The Art of Farming: Green Activist
Sows the Seeds for Change
by Mia Stainsby, The Vancouver Sun
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
While locals might marvel at his unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables
at the local farmers' market, he has been better known in the U.S. and Europe
for his activism and ideas. In short, Michael Ableman is a Saltspring Island
farmer, writer, photographer and lecturer at conferences, culinary schools
and colleges in Europe and North America. About 10 years ago, he fought a
David-and-Goliath battle to save a small California farm from being engulfed
in the tracts of houses surrounding it. That battle to save Fairview Farm
in Goleta, California was chronicled in the award-winning documentary film
Beyond Organic, narrated by Meryl Streep, which aired on PBS in 2001.
He and the community "moved a mountain" as
he put it, and raised $1 million in eight months
in 1995 to buy the farm and preserve it forever.
" We designed a conservation covenant which
was probably one of the most unusual ones in the
country at the time. It required the land continue
to be sustainably farmed in perpetuity and used for
educational purposes. It was written into the title
and it's now being mimicked all over the U.S."
Ableman's philosophy extends far beyond the farm
Today, Fairview Gardens helps feed some 500 families
through a cooperative type of community program,
its retail store and farmers' market.
Farming, he says, goes beyond the farm. "There
are issues of transportation, energy, labour, environment
and so on," he says, echoing messages threading
through the three books he's written.
From the Good Earth celebrates small farms he has
visited around the world; On Good Land (with a forward
by his friend Alice Waters of the world-famous Chez
Panisse in Berkeley) honours Fairview Gardens and
his latest book, Fields of Plenty (available in bookstores
by mid-October), chronicles a road trip with eldest
son Aaron, visiting innovative artisanal farmers
across North America. "It reads more like a
novel," he says. "The whole purpose of
the book is to show hopeful models out there. We
need more good stories in times we're living through." Botany
of Desire author Michael Pollan describes the book
as "a journey to the frontiers of agriculture" on
the cover blurb. The trip was documented on film
and will either be shown as a feature film with a
theatrical release or on PBS.
Ableman has also been the subject of articles in
many publications, including National Geographic
and Gourmet magazine.
Recently, Ableman led a campaign to stop the Crofton
pulp and paper mill's plan to burn tires, railway
ties and coal to generate electricity. He organized
a benefit concert in Duncan that featured Neil Young,
The Barenaked Ladies and Randy Bachman. "It
made me both popular in some circles and terribly
unpopular in others," he says.
Ableman is in the process of bringing Erin Brockovich
to Duncan to "rabble rouse about the pulp mill" and
more pollution issues with the mill.
Ableman and wife Jeanne Marie Herman's Madrona
Valley Farm is a picture perfect farm with a Victorian
style bed and breakfast that is mentioned in the
August/September issue of the prestigious Saveur
magazine. They tease crops out of a land and a climate
that should not bear them -- like several varieties
of Mediterranean figs and 12 kinds of French melons,
which demand more heat than Saltspring Island's moderate
The couple and their young son Benjamin will be
moving to a larger farm on Saltspring, the 120-acre
historic Foxglove Farm in the next year. It will
have educational and ecoforestry components.
" To some degree, it will be a compilation
of everything I've seen and been inspired by around
the world. One of my great missions is to show that
farming is an art and a craft, not drudgery. It is
a very honourable profession," he says.
This Story Ran with fact box "Michael Ableman on the Need for Organic
Farming", which has been appended to the end of the story.
MICHAEL ABLEMAN ON THE NEED FOR ORGANIC FARMING:
- "Let's get beyond organics and recognize
the power of small sustainable farms and regional
food systems. Small farms are 15 to 20 times more
productive than large-scale counterparts and yield
greater varieties of produce. We need to address
issues such as water, biodiversity, energy use, environment
and labour. They have incredible impacts on every
aspect of life. The original intention of the organic
movement was about rebuilding soils, rebuilding communities,
not just eliminating chemicals. My thing right now
is seeing farmers like myself as being very important
leaders in our communities and holding them up as
- "The industrial system of agriculture system
evolved out of the technology of the two world wars.
Pesticides, even tractor wheels evolved out of these
wars. Prior to that, farming systems were much more
local in nature and based on fairly organic principles."
- "The industrial farming system is based
on a number of very tenuous fragile foundations,
one of which is oil. We know that resource is disappearing
at a staggering rate; the amount of oil required
to produce food is completely and totally unsustainable.
This battlefield mentality isn't good for human or
environmental health. That's no longer radical thinking."
- "The most common question I'm asked is how
to feed the world without industrial agriculture.
First of all, a very, very important point to make
is that population is a social issue, not an agricultural
one. There is no system of food production that will
feed the human population at its current rate of
growth. It has to be dealt with as a population issue.
No food production system that we know of can support
- "The most important message is to develop
regional agriculture. It solves just about every
problem. The amount of energy spent cooling, storing,
transporting food to markets is currently enormous.
Growing and selling for a regional market, using
superinsulated cooling units, incorporating solar
and wind for electricity are some ways to conserve."
- "The difference between small and industrial
farming is like the difference between navigating
a small boat and a cargo ship. One requires miles
and miles to make a turn. We small farmers can manoeuvre
around that. With our terrible spring this year,
instead of heat-loving things, I've leaned heavily
on plants that thrive on it. It was amazing for grains."
- "In the new food movement, we're asking to
increase the pleasure of their experience, while
addressing issues of water, energy, nutrition and
- "We're now living in a time where there are
two very distinct, dramatic tracks. One is dominant
and aggressive, represented by industrial agriculture
in a mindset of globalization and resources up for
grabs. The other track is going along quietly, less
noticed but easily as dramatic. It's the one represented
by numbers of amazing individuals, including farmers.
People who have been working on the land, figuring
out how to grow incredibly delicious food sustainably
will have the knowledge on how to survive."
- "If you dig down deep, you'll find that the
organic farming revolution that's taking place is
really about what people are missing in their lives
-- good food and a connection to the land to put
us in touch with basic spiritual values. There's
another kind of nourishment, less tangible than carrots
or beans, that being connected with the land provides,
a deeper, soulful nourishment is what our society
is desperately longing for."
ALSO RUN WITH THIS STORY WAS THIS ITEM:
Maverick methods work fine for both produce and
By Mia Stainsby (Vancouver Sun)
August 24, 2005
Say it can't be done and he'll do it. So, when
maverick farmer Michael Ableman ran a farm in California,
he grew tomatoes without a drop of irrigation.
On Saltspring Island, where he now operates and
organic farm and bed and breakfast, dry farming tomatoes
is a cinch, he says. "It's easy here. The soil acts
like a sponge. If you want to grow good tomatoes,
don't water them," he says. "It not only conserves
water, it concentrates the flavour.
"I can show you 12, 000 tomato plants in the field
that haven't had a drop of water. I start with tall
lanky plants, plant them really deep and time the
cultivation so the plant has the ability to seek
out subsoil moisture. Tomatoes are actually very
thrifty and when you grow tomatoes or beans without
water, you're conserving an incredibly valuable resource."
Agriculture, he says, uses 80 per cent of the world's freshwater resources
with only 20 per cent of it reaching the plants and animals because of inefficient
transport and application systems. "Precise planting depths, timely cultivation,
ancient dry-farming techniques, increased crop variety, drip tapes and hoses
are ways of using water much more efficiently."
The same goes for energy, he says. "If you look
at the relation between food and oil, one of the
greatest services is to begin to show that food can
be produced without intensive input of energy. My
goal is to be 80- per cent fossil oil free in the
next couple of years," he declares. He has solar
systems set up to power his farm.
When Ableman drops into a local Japanese restaurant,
it's not for sushi. He's there to pick up their spent
frying oil, which he filters and uses to power his
farm tractor. "We can reconfigure diesel tractors
to operate on biodiesel or spent fry oil," he says. "One
of the most significant issues for the future of
agriculture is that we're on the cusp of seeing the
engine for the old way of life - oil - disappearing
and we're in trouble. But we haven't even begun to
Ableman ignores the so-called zones for planting.
He grows Mediterranean figs, as well as 12 varieties
of French melons which is a feat on the West Coast.
He increases heat value by planting the fig trees
on raised mounds, allowing more heat to reach the
"If you mulch, it's key to know when to use and
when to remove mulches," says Ableman, who is experimenting
with growing citrus fruits.
Technical fixes, like remay, a diaphanous row covering,
allows plants to grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions. "It
sits atop crops and is so light, it lifts as the
plant grows and traps heat. I know farmers in far
worse climates than in Canada who are doing ingenious
things using very little energy with cold frames
and layers of row cover, growing an incredible range
of vegetables through the fall and winter.
"There are lots of models proving that we can create
diverse, flavourful, delicious foods in any number
of different climates. The possibilities are endless
with vision and creativity. We don't necessarily
have to reach a crisis before adopting these ideas," he
"Cuba did reach a crisis almost overnight when access
to Soviet supplies of fertilizers and pesticides
disappeared. They were forced to starve or find another
way. They've created a most amazing national system
of growing foods in a more sustainable way than could
be imagined, more sophisticated than anywhere in
the world. It wasn't out of philosophy.
They did it to survive.
"I'm here to say farmers can do extremely well in many different climate zones,
making an incredibly good living."
THIS STORY ALSO RAN ON PAGE C5
The tale of two strawberries
By Mia Stainsby
When customers ask why his strawberries cost more
than imports from California, Michael Ableman refers
to the tale of two strawberries.
"In the case of the imported strawberries, which
might be 50 cents to a dollar less per basket, the
process begins with sterilizing the soil with methyl
bromide which is a significant contributor to ozone
depletion. They fumigate under plastic and you'll
see white sheets covering the ground as far as you
can see. It kills everything, including weed seeds
and makes the soil a life-less medium, there just
to hold up the plant. More plastic is laid on the
ground to keep the food off the ground, and all the
plants are fed chemical fertilizers like patients
on intravenous drip. Strawberry farmers have the
choice of up to 65 different pesticides and will
use some of them during cultivation.
"It's no longer radical thinking - credible studies
show correlations between industrial agriculture
and cancer clusters," Ableman says. "So I say, it's
true the industrially grown strawberries are cheaper,
but the truth is, someone is paying for it many times