The Pleasure of Sustainability

image: Michael Ableman at Foxglove Farm, August 2010

credit: Rebecca Baugniet

Michael Ableman spoke about “Thinking like an Island: Food Security and Sustainability” on Monday, March 28th, as part of Victoria Art Gallery’s “Art in Bloom” – a week-long celebration of art and botany. Although Michael is a very publicly engaged organic farmer on Salt Spring Island, he confessed that, initially, he re-located to seek refuge. Yet he realized, as we’re all becoming aware, that there is no escape – we are in this world together, for better or for worse.

Fears and worries about unsustainable food systems and impending food crises loom over us. Often it seems like change will only happen after catastrophe. However, Michael remarked that over the past thirty years the environmental movement has mostly failed because of the sense of guilt used to stimulate change. “We all know that pleasure is a far better motivator.” Michael personally does not want people to buy his food because they feel they have to or that they’re doing the right thing. He wants them to buy it because it’s the best. Indeed, he even went so far as to say that if a locally grown product is not up to snuff, you should buy a product that is, even if it does come from a thousand miles away.

Luckily, Vancouver Island has grown into a veritable mecca of farmers, cooks, vintners, cheese makers and bread bakers who craft quality and environmentally conscious food. Supporting these local innovators is one action many of us have already taken to create change. As Michael said, “the revolution may be spread on computers but it isn’t going to take place there.”

He shared ideas that could be put powerfully into action to produce tangible increases in food security and sustainability. From opening a year-round public farmer’s market, to municipal laws that require food production to be worked into the design of every new home and building, sharing heavy-duty equipment such as rock grinders (phosphorus, people!), to opening urban farming centres that would provide tools and know-how, these initiatives would bring the reality of food production to the forefront of society.

Right now there are fewer farmers than stockbrokers, lawyers, or engineers yet we all need to eat. Michael’s suggestion of how to attract more people to farming is again linked to pleasure. “If they knew how much sex there was in farming…” he said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just presiding over a great big orgy.” He went on to describe a raucous summer evening on Foxglove Farm with thousands of frogs copulating, birds chasing each other and bees buzzing. He believes that more young people would be encouraged to farm if it were shown to be a viable career choice. Structures and supports such as long-term lease agreements and tax incentives could facilitate this while signalling a shift in our perception of farmers. “Chefs are treated like rock stars. I look forward to the day when farmers are treated the same.”

Even if you aren’t going to become a full-time farmer you can still take action – whether by joining a local CSA, gardening if you have space, sharing your space if you have no inclination to garden, or teaching your children where their food comes from. With a federal election approaching, there is no better time to lobby your politicians so they know that this is an issue that is not only important, but essential to everyone’s health and livelihood.

Michael ended the evening with a slideshow of evocative photographs from a journey he took with his eldest son several summers ago to artisanal farms around the United States (which was later chronicled in his book Fields of Plenty). The images of bounty, beauty and joy cut to the heart of the matter: There is deep pleasure to be had in eating that honours our connection to each other and where we are right now. When we truly participate in our communities – whether through farming or sharing a meal with a neighbour – we can make all the difference. – Melanie Tromp Hoover

Center for Ecoliteracy

Foxglove Farm’s Centre for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture


The Land Conservancy of B.C.

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