early summer planting in urban garden.


Urban gardens are popping up all over the country, and they’ve provided “food desert” communities with fresh fruits and vegetables for their residents’ tables as well as taught urban dwellers to put abandoned plots of land to good use. But have you ever heard of an “urban farm”? Our guests talk about both of these projects and describe why they provide hope and employment for people in need as well as educational opportunities to students and residents.

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Michael Ableman, co-founder and director of Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver, BC, and author of the book, Street Farm: Growing food, jobs and hope on the urban frontier

Deirdre Bradley-Turner, director of Community Service and Service Learning at Emmanuel College, Boston, which is part of the Mission and Ministry Office at the college

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Urban Farming and Gardening

Marty Peterson: Urban vegetable gardening is taking hold in many cities around the country. Organizations and individuals are reclaiming land in empty lots and turning it into gardens where tenders grow surprising amounts of fruits and vegetables for local pantries and residents. Our two guests have spearheaded urban agriculture projects in two very busy cities – Vancouver, British Columbia and Boston – but not just to provide food. They each have motives that reach far beyond nourishing the bodies in their communities, although that is part of it. They are also set on feeding the souls of people who work the plots and teach them skills they can use over a lifetime, and offer them employment as well. First, Michael Ableman, co-founder and director of Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver and author of the book, Street Farm: Growing food, jobs and hope on the urban frontier. He has taken the concept of an “urban garden” to a whole new level, growing production-quantities of fruits and vegetables in a part of town that most tourists don’t see.

Michael Ableman: It’s the neighborhood where the term “Skid Row” was actually coined, it’s a logging term. So needless to say it is a neighborhood that is historically inhabited by out-of-work loggers and fishermen and is now inhabited almost entirely by individuals who are dealing with long-term addiction and mental illness and material poverty.

Peterson: Ableman says that he’s been a farmer for 40 years and knows what hard work it is. Sole Food Farms grows a very large amount of food on their five acres of land – about 25 tons a year – because they’re efficient and have devised ways to get the highest density of plants into the smallest spaces. They do it with growing “boxes” instead of planting directly into the soil.

Ableman: Most native soils in the cities are too contaminated to grow in and land is so valuable that landowners do not want to tie that land up in farms or gardens so we developed a system, a box system which is quite innovative, which isolates the growing medium from contamination or from pavement and also allows us to move on short notice. We have about 8,000 of those boxes that we’ve designed and manufactured and within those boxes we have filled them with fertile soil and we are producing within the boxes using some pretty innovative techniques: some specialized seeders and high-density planting techniques. And that’s our system. If we have to move, which does happen every few years, they all have forklift tabs, they can be stacked, they can be telescoped together. So it’s a movable system.

Peterson: Ableman says that they grow between 40 and 50 different crops including greens, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, melons, cucumbers and radishes. It all depends on what the restaurants that buy from them need, and what’s selling at the farmers’ markets nearby. Although they grow a lot of produce, Ableman says that the workers are the focus of the farm. Many of them have never held a job for long and Sole Food Farms adds meaning and community to their lives.

Ableman: Everyone that we work with has had some form of long-term addiction. Many of them are dealing with some element of mental illness, and of course all of them live in material poverty. We have a program where we train people in agriculture, and we enlist them in the work and we have found, at least in my case I’ve discovered that many of my preconceived conceptions and the prejudices that all of us have about folks who are dealing with those issues, have been dashed away because the level of creativity and heart and soul that many of these individuals bring to their work is remarkable. We have people working with us now for over seven years who never held a job for seven months previously, who now see their work with us as pretty much the only meaningful engagement they have in their lives. It’s a reason to get up each day and get out of bed; a place to go to and a community of people that are supporting them.

Peterson: Ableman adds that what’s amazing is the amount of ingenuity the workers bring to the job of farming, despite never having worked in agriculture before.

Ableman: If you were to walk down Hastings Street in the heart of the downtown east side, the area where the term Skid Row was coined, you would be hard-pressed to not walk away with some pretty heavy judgments or preconceptions or prejudices because you’ll see, you know, individuals pirouetting in the middle of the street on crack, or someone with a needle in their arm on the sidewalk. All of this taking place out in the open. But when you dig deeper and you get to know some of those individuals, you discover that they’re not too different than any of us. They have hearts and souls and an unbelievable amount of untapped creativity when given the opportunity to do something really valuable and given the support to do that.

Peterson: Enabling people to learn how to interact with the community to make a difference is the focus of The Urban Food Project at Emmanuel College in Boston. Deirdre Bradley-Turner is the director of Community Service and Service Learning, which is part of the Mission and Ministry Office at the college. She says that three events came together that enabled Emmanuel to launch the project.

Deirdre Bradley-Turner: In the summer of 2012 the college was looking to purchase some property in the Roxbury neighborhood which is not far from our main campus and we did successfully purchase that property and it’s now been renamed the Notre Dame Campus. And then also I work with Professor Adam Silver who is a professor in our political science department and he has a Food and Politics course that he was starting. And then we also have another program called Alternative Spring Break where we send out students to do service during their March spring break, and the Boston trip focuses on food justice and access. So those three pieces – purchasing the Notre Dame campus, Professor Silver’s course, and then the Alternative Spring Break program were all happening and all looking at food justice and food access. So we all came together and decided that we would move it forward and develop a garden as part of the Notre Dame Campus.

Peterson: They also received a $25,000 grant from the New Balance Foundation to get the project off the ground. Those working at the garden are very different from the workers at Sole Food Street Farms. Bradley-Turner says that they’re students who are working in the service-oriented “Alternative Spring Break Program”.

Bradley-Turner: We are in season two, right? So last year was our first season, and through the grant we were able to bring on a gardening consultant who’s actually a member of the community. She doesn’t live too far from where our garden is and she’s an expert. So she worked with our students and worked with myself and Professor Silver and advised us on all the different pieces about how to garden, what to garden, where to place the raised beds – all of those pieces. But it really is all student led. So we have a greenhouse on our main campus that’s been something that we’ve had for a long time and so we were able to use the greenhouse to start our seedlings, and that started in March as part of the Alternative Spring Break program that I mentioned earlier. And then we have student coordinators, and because the grant is a leadership and an employment opportunity for our students, and so we employ the students and they take care of those seedlings that we planted in March throughout the spring semester and then we always have a transplant day that takes place in May where we bring all of our seedlings up to the Notre Dame campus into our raised beds and we plant them there.

Peterson: Bradley-Turner says that they also enlist the help of children at Mission Grammar School to help with making their own “seed tape” to put into the pots, transplanting seedlings and harvesting food in the fall. At the same time the kids are taught about gardening, they also receive lessons on nutrition, health and obesity – which is a special focus of the New Balance Foundation. She says that the Emmanuel students are also concerned with “food justice and security” in the neighborhood they serve.

Bradley-Turner: Food justice to me is looking at not just feeding people who are in need of food but also thinking about what we’re eating and where’s that coming from, all of those issues about having access to healthy, nutritious food and how challenging that can be for some areas. Many parts of Boston are a food desert which is an area where, you know, you don’t have easy access to fresh, nutritious food. And gardening and growing your own food is a way that you can access good and healthy, nutritious food.

Peterson: The food is distributed to various shelters in the area as well as to the students who live at the house on the Notre Dame campus and oversee the project. They’ve asked the community what kinds of produce they prefer, and learned what could be grown successfully in planting boxes and in the Boston climate. Bradley-Turner said that it’s a learning process, and each season they refine the types and varieties of plantings. She says that keeping the momentum of the program going is an ongoing project in itself, but so far students are stepping up to the challenge.

Bradley-Turner: What we’re doing is, you know, having that student leadership piece. I actually just met with our student garden coordinator this morning and she’s a senior and she’s been very dedicated. She was one of the students who cared for the garden all summer long and she’s also part of the Alternative Spring Break in March, and so I said to her, “Okay, we’ve already had one harvest but now that we’re staring this new year – she as a senior – we need to identify younger students who she can mentor and work with going forward. Because we’re a college and we, you know, cycle in students on a regular basis, that’s our model, that’s what we’re going to do is continue to find older students who are going to be role models to the younger students and then that way keeping it going.

Peterson: Good leadership and the buy-in of the community is also crucial in keeping an urban farm going, as Michael Ableman found with Sole Food Farms.

Ableman: This really is not just about the people doing the work of the farming. I think the whole community and the entire city needs to take responsibility for how their food comes to them and for supporting projects like this because they do so much more than just provide food and for creating legal infrastructure, municipal code and support systems that allow these farms to continue. You know, where kids can come learn about how their food is grown, meet farmers, see it happening, where individuals can find work where a city can actually at least provide a little bit of its own nourishment.

Peterson: You can find out how he and his staff do it at Sole Food Farms in Michael Ableman’s book, Street Farm available in stores and on his website at Sole – that’s S-O-L-E – FoodFarms.com. For more information about the Urban Food Project at Emmanuel College, Deirdre Bradley-Turner invites listeners to visit their site at Emmanuel.edu. To learn more about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.