When it comes to food security, Michael Ableman has a laundry list and he's not afraid to air it.
The celebrated author and urban agriculture advocate was on the food security train long before it started making headlines - some would even say he was driving it. He was farming organically back in the eighties on one of the oldest and most diverse organic farms in southern California - a farm he later saved from development by preserving it in perpetuity under a unique agricultural conservation easement. Even today, the Salt Spring Island-based farmer is still ahead of the curve, challenging the status quo and demanding that both individuals and government take better care of a commonly undervalued resource - food.
"A big part of my work over the years is not only as a cheerleader for a movement that I have felt is critical, not just around the obvious aspects of nourishment and health and food, but all the broader implications of what growing food means and eating well to our society in a broader perspective - ecologically, socially, politically," he said in a phone interview. "Everyone needs to take a greater responsibility individually and as families, for some aspect of the food they are eating. Whether that's a window box or small plot or even a relationship with a farm or farmer or even educating themselves, I think people need to get involved."
The educator and consultant has travelled internationally, documenting disappearing farming practices and innovative growing methods in places like Cuba that have lost a majority of their farmland to urban sprawl. His books, Fields of Plenty, On Good Land, From the Good Earth and Beyond Organic address various issues he feels are critical to the public good. At Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island, he farms with his family and runs programs through the Centre for Arts, Ecology & Agriculture. He's also in charge of SOLEfood Farm - an enterprising non-profit that grows an impressive amount of food from a half-acre converted parking lot in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The farm provides training and employment opportunities to residents from Vancouver's Downtown East Side to build, plant, maintain and harvest. The locally grown food is sold to restaurants, at farmers markets and community organizations with similar aims of improving neighbourhood food security.
"It's amazing to me that every time I'm there the number of people hanging on the fence who just are thrilled to even be looking at what they're seeing, let alone talking about what's going on there and being able to grow and eat those foods," he said. "It's really a magnet in a place that has become a mindless, endless landscape of pavement where there are no living things."
Repatriation is a big concept for Ableman, who feels many of dystopic social and food-related quandaries can be mitigated by simply re-learning to use our hands (for more than just typing on a keyboard). Even those who claim not to have the coveted "green thumb" can contribute to the growing process by starting to educate themselves on how to manage a pot of herbs (YouTube it, it's not that tricky).
"We are unbelievably disconnected but the good news is that people are starting to understand it and want to respond to it but in many cases they don't know where to turn," he said. "In the future I don't think that farmers should be growing fruits and vegetables anymore, I think they should stop doing that and focus their attention on growing the engine of the life source - the proteins - grains and beans and dairy products and that individuals and families should do fruits and veggies for themselves.
"The contortions that the farmers go through to grow perishable products such as lettuce and strawberries and getting them to market is like trying to deliver an organ transplant. It doesn't make sense."
Ableman recognizes that some people will find his ideas radical or difficult to swallow and welcomes discourse. Regardless of stance, his basic message is hard to miss - societies - from governments to the individual - need to protect and propagate their ability to grow.
"I think it's more important than the community swimming pool, the restaurants, the churches, the schools," he said. "To be setting aside land in our cities for people to work in and produce food for themselves is as important for the civic health and health of our communities as all these other things that we seem to be able to build... but we can't seem to provide what's as fundamental as you could possibly get. We need to reframe our priorities politically and individually. People need to demand this."
Along with a slideshow of his travels Ableman will present a number of challenges to the audience when he hosts Feeding the Future: Local food & sustainable food systems at Howe Sound Secondary on Thursday, May 26. The event has been organized by the Squamish Climate Action Network (www.squamishcan.net). For more information on Ableman go to www.fieldsofplenty.com or www.foxglovefarmbc.ca .