Michael Ableman - sustainable agriculture, organic farming


About Michael Ableman

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 climate.

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.


- "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 great models."

- "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 this growth."

- "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 health."

- "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."


Maverick methods work fine for both produce and the planet
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 tap alternatives."

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 roots.

"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 says.

"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."


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 over."


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