Farmily: The Social Side of Urban Farming
An Excerpt from Street Farm, by Michael Ableman
“Chapter 6 – Farmily”
….Our policy at Sole Food is to include a staff member from the Downtown Eastside, front and center, at every market (in Vancouver, Canada). Some staff immediately thrived in that role, and some have grown into it. Still others continue to struggle with putting themselves forward in public, with having to engage, with developing self-confidence, and with accepting public perception. Customers, too, sometimes seem uncomfortable with having to deal with someone who does not fit the normal farmer profile or someone whose public presentation may reflect socioeconomic difference or a life of hardship.
Allowing the public the opportunity to directly engage with people they might not normally engage with is a powerful service for both our staff and the community. We all get to look at our fears, our judgments, and our stereotypes when someone out of our circle offers a sample of a tomato or a strawberry or a pepper. Is it safe? Who are these people? What is Sole Food? This small, momentary public exchange and the questions it engenders offer us all an opportunity to move toward understanding and acceptance. Once again, we see fresh food as the medium, the messenger, the means by which all of us, no matter where we come from, come together.
Our work in the markets, and supplying them, has, over the years, highlighted in unique ways the struggle we face in balancing our social agenda with our agricultural one. It’s not only the public who asks, “What is Sole Food?” In many ways, our two primary goals — to provide meaningful employment to individuals who have challenges, and to create a credible model of production urban agriculture — rub up against each other and can be contradictory. While we try to harmonize the two conflicting goals, I suspect that this conflict is a reality that will always be there. Still, we work hard on the problem. And we’ve got a hard worker who spends a great deal of time trying to figure it out.
We hired Lissa Goldstein in 2012 when we were expanding the project, as site manager for the farm at Pacific and Carrall. Seann and I conducted a job interview with her via Skype … What came through was that this Dartmouth-educated young woman was strong, super smart, and solid in her intent and had a few years of both farming and community development experience.
Perhaps more than anyone else at Sole Food, Lissa has come to know there is a fine line between providing real opportunities for people to learn new skills and get healthy and pandering to a sense of entitlement that exists among some people in this community where social service agencies are so abundant. How much can we expect from our staff with the challenges they have? How much is realistic for them to expect from us and from the organization? In her role as director of operations, Lissa feels these contradictions acutely. She now holds the responsibility of the day-to-day management of our staff and farms. And it’s there—in the rows, under pressure, facing the elements — where the challenges most often appear. The devil is always in the dirty details.
“Most places, all employees are treated alike, but it does not work that way in this job,” Seann reminds me. “Some guy is suicidal and another person is having anxiety issues, one is doing heroin, and another doing crack. Their personal stories play out so much in the workplace.”
After a week of rain at the end of June 2013, the temperature rose to the mid-eighties and stayed that way…. One morning in the midst of this rush (to pick large amounts of radishes), when by 7 am the sun was already oppressively hot and Lissa was already feeling the stress, Donna approached her to ask about holiday pay, of all things. The timing seemed off, and Lissa responded, “Yes, you’re going to get it, but we don’t actually have to pay for holidays.” The information was more than Donna needed — “Yes,” would have sufficed, Lissa admits — and Donna grew angry. The discussion quickly deteriorated into an argument and then tears.
It seemed that something had been building in Donna. And as the argument settled, she pointed out that since she’d first been hired, many of the employment-support pieces of Sole Food had disappeared —the staff meetings and farm walks, especially. To her, the focus seemed to be exclusively on production. For Lissa, this was a really difficult situation. As she tells me, “I was forced to deal with my vulnerability, the stress of a large staff, and the difficulty of balancing commercial farming with real supportive employment. I was also forced to deal with the real question of what Donna was saying. What had gone wrong? How could we balance these two things better?”
This collision forced us to look at what was missing. In late summer 2013 we initiated more regular staff meetings and check-ins. Around the same time, an employee representative was elected by the staff and started attending manager meetings and reporting back to the staff. These seem like small changes, but they were, in the end, profound. They allowed everyone to participate more fully in how things were run.
That fall, as production began to slow, we organized a day for all of our staff devoted to sharing ideas and concerns, hopes and challenges for the future of Sole Food, and team building. Donna apologized to Lissa and there was a palpable sense of healing and relief for both of them and for the whole group…
Seann and Lissa have been doing regular performance evaluations with staff and filing them in sequence so that everyone can check in on their progress. Our staff members now have the opportunity to create their own job descriptions. And they will tell strangers in the middle of the city that, they are farmers. Before, there was a lot of hand-holding; now I see real independence and initiative on the farms and a sense of responsibility. Part of this new way of operating has involved holding us, the managers of Sole Food, responsible, too.
One day, for instance, Alain reminded us that many on the crew were coming to work with empty stomachs. “I bet you’d get a lot more work done if they had something to eat in the morning,” he suggested. And so it happened. The company, Nature’s Path, donated cereal, and the staff made a list of other food items they wanted to have in the staff area. Now there is milk and cerealand, thanks to another donation, Salt Spring Coffee. We have an arrangement with a local bakery that brings us fresh bread, so staff can take bread home, and we have a source of fresh eggs.
As a business, Sole Food Street Farms has grown, and today we are respected in the community. Our products are not the cheapest, but the quality is excellent, and our staff carries a level of pride in what they have accomplished and who we are in the neighborhood. We have never had a goal of trying to change anyone; we just wanted to create a stable enterprise that can provide meaningful work year after year. Unlike many social service agencies, we don’t train people and move them on. We are proud to have several people who started with us seven years ago, still involved. Just as in any work environment, to be successful everyone needs to feel fulfilled and excited to be at work. The best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps on the field. When the farmers are happy, the food tastes better.
Happiness is not a constant, of course, and we must admit where we have fallen short from time to time. Not everyone always feels fulfilled… It is fairly common for founders of an organization to find themselves filling roles that no longer allow them to do the very work that inspired them to begin with. Seann, for instance, does all kinds of tasks that are essential but invisible, and I know he has experienced, as have I, a kind of disconnection from the daily work with the crew. Lissa is on the farms every day guiding the crew and the agricultural operations, and, as she experienced with Donna, that comes with its own complicated pressures and disappointments, and sometimes, tears…
As with almost every aspect of life and community, solving problems comes down to communication. When the five of us (on the managing team) get together to talk and we can discuss our personal challenges, we tend to feel better. We remind each other not to separate ourselves from those we are trying to support. And yet sometimes, our responsibilities do separate us, and speaking from personal experience, this can wear a person down…
But, just as soon as we identify a problem, we’re reaching for solutions. As Seann says, “This project has been successful because it has been built on the backs of Downtown Eastside residents (of Vancouver) as the core and reason for the project. As soon as you take each other or any of the work for granted, it falls apart.”
Sole Food’s commitment to open communication, about the good and the bad, our trials and errors, is the best reminder that it takes all of us—founders, managers, staff, and the whole community—to make this work. I won’t lie; acknowledging our weak points, having them revealed to us by our co-workers, has been difficult, but personal reflection and learning how to live with one another is what we are here to do.
We talk about balance on our farms and at our markets, but what does it really mean? I’ve learned in my life as a farmer, an employee, and an employer that perfection cannot be the goal, and as such we will always be asking ourselves difficult questions. We will never have all of the answers. We must accept that we can never get comfortable. The human aspect of our work is just like the agricultural aspect of our work; it is always changing and evolving, and it will always require a beginner’s mind — a willingness to see things anew — to work with it.
Michael Ableman, the cofounder and director of Sole Food Street Farms, is one of the early visionaries of the urban agriculture movement. He has created high-profile urban farms in Watts, California; Goleta, California; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Ableman has also worked on and advised dozens of similar projects throughout North America and the Caribbean, and he is the founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture. He is the subject of the award-winning PBS film Beyond Organic narrated by Meryl Streep. His previous books include From the Good Earth, On Good Land, and Fields of Plenty. Ableman lives and farms at the 120-acre Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
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*All photos courtesy of Michael Ableman