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Thompson Lecturer discusses project that recovers land, people

Barry McNamara
Michael Ableman delivers Monmouth College’s annual Samuel M. Thompson Memorial Lecture Tuesday night to an overflow crowd in Poling Hall’s Morgan Room.
Michael Ableman looked around the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, and saw a convergence.

On the one hand were a group of downtrodden people, lacking work, lacking nutrition – lacking a purpose. One might even call them “unsightly.”

“They might be pirouetting through traffic, high on crack,” said Ableman, who delivered Monmouth College’s annual Samuel M. Thompson Memorial Lecture Tuesday night to an overflow crowd in Poling Hall’s Morgan Room. “You’d make judgments. We all do. I did. But they all have a heart.”

On the other hand, Ableman saw an abundance of vacant lots that could definitely be called unsightly.

From those two “wrongs,” Ableman made a very big right – a project that he chronicled in his new book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier. The book – which is being read by Professor Anne Mamary’s “Environmental Ethics” class at Monmouth – tells the story of North America’s largest urban agriculture project, Sole (Save Our Living Environment) Food Street Farms, which he co-founded in 2008.

In addition to sharing several photos from Sole Food, Ableman read from his book and also shared a few inspirational quotes. One was: “Sometimes it is the people that no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.”

“With Street Farm, we set the table and provided an opportunity – a space for people to have a healthy experience,” he said. “People look on in amazement at what we’re doing,” including a 500-tree orchard in the city that is producing hundreds of pounds of fruit.

Ableman said the project’s effect can be very simply stated: “What we’re about is the recovery of land and people.”

Ableman has been involved with agriculture since joining a commune in California as an 18-year-old in the 1970s. In a short amount of time, he was managing a 40-person crew on a bedraggled 100-acre pear and apple orchard. Soon, that orchard was known around the nation for its quality produce.

During his 20 years of farming in California, Ableman founded the Center for Urban Agriculture. He is also founder and director of the Center for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture, based at his family home and farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.

He showed photos of both locations, contrasting the lush, colorful produce and landscape from areas of the country that haven’t been farmed with sustainability as a priority.

“Our soil is our future,” he said. “We all depend on it – that tiny layer of soil that covers the Earth.”

Picking up on a theme from a campus agriculture panel discussion last month, Ableman said that small-scale and industrial commodity farmers need to be allies.

“Long ago, we figured it out that it wasn’t us against them,” he said. “We can learn from each other.”

And, he hopes, there will also be much to learn from the students at Monmouth College, who were well represented at his talk and who pay attention to food-related issues through several classes and activities, including the Global Food Security Triad and the College’s Educational Garden and Research Farm.

“There seems to be a lot of attention to food at Monmouth College,” said Ableman. “What can these young faces do to rethink these issues?”

For starters, they can take to heart a famous quotation by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a quotation that has been important to Ableman throughout his life in agriculture:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”