Michael Ableman: Urban Ag Pioneer
by Radha Marcum, Contributing Editor
There’s no doubt that it takes grit to be an organic farmer. But it takes community too, says agrarian guru Michael Ableman, who has been farming sustainably and building and educating about community-centered farming models for over four decades.
“As a society, we’re coming out of a period of amazing separation from the natural world,” Ableman said in a recent interview with Calmful Living. “Farms and food are a bridge that is bringing us back. There’s a desperate longing for something real, authentic and delicious that has been missing. Food and farms are helping to nourish society in those ways.”
As a farmer, advocate, educator and author, Ableman has been a steady force fueling our new agrarian movement. His books include From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food around the World (1993), a collection of photographs and stories from Peru to Burundi, depicting crops and the cultures of care around them; On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm (1998), a chronicle of Fairview Gardens; and Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It (2005).
Ableman now lives and farms on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, on the historic 120-acre Foxglove Farm, where he also directs the Centre for Arts, Ecology & Agriculture. I caught up with Ableman while he was in Big Sur, California, on retreat to write a new book about Sole Food Farms in Vancouver, BC, his latest urban agrarian project. With a story as rich and varied as the land that he farms, Ableman eloquently talks about the human side of farming, while his practical passion has grown into an agrarian revolution, a call to action for communities and farmers alike.
Farming for the Social Good
One dreams of a life’s work evolving in greater and greater accomplishments, and it certainly seems that, with every new venture, Ableman has taken the momentum from previous success and applied it to ever more meaningful and altruistic enterprises. In 2008, Ableman began his latest urban ag project, Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver, BC. Sole Food is a collection of “street farms” that grow fruits and vegetables in downtown Vancouver’s vacant lots.
One of the largest productions of urban agriculture to date, including five full acres of previously vacant land within the city, Sole Food is a social enterprise intended to “provide meaningful employment to people who live in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood who are struggling with addiction.” Currently Sole Food employs twenty-five people and sells produce to about forty restaurants, five farmers’ markets, and retail sales outlets.
“It’s such a difference from open-fields production,” Ableman admits. “We’re learning as we go.” But the message is clear: Urban agriculture can have a direct and significant impact on folks who are struggling. It all comes back to community. In fact, Ableman is currently writing a book, scheduled to be published in 2015, telling the story of the project, the people, and how they’ve accomplished so much so far.
Sole Food is an exciting way of giving back, reflects Ableman. “It’s important for me to feel that I can use urban agriculture to employ people with barriers to employment, and at the same time raise the bar on how we do it.”
Nurturing the Human Spirit
Ableman also runs Foxglove Farm’s Centre for Arts, Ecology & Agriculture at his family farm, which brings ideas of agriculture and the arts together in classes and public programs that serve to support community well-being. “We do community meals on farms, as well as workshops and programs. This sort of thing is happening on farms all over the world,” says Ableman.
“Really, the activities are secondary to the experience of being on the farm, getting folks out on the land. If that land is being nurtured and is alive and well, that is the primary experience. All kinds of things start to happen,” he explains.
Family Roots of Farming
Ableman’s farming roots trace back to his years growing up in Delaware, where farming was in the family. Time with his grandparents, who had farmed in Sussex County, Delaware, was quite influential, he says. They had stopped farming when Ableman was young, but “What I learned unconsciously from them informs what I do today.
“The focus was always on the meals that we shared as a family,” he continues. “My grandparents came out of rough times. They valued food as a sign that things had shifted and were well.” Family meals meant gathering ingredients from the nearby communities. “My grandfather would take me downstate and we’d stop and visit all his farmer friends along the way to pick up peaches or melons, crabs at Indian River Inlet, and catch up on news,” he reminisces. There was “constant connection to food and farming and family,” he adds.
His father didn’t inherit their farm. “My grandparents didn’t have access to education. They came over from eastern Europe and they felt education was everything.” They insisted his dad get a higher education and not become a farmer. “He had a vegetable garden, but he was not a farmer,” says Ableman.
“Many years later, my father, my eldest son and I visited where my grandparents had farmed. We gathered stories that I wrote for my book Fields of Plenty. Those experiences were very emblematic,” he indicates.
Ableman left Delaware in his late teens. “I’ve always had the kind of makeup and personality that wants to jump into things,” he says. At first he followed a strong interest in visual arts, pursuing training in photography with a community in Kentucky inspired by the groundbreaking photographer Minor White and then at the San Francisco Art Institute for a couple of years.
Of course, you know how the story ends: Ableman did not in fact become a professional photographer. And yet, he notes, photography nurtured one of the most important skills in agriculture: the skill of observation. “[pullquote]Good artists are like good farmers. An artist looks and observes and edits elements from the world and creates from those edits[/pullquote].” Farming is no different, he remarks.
“On our farm now, the main thing that I’d like our apprentices to achieve is learning to see. Seeing is different than just looking at something,” he points out. Ableman gives the students notebooks and asks them to walk the fields, to record what they see. “They learn to be present, to notice subtle changes, and to respond. That’s how I farm. Farming has taught me more about good art than anything else.”
But art school didn’t fulfill Ableman at the time. “We would sit around talking about images on the wall. It was ‘too precious.’ I wanted real experience.” Ableman landed on a series of farms in California and joined Sunburst Farms, an agrarian commune east of Ojai, in 1972.
“I was looking around at the world with some disillusionment,” muses Ableman, who turns sixty this year. “What kind of livelihood could I have that would not suck the life out of the world? Working in agriculture was a chance to contribute to soil fertility, to the health of communities, and when done well it could provide a decent income. This was a revelation to me.”
Flourishing (and a Lot of Hard Work)
The commune had several thousand acres of land, a hundred acres of vegetables, five natural foods stores, produce distribution, a restaurant, and even made backpacks, clothing and shoes. And so, at just eighteen years old, Ableman found himself shouldered with the responsibility of managing their hundred-acre apple and pear orchard.
“I knew nothing. I was directing a crew older than me. But that experience lit the fire for me around agriculture,” he declares. “I had in my twenty-foot trailer a copy of Goethe’s famous quote Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. It’s been my credo, how I live my life. I still have that posted on my wall at home.”
In fact, the orchard hadn’t been pruned in fifteen years. It was languishing. “That orchard thrived and produced excellent fruit. I believe it was the energy and passion of the people that informed the quality of that fruit. That community experience has guided where I’ve gone with agriculture ever since.”
Farming was like falling in love, he says. “The initial glow and energy eventually wears off and you have to learn the real thing.” There are years, Ableman confesses, when thoughts of quitting arise. “Sometimes it’s just damn hard and there are easier things to be doing with your life. At the end of the season, I can be totally exhausted and ready to throw in the towel; but by late winter and early spring I can’t wait to get started again.”
Expanding the Circle
In 1981, Ableman became the farm manager at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, a small city near Santa Barbara, where he started the Center for Urban Agriculture a few years later when “no one had used those words in the same sentence.” “I wanted to bring food production to where people were living, to teach people how to make it happen,” he states.
After the farm’s original owner, Roger Chapman, passed away in 1994, Ableman was offered first rights by his wife to buy the farm. He couldn’t buy it alone, so he and some other local farming advocates formed a nonprofit that purchased the farm with the Land Trust of Santa Barbara, preserving it as a model farm for sustainable, organic urban agriculture ever since.
As the center grew, Ableman’s ideas began to spread. He started to teach and give public lectures around the country. Eventually, Ableman left California for Foxglove Farm in British Columbia.
The Future of Urban Ag
When asked what the next ten to twenty years will look like for urban agriculture, Ableman says it has never been more important to ensure that a new generation of farmers will be there to carry the torch.
“I’m hopeful and excited at the level of interest in farming right now. When I look back fifteen to twenty years ago, these conversations weren’t happening—not on the level that they are now.” Ableman sees a shift, but “We need some fundamental structural things to happen for it to have staying power.” Specifically, we need land access and greater access to capital for young farmers. “A lot of agrarian elders like me are asking, ‘Who’s next?’”
Young farmers need support to put in the time, with dedication. “It takes at least ten years of time investment to develop the skillsets to farm well. And that requires someone who can teach, and being willing to make lots of mistakes.” He remains hopeful. “This nation was founded on the Jeffersonian principle of agriculture being at the center of society,” he reflects. For now, Ableman is doing his part to bring agriculture back to that place.
Beyond the politics and economics of it all, growing food is basic and fundamental to our lives, Ableman concludes. And yet so few people experience it on a regular basis. “It’s exciting what we’re trying to do—exposing our population to these fundamental biological miracles. Not so much because people have to know soil science or entomology or biology; it’s more the absolute need for us all to understand the incredible life force of nature, given the right conditions, and that we’re a part of it, not separate.
“Every time I plant a seed and see it emerge, I’m in awe of a miracle. It reminds me that there are things going on far greater than ourselves,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a seed germinate, it’s always amazing, magical, miraculous.”
Michael Ableman’s books From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food around the World; On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm; and Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It are available from the Calmful Living bookstore.