Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate.
By Michael Ableman
Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier
Chelsea Green, 2016
Fulfilling endless municipal requirements absorbed staff resources and money, and delayed the real work of planting crops. It was useless to try to explain to city officials the realities of farming, the urgency of spring, that we had staff hired and plants waiting.
In a climate that only provides a seven-month window to crank out long-term crops such as tomatoes and peppers, losing a month or two can be disastrous. That first spring on this new site was vanishing and we desperately needed to plant the now leggy “past due” tomato, pepper, and eggplants that were becoming as stressed as we were, waiting for the wheels of the city bureaucracy to grant us permission to begin.
We were about to lose ten thousand pepper, eggplant, and tomato transplants that were taking up valuable growing space on my family farm on Salt Spring Island. Members of our staff were already on edge. Everyone wondered whether starting more farm sites was even a good idea, whether they would still have a job if the building permits did not come through or the plants did not survive. Regardless, we knew the tunnel houses needed to be installed, so after being advised off the record to “do what you have to do” by a city official whose name I will not reveal, we hacksawed the lock off the gate and started assembling and installing four 20-by-200 foot tunnel houses on top of that former gas station.
Like most of our efforts to create farms on pavement and within the city, the unexpected challenges and delays were numerous. The ground that was not paved was uneven so we leveled it with sand, and much of the site was asphalt or concrete so we had to jackhammer holes to put the posts in. We were not supposed to be compromising the ground by disturbing it in any way, but there was no way to level and anchor the tunnel houses without doing so.
It required a crew of ten people and three weeks to get 16000 square feet of steel framework up and secure, but covering the houses with plastic and completing the job would have to wait.
Someone must have complained or notified the city of our work on the site, so they came to inspect, saw the framework of the tunnel houses now in place without a building permit, and issued a stop-work order. It would only be lifted several weeks later, once the permits were issued.
When we eventually got back to work on that site we discovered that $5,000 worth of greenhouse parts that we needed to finish construction had been stolen, and someone had taken up permanent residence in the back of one of the tunnels. Replacing the parts and evicting the squatter delayed our work even further, but eventually we completed the job.
We’ve all heard the cliché that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it for permission, but in this case we needed both. And yet, I know for certain that had we asked for permission rather than forging ahead and installing those tunnels, to this day we might not have a single plant growing on that site.
We hauled those plants to the city from my farm on the island in an enclosed bobtail truck. As we loaded the flats onto the truck I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Would this become a funeral procession or a revival parade? We had definitely pushed the plants survival to the edge. Unloading that truck in the city, I could see the expression on the faces of our crew quickly shift from excitement to concern.
In the end it was a profound and positive visual lesson for everyone, seeing those spindly stressed pepper and tomato plants, leaves sparse and yellowing, plants that had been held back and abused, become healthy and highly productive when nurtured and given the right conditions. I felt so much was riding on the survival and recovery of those plants, not so much because we needed the food and the income they would produce, but because I saw those plants like the people we were working with – stressed and needing nourishment, nurturing and love. When those plants recovered, and they did with amazing speed and gusto, I felt a great sense of hope and possibility.
Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” (Chelsea Green, 2016) by Michael Ableman
Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia one of the worst urban slums in North America who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970’s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.