What Is Urban Agriculture’s Role in the Food System?

sole food street farms
michael ableman
Farmer and writer Michael Ableman has been the steward of many acres over many decades. Photo credit: Facebook/Michael Ableman.

Though it has been practiced for as long as people have lived in cities, the concept of “urban agriculture” as we know it is only a few decades old. Current practitioners like my colleagues at Brooklyn Grange and I owe everything to the pioneers who planted the seed and cultivated the notion that nature can thrive and ecosystems can be restored even in the most industrial metropolis.

To farm in a city today is to stand on the shoulders of giants. So it was with no small measure of excitement that I had the recent opportunity to interview one of those giants, Michael Ableman. Ableman has been the steward of many acres over many decades and has authored several books including his most recent, titled Sole Food Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier. It’s a frank and inspiring account of creating fertile farms and healthy communities in Vancouver’s blighted Downtown Eastside. The book also includes one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive manifestos on urban farming that should be read by every municipality and city planner the world over.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

street farm
Ableman is the founder of Sole Food Street Farm in Vancouver. Photo credit: Facebook/Michael Ableman.

Edible Brooklyn: If one of your kids decided to be an urban farmer, what advice would you give them?
Michael Ableman:
Eliot Coleman and I formed an organization called the Agrarian Elders. Amongst this group of pioneers and leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, there are only one or two whose kids have returned to participate in the farms. So, I’ve always said, if you want your kids to farm, don’t raise them on one. I’m deeply concerned because with all the brouhaha around young farmers—the books, the groups—fundamentally, the number of young people who’ve engaged in farming as a full-time profession is pretty small relative to the need. We live in a society that has become heavily digitized, yet we all still need to eat.  We need people to produce that food. We need to build houses, we need to produce clothing. We need people to do the real work of fixing the plumbing. But we don’t see those honorable and necessary professions getting the attention, the participation.

EB: You mentioned our digitized world. Suddenly, there’s all this interest in something called “agtech.” But are we trying to apply Silicon Valley solutions to Salinas Valley problems? Does the tech world have the solutions agriculture needs?
I have a bias, I have to be honest. I am a participant in the world of technology. But I also have grave concerns about the level of immersion in that world, which in many ways takes us away from the real world, if you will, of soil and sunlight and each other. The technological world claims to bring us together; I’m not so sure. I think there is a place for tech, but I feel very strongly that we have to remain immersed and invested in soil-based food systems. I am not in support of non-soil based systems. They’re interesting: Hydroponics systems are certainly fascinating and certainly appeal to the technological mind. But the idea that we can solve any issue, including hunger, by coming up with a smart tech-fix, I don’t believe it. We need to take our creativity, knowledge and experience and apply them to better resolving and protecting our soils as a base for the food system. Is there a place for technology to improve soil-based systems? Yes. And I would stretch the use of the word “technology.” Where I see the really exciting work happening is in the designing of implements and tools for those of us who are still working with soil. Most of the energy over the last fifty years has gone toward developing technology for large-scale systems. The shift, which is very exciting, is toward these smaller-scale production units, and that is where appropriate technology really has a place.

EB: I love the concrete solutions your urban food manifesto offers. If you were given license to make just one of the changes you propose to municipal planning, what would it be?
That’s hard because I do see them as intertwined. In the broader global perspective, re-identifying our role as farmers is critical because as we move forward it may be that our biggest contribution to society is not just the food that we’re providing but the sequestration of water, the sequestration of carbon. These things are of such critical importance. The role that farms and farmers and the land they steward can play in climate change is so huge, and so obvious—it’s under our feet—but people aren’t looking at it.

EB: I’ll ask you a question you pose in the book: “In the United States and Canada, where we devote a smaller percentage of our income to food than any other nations in the world, how do we educate the public that cheap food is an illusion, and that we pay for our food in many less obvious ways than the dollars paid at the checkout counter?”
We don’t have a food crisis, we have a crisis of participation. When we industrialized the food system over the last 50 years, we removed eaters from the process. The result has been horrendous. Eating food is as fundamental and basic as anything that happens in our lives. We have an obligation, all of us, whether we’re farmers or not, to be greater participators in that process. That doesn’t mean that we’re growing all our own food, but it means we are involved in the process to the degree that we have a relationship with those who are—that there’s some level of involvement other than showing up at the supermarket or the restaurant as though we’re taking our car to the gas station, to be plugged in.

The question is, how do we bring people back into this participation in a way that’s an invitation and not a harangue? That’s where we’re really lucky, you and I. You and I can say, “Here, taste this carrot.” We don’t have to explain anything, we don’t have to go through all the political, social or environmental reasons we grew it this way. We just have to say: “Taste this carrot, it’s going to change your life.”

All through my 20s and 30s I thought, if I can just beat people over the head with the right reasons for why I’m doing this, or be more eloquent in describing why I’m doing it, I can get the world to change. Then I realized, what if I could just grow the world’s best tomato? Pleasure is a much greater motivator for change than guilt will ever be. We have this possibility of celebration and taste and nourishment and joy and a gathering around this fundamental thing we call food, and we can bring that—we have brought it—right into the heart of the community. It’s not 100 miles away where they can’t see it or feel it. It’s right there. And that’s maybe the biggest role we have in urban agriculture.