Nearly 3,000 rectangular planter boxes, which stand out in varying shades of green and brown against a concrete parking lot, make for an impressive sight when viewed from high above on the Georgia Street viaduct.
Situated on Pacific Boulevard between the busy overpass, BC Place Stadium, and the bustling seawall at False Creek, SOLEfood Urban Farm’s newest (and, at two acres, its largest) site is a highly-visible sign that urban agriculture has arrived in Vancouver.
Down below, SOLEfood co-founder Michael Ableman walks between the rows pointing out the crops: bok choy, eight types of kale and a new variety of strawberries bred in France that they’re trying out.
“Most of what people refer to as urban agriculture is a step up from community gardens,” says Ableman. “This is not a token thing. This is a real amount of food.”
Ableman and business partner Seann Dory have been plotting the expansion since they launched their first farm on a half-acre lot beside the Astoria Hotel on East Hastings Street.
Considering that all of Vancouver’s existing urban farms — all 2.3 acres of them, according to a 2010 census — would just about fit on SOLEfood’s Pacific Boulevard site, the expansion is significant for the city’s local food scene. It’s also a test of the financial viability of this type of social enterprise model, which has strong ties to the Downtown Eastside community where it grew up.
So far, Ableman says he’s pleased with the progress SOLEfood has made in achieving its main goal as a not-for-profit social enterprise: to provide meaningful employment for people in the Downtown Eastside who’ve faced barriers finding work.
The number of staff has grown from seven to 21, says Ableman, and food production is expected to go from roughly 10,000 pounds to a projected minimum of 200,000 pounds once four of the five new sites are in production this fall.