are, in some small way, looking at social, economic, environmental, and human issues, on this one small vacant lot. It’s been a challenging and wonderful first year.

 Like the residents that work for SOLEfood, I had no real farming experience before we started but by learning from mentors like Michael Ableman we have been able to learn a lot in a short period of time.

What do you find are the advantages, disadvantages and challenges of urban farming (compared to small scale rural farming)?

We have easy access to market which is the biggest differentiator. We have access to labour, resources, media/marketing savvy people, etc. The disadvantage is the cost of start-up which can be onerous. Also, land tenure and soil contamination are pretty big issues.

What do you grow? What is your favourite plant/vegetable/fruit to grow? Why?

 We grow: kale, chard, collards, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, cut lettuce, arugula, French breakfast radish, and cucumbers. My favourite is the Rainbow Chard because of the conversations it provokes with people in the neighbourhood. Which usually start with “Wow, that rhubarb looks good!”

When you harvest your produce, where do you sell it or what happens to it?

We sell to farmer markets, restaurants and community organizations.

What are your views on today’s food system?

In a word: Broken. You can’t have any sort of relationship to food today without asking yourself, “Is this food safe? Healthy?” Why do we need to ask ourselves that question?

Further to that issue the rate at which we are loosing farmland and top-soil is alarming. Not to mention the amount of greenhouse gas emissions industrial ag contributes to our environment(51% of total according to WorldWatch Institute).

What are your hopes for the future of urban farming?

 That it meaningfully supplies food to the people whom inhabit cities (like Havana), that it provides the space for people to reconnect with where their food comes from, and that it makes the issues of agriculture the issues of urbanites.

To quote a fellow farmer “Everybody Eats.” Food has the potential to bring everybody into the larger sustainability conversation.

Finally, since this conversation is all about food, what is going to be on your dinner plate tonight?

 Swiss Chard and barley salad.

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