Inner-city farm in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside provides fresh food and employment for the community
Rain or shine, Rob, the farm organizer at SOLEfood Urban Farm in the Downtown Eastside, can be seen as early as 7 a.m., sometimes even 6, walking up and down the soil beds of growing fruits and vegetables.
You couldn’t tell by the way he gingerly handles the plants, but he only recently started working in agriculture. Four months ago, Rob was going through some personal changes and looking for a job.
“It’s been a winding road,” he says. “I went to recovery and then started working with an agency that helps people in recovery find employment, and through my research, though I have many interests, I kept coming back to horticultural therapy, which I had zero experience in but it seemed to really pull me.”
This was when he heard about SOLEfood. After attending an information session, he was hired on the spot.
One of the main goals of SOLEfood is to provide employment for the community members of the DTES. The farm, located next to the Astoria Hotel, was just a vision almost two years ago, says project manager Seann Dory.
“This is the first actual full production farm in the Downtown Eastside,” he says. The second goal of the project was to eventually provide access to a sustainable source of fresh and healthy foods for inner-city residents.
“As we’re able to grow and expand and sell to some of the organizations in the Downtown Eastside, we want it to be as healthy as possible. Organic wasn’t necessary the goal; it was more to have fresh, healthy, safe food in the neighbourhood,” Dory adds.
United We Can, a charitable organization providing green-collar jobs in Vancouver (you probably know them for their recycling program and Hastings Street bottle depot), founded the project in 2009 as an enterprising non-profit and has received funding and help from TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, VanCity, Building opportunities for business, Vancouver Eastside Educational Enrichment Society, Projects in Place, Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc., Potluck Café & Catering, Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and Eco-Soil Recycling Corp.
Construction on the garden boxes started in October and that’s when the farm started to become a reality. Rob and other full-time and part-time residents were trained to work on the farm this past March; all the workers had little to no experience working with agriculture.
The space might seem small but they already have a lot growing, including Swiss chard, kale, arugula and radishes visible from across the street—attracting neighbours from the community to look in and admire their hard work. They’ve also got heirloom tomatoes, garlic, mixed greens and other edibles that will eventually be harvested.
|Ableman is really impressed by the way the chard came out. He’s showing the group how to bunch them up.||
Jessica Yliruusi, one of the workers, takes notes in between weeding the plants.
It’s easy to see how dedicated Rob is to his job. Even as he talks to me in the rain, his eyes are always on the plants—weeding here and there or picking off dead leaves, or just having a quick taste at a crisp radish leaf.
“I love it,” he says simply, again looking at the plants. “I mean I’ve worked a lot of different jobs. It synchs up with what I want to do in terms of education, and the people I work with are great, the people I work for are great. And everyone is really supportive and minding everyone’s efforts to live healthy, productive lives. I really, really enjoy it.”
He especially loves watching the seeds sprout into vegetables. “A couple of days ago we saw our first peppers,” Rob says. “You never know what you’re going to look at so it’s a surprise every day.”
Jessica Yliruusi likes getting her hands dirty, and dealing with the plants is her favourite part of the job. “I’ve never dealt with plants before so it’s really nice to learn about how they grow,” she says.
Yliruusi works on a part-time basis, coming in as often as four times a week, or once a week, whenever she is needed from 7:30 a.m. until about 4 p.m.
Before working at SOLEfood two months ago, she had heard about it at her previous job. “I was working in the pub next door in the kitchen and I just didn’t like it very much, and the guys kept coming in for lunch and I talked to them and they said there might be an opportunity for employment so I started pestering Seann until he took me on. And that’s why I’m here,” she says. She no longer works at the pub.
Yliruusi, Rob, Dory and the rest of the team get to learn from Michael Ableman, practitioner of sustainable agriculture, urban farming and organic gardening, who comes to the farm every couple of weeks to train them. The week I went to visit the farm, he was showing them how to bunch up their rainbow Swiss chard.
A close-up at the beautiful Swiss chard stalks.
For a group just starting to learn the ropes he is extremely impressed with their produce. “Amazing work!” Ableman exclaims, pointing at the leafy chard with bright yellow, orange and red stems.
“You guys should be really proud of yourselves. This is not beginners’ farming, it’s really well done,” he adds. Ableman continues to say he’s jealous at how great they look, better than his—and they were his transplants, too.
SOLEfood still has many challenges, says Ableman who is also a partner in the project, having been part of the planning process. “Most of the people have never done this, the learning curve is fairly steep but I see this as one piece of a number of sites around the city that we’ll do together,” he says.
“I think the idea is to have enough product to really consolidate, to really make a difference in the marketplace and to really make a difference in terms of people’s lives here and employment.”
Ableman adds that eventually he would like to see the farm paying its employees maybe six months or a year down the road instead of getting funding from outside sources. The plan is to sell their products at farmer markets and to restaurants and show that it’s economically viable.
In the meantime, he is enjoying watching his students taste vegetables they might have never tasted before and learning the trade.
“What we’re really growing here, it appears to be kale and chard and radish mix and tomatoes, but it’s actually people,” Ableman says, “There was a moment here I thought that everyone really clicked and they processed this. What they were going to get from this was well beyond the products that we produce.
"And I think the guys who have stayed with it, there have been little moments when we’re planting or something and I see these guys who had such a tough life in many respects become so soft and so attentive and so sensitive to a tiny little plant and it’s so great.”
Colleen Tang is a Vancouver-based writer, anxiously close to earning her Master of Journalism from Ryerson University. Her friends often find her talking about food or crime shows. She can also be found singing in stairwells or at karaoke. She recently launched a website but is more likely to update photos or tweet.