It has never been our intention to give food away. When Seann and I first began meeting to discuss the Sole Food project, the ideas and goals on the table included growing the food, feeding the neighborhood, providing jobs, teaching people to farm, and more. We knew we could not achieve all those goals, and it became clear that the most important one was providing meaningful work. To provide jobs meant a monthly payroll that could only be met by selling food, not giving it away.
In any farming operation there are products that you cannot sell—market returns, cosmetic imperfections, etc. Our goal is to keep these inferior products to a minimum. Whenever possible, we process “seconds” to add value to them, or we try to sell them at a discount in order to cover the loss.
In an unconventional form of observational accounting, I evaluate my farm’s financial well being based on how much product I see sitting on the compost at the end of the day. I view the compost pile as a soil savings account that accrued value with time, but I also see it as the place where I could visually register my losses. It isn’t that the compost is not valued in and of itself, or that products going into it do not add value to our soils, it’s just that there is so much embodied energy in the long and tedious farming cycle, that those products decaying on the pile always represent some financial loss.
Due to municipal restrictions and the scale we operate on, Sole Food is prohibited from composting on our farm sites. As such it has been difficult to recycle old or damaged products, weeds, and completed plantings back into our soils. This has presented a severe limitation in our ability to complete natural bio-cycles. Adding insult, we often have to pay to have valuable organic materials hauled away, in some cases to places where those materials will not be composted.
When at all possible our seconds and market returns go to local food banks and soup kitchens. It may sound strange and contradictory, but while I am thrilled to be providing food to those in need I am equally concerned to discover how much of our food we give away each year. Our financial security and ability to keep operating is dependent on selling as much of the food we grow as possible and at the highest return. So while there is an ethical imperative to give food away, the financial realities of our farms are ever present and demanding.
This becomes more acute on a smaller farm. The larger the scale of production the more value is realized by higher volume; the smaller the scale the more essential it is that every bunch of carrots or beets, every pound of lettuce, every radish and tomato realize its greatest value.
It is one of the great contradictions of what we do. We know that the fresh food is desperately needed by the very population we employ and all those who are living at poverty levels. We know we need to sell all the food to pay the bills, and we have to accept the incredible challenges inherent in attempting to marry a biological system with a market economy.
This last challenge is significant as we try to support the biology and fertility of soil and the well being of our staff and the community all while working within a market economy that does not always place value on soil organisms, mental health, and social inclusion. How do we go beyond the traditional bottom line and reconcile these two divergent pulls?
Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” 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.