As a farmer and educator, Michael Ableman spends most of his year surrounded by veggie gardens and orchards, forests and lakes. He’s also an author, photographer, social enterprise founder and public speaker. As one of America’s gurus on sustainable agriculture – having founded an urban agriculture farm and education centre in 1981 and devoting the past 40 years to farming – Michael has plenty of knowledge to share and a thirst for learning. His dream is to achieve balance and peace in his life and to keep inspiring others to participate in the wonders of growing food.
With his wife and two sons, Michael Ableman, 58, lives on the thriving natural oasis of Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada. From Vancouver, it is merely a 90-minute ferry ride or a short flight. The Ablemans’ home is Foxglove Farm, a 50-ha organic working farm and eco-forestry project nestled amongst creeks, forests and pastures. The property borders the untouched Maxwell Lake and sits in a sensitive eco system, which Michael says brings both “wonderful opportunities and responsibilities” to protect and preserve the area.
While Foxglove Farm keeps him busy (Michael jokes it runs him rather than the other way around), it is also the place he finds peace when he’s looking for it. “We border a beautiful, pristine lake so I can walk to it in 15 minutes,” he explains of the serene spot he likes to retreat to when at home. “I go out and swim and sit on the shore.”
The farm is also the site of The Centre for Art, Ecology and Agriculture, an education hub Michael founded to model the exciting economic and social connections between farming, land stewardship, food, the arts and community wellbeing. Recent speakers at the centre include American farmer and philosopher Joel Salatin, famously featured in the Food Inc. documentary, and Wendy Johnson, a Buddhist meditation teacher and organic-gardening mentor.
The centre is based on the knowledge Michael developed during 20 years of organic farming in southern California, where he founded the Centre for Urban Agriculture in 1981. Established as a non-profit organisation, the iconic farm grew to host up to 5000 people per year for tours, classes, traineeships and festivals, and became regarded as a model for small-scale and urban agriculture.
When Michael isn’t working on Foxglove Farm, he travels the world delivering talks and keynotes to inspire others to participate in urban and sustainable agriculture. He is currently writing his fourth book, which will focus on the impermanence of land and our role as custodians to nurture and preserve it.
Michael is also spending time in Vancouver working on what he considers his greatest achievement. SOLEfood Farm is one of the largest urban agriculture social enterprises in North America. Michael co-founded the project in 2009, with wunderkind farmer and educator Seann J. Dory, to provide jobs and training for people from Vancouver’s poor Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. SOLEfood trains participants to install and manage small production farms on leased urban lots. Michael proudly notes that, to date, there are 25 farmers working across five city farms.
“Seeing the individuals we have brought on and seeing the power of this work – of working with the land, of growing food, of providing nourishment for someone else – the power of that in changing people’s lives is unbelievable,” Michael gushes. “It sounds like a cliche but it’s not. We have seen remarkable results with people who have had a really tough go in life. And that to me is so satisfying. That project is really hard, but it’s worth it when I hear those stories and see what’s happening with people.”
Michael admits he stumbled into farming. His childhood dream was to pursue visual art and photography, which he studied briefly after high school. He joined an agrarian commune at age 18 and began exploring the world of agriculture. Farming was clearly in his blood. While writing and photo- documenting for his most recent book, Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, Michael learnt the story of his great grandparents, and grandparents, who fled persecution in Russia to start new lives in America. They helped instigate many farms in Delaware in the United States. “They were driven to use agriculture as a way to motivate people forward and improve other peoples’ lives,” Michael marvels.
He admits his philosophy regarding urban agriculture has evolved over his 40 years of farming. In his twenties he believed urban agriculture could help solve two burning issues affecting low-income communities in America – joblessness and a limited availability of fresh food. He still trusts this is achievable, although he no longer believes it’s possible to feed cities entirely from urban farms.
“We need a much more comprehensive and integrated conversation around urban agriculture,” Michael urges. “The conversation has to change to talk more about what is the appropriate role for all the different regions where food is being produced – urban farms, peri-urban farms and rural farms – and how we integrate these in a way that makes sense ecologically, socially and otherwise.”
Michael believes the greatest global challenge for agriculture is a lack of public participation. His aim is to encourage more people to get involved by physically growing food themselves.
Personally, his greatest challenge is finding balance in life, and he admits that he finds his farming work rewarding yet exhausting. Fortunately, there are many joyful experiences that make it worthwhile. “The food is incredible – cutting a watermelon in the middle of the farm and eating the heart out of it. Or when an eagle flies over your head and you can actually feel the wind from its wings. Or watching a seed germinate. I’ve done that a million times, but it’s still unbelievable. That’s what keeps you going …”
Nevertheless, a recent back injury prompted Michael to ask himself big questions like: “Where is the most powerful impact of my life right now? Where can I reach the most people in a way that’s not just entertainment? And what are the physical limitations of my body as it grows older?”
The answers pointed to slowing down and dedicating time to teaching, writing and inspiring people, as well as spending more quality time with his wife and two sons, aged 30 and 10. “I need to take more time to be still so that the nature of my teaching is well grounded.”
Michael shares some wise words he heard recently as song lyrics. “It’s better to love than to be right,” he recites. “I think that’s my message to myself … It doesn’t really matter what I’ve said or what I’ve written, it’s how I’ve said it and how I’ve written it and who I am in this amazingly complex network of humans. Have I loved or have I just thought? You can do both. I want to do both. But it’s better to love than to be right.”