Urban farms have popped up all over in the last decade. But not many operations are on the scale of Sole Food in Vancouver. Its four sites plan to produce 60 tons of food this year, enough for dozens of local restaurants and markets. A fifth site is on the way.
“‘Urban agriculture’ is used fairly loosely,” says co-founder Michael Abelman, who is a veteran in the practice. “A lot of what’s been called agriculture is more ‘gardening’ in scale. That’s not a value judgement. It’s just saying that it is actually possible to develop a full-scale enterprise in a city, and provide lots of food, and employ significant numbers of people.”
The last goal is important. Sole Food is offering opportunities to people who otherwise might not get a chance, such as recovering addicts and people with a mental illness. The four farms employ about 25 people currently, including Donna, who you can see in the film below.
Sole Food’s latest addition is a one-acre orchard in Downtown Eastside, known as Canada’s “poorest postal code.” Located on an old Petro-Canada gas station, the farm contains about 500 fruit trees in 800 large tubs. The specially designed containers have hooks in the side, so they can be moved easily should the landlord (the city) ever take back the property.
“They address two of the most significant issues facing urban agriculture anywhere–contaminated soil and real estate values,” Ableman says. “We’ve done that with one simple invention that allows us to both isolate the growing medium from the contamination, and lets us to move at a moment’s notice.”
The trees grow local fruit varieties unusual for Vancouver, including Meyer lemons, persimmons, quinces, and rare plum and cherry trees, along with a load of culinary herbs (in the other tubs). All in all, Abelman reckons it is the largest urban orchard in North America, though he isn’t particularly interested in the designation.
Instead, his aim is to continue to show that urban gardening can be profitable and make a difference locally. “The primary goal is providing meaningful employment,” says Ableman.