Don’t Panic, it’s Organic: Urban Farming and Community Building in Vancouver


An Interview with Gabriel Pliska, ‘Urban Farmer’


Interview & Text: Raffi Wineburg (UBC)Photo: Noriko Nasu-Tidbal

Fifty-six companies are involved in the making of my standard, late Tuesday night dinner: a can of chicken noodle soup. This almost laughably high figure is indicative of an increasing estrangement of human beings from their food. Much of what we eat is processed, treated, and injected with preservatives in some distant laboratory. It is shipped, often from thousands of miles away to the local supermarket where we, foragers of an urban landscape graze through linoleum pastures and fluorescent aisles; navigating a prepackaged terrain of endless food choices and rarely pausing in the process to wonder: where did this all come from?

clip_image002Now and then labels will boast things like ‘organic’, ‘healthy’ and ‘free-range’, which the average grocery shopper digests with little more thought than any of the thousands of other marketing tactics they are exposed to on a daily basis. The simplicity and convenience of the modern supermarket hinges upon the upkeep of an elaborate illusion. It is a cosmetic assortment of finished products whose packages, labels and seemingly endless supply mask the laborious journey from seed to plate. We are alien to what we eat, estranged from our own sustenance.

Gabriel Pliska helps mend the relationship that a few select Vancouverites have with their food. He grows food that is simple, real. “Certified organic?” his website grills its assumed reader. “You be the judge. Ingredients are sun and water.”

Gabriel is part of Vancouver’s growing movement of ‘urban farmers.’  These individuals grow food within the city: in backyards and on front lawns, on building rooftops, in traffic circles and any other available urban space. They work toward sustainability, food security and a closing-of-the-gap between food producer and consumer.

clip_image003Frisch Farms is Gabriel’s hyper-local farming initiative based out of his house on the corner of Cypress and W. 16th Avenue. Frisch, the German word for fresh, is less an advertisement than a to-the-tee product description; Gabriel converts private yards into vegetable gardens, growing food roughly within a 3 km radius of his own home. That’s quite a bit less than the average North American ‘food-to-plate’ distance of 2400 km. For Vancouverites, that’s equivalent to eating a meal prepared in Winnipeg, or northern Mexico.

From the ground up it looks as though Gabriel himself sprouted from the earth. His running shoes are caked in dirt from the garden, and his forest green gardening pants rustle like tree leaves and swish as he walks. His wool button-up coat is a darker shade of deep, earthy brown. Gabriel’s long blond hair somehow stays tucked behind his ears while he takes me on a tour of his home garden all the while bending, pointing, weeding, gardening, farming.

His backyard is an organized maze of plant beds and greenhouses, herbs overflowing from terra cotta pots, both seedlings and ready-to-eat vegetables ranging from kale to carrots, cucumbers to collard greens. On our tour, Gabriel made sure to show me his bike. He maneuvered it from its parked position and turned toward me, smiling with an inner glow of a proud owner ready to impress.

“This,” said Gabriel, clutching his bicycle seat, “is my baby.” It’s a sky blue, 2008 single-speed Fuji Feather that Gabriel received while working in Japan. He reached out to Fuji Bikes and offered to ride around Tokyo promoting the Fuji, blogging about it in exchange for a free bike.” They believed in him and his idea of mutual benefit and he has been riding the same bike since — in Japan, then Germany, and now here in Vancouver. clip_image004

The bike is an integral piece of Frisch Farms. It differentiates Gabriel from similar urban farmers. While some others rely on cars and trucks for transportation, Gabriel does everything by bike. He powers himself to all of the 13 gardens he manages, sometimes hauling hundreds of pounds of dirt in a back trailer. For all of the vagueness involved in the term ‘carbon footprint,’ how is this for clarity: by relying only on his bicycle, Gabriel’s carbon footprint is zero.

Gabriel advertised his services at local farmers’ markets and went door-to-door with flyers offering to “convert part of your yard into a thriving vegetable garden.” At first glance, his offer seems too good to be true, especially to homeowners for whom lawn maintenance is just another banal chore in a long list of home upkeep responsibilities. In exchange for allowing Gabriel to grow vegetables in their yards, homeowners receive — for free — garden maintenance and support as well as supplying  fresh vegetables from their own garden. Popular economics would quickly denounce such a seemingly one-sided exchange. Yet Gabriel’s motivation is refreshingly dissimilar to that of other common entrepreneurs.

clip_image005“I want to be as real and authentic as possible just like my vegetables,” said Gabriel. “People love vegetables and they love food. I see this as an ongoing opportunity to be honest and to make a legitimate income without having to manipulate people or lie about the product. I feel like a billionaire, maybe even more so because land in Vancouver is so expensive. The landowners are saying, ‘Please come and garden anytime and feel free to garden as you please.”

For Gabriel, there is value in his work beyond just bills in his bank account. But for all of his intangible millions, he still needs an income to support himself and his business. How then does he turn a profit?

Gabriel sells his vegetables under the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share model. CSA is an “alternative economic model that allows food producers and consumers to work together for mutual benefit.” For $314.27 individuals purchase a prepaid share to invest in Gabriel. Over the course of 4 months, the investor’s return is a weekly portion of vegetables from all of the gardens. Gabriel is hoping for several more summer investors for anyone interested in hyper-local, organic food.clip_image006

Yet despite both his and my use of the ‘organic’ descriptor, Gabriel balks at this term. Organic is now an omnipresent term, splashed onto coffee shop windows and food truck panels as if the city itself was certified organic.

“What people need to realize is how the food industry is marketed,” said Gabriel, “it’s funny how the industry has to put an adjective before a vegetable in order to sell it.”

Hidden behind the legal definition and certification standards of ‘organic food’ is a heavily regulated industry. This is not to say that organic food is necessarily bad, or not what it advertises itself to be, but that public perception of organic food may not always be in touch with reality.

When it comes to food, there is truth in simplicity. Gabriel’s food is unburdened by labels or marketing schemes. It’s not organic, but simply, real.

The path to sustainability: individual growth, collective spirit

clip_image007So often it seems that modern urban living presents us with a set of predetermined life choices. Graduate from high school, go to university or learn a trade, get a job, find a spouse, settle down. Of course, there are exceptions; those who break the mold and shun the traditional, familiar life trajectories. But by and large the younger generations follow a course of action that has been mapped and planned by their predecessors.

Gabriel’s own course, at first, was largely similar to other young people like himself. He grew up in Ottawa and graduated from university with an honours degree in marketing and finance. He told me that he imagined himself someday as a CEO of a company. He moved to Japan following his graduation, where he taught English — an increasingly common step for new graduates — and worked as a strategic planner for a Japanese advertisement agency. He then moved to Germany, again teaching English. From Germany, it was either back to Ottawa or onto something new. Having faith in himself and having gained confidence from his worldwide travels, he decided to join his brother Ben, a local orthodontist in the Kitsilano area, by moving to Vancouver to “be a good uncle” and, of course, to ride his bike.

It was here in Vancouver that something changed. An intangible shift occurred as Gabriel rode his bike through the city streets, breathing the fresh, Pacific air. For lack of comprehension, I can only say that Gabriel was moved by geist, somehow compelled by the spirit of the city.

clip_image008Gabriel began gardening with his new Vancouver housemates and found that his own passion was rekindled from childhood memories of gardening with his mother Judy. His path was not premeditated, not carved out and placed before him but rather, as he said “something coming from deep inside my body, soul and brain, something latent deep inside me.”

The image he once had of himself in a vaguely distant future, Gabriel the businessman, Gabriel the CEO, began to fade as a new image emerged: Gabriel the farmer. “Things fell into place,” said Gabriel, “I am simply expressing what I want to do.”

It was his brother who ultimately “incepted” the idea that Gabriel could make a living in this new lifestyle. It’s a simple idea tailored to his unique passions: grow food for people and deliver it to them on bicycle.

Urban farming, however, is no walk (or ride) in the park. It’s labor intensive, and while Gabriel has volunteers who sometimes shovel soil alongside him, (“a huge help”) the limit to his food growth corresponds to the limits of his own physical capabilities.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but really fun and rewarding,” said Gabriel. “As long as my back and muscles work fine, I want to be out there as long as I can. It makes me feel really good as a human being to see people truly value what I’m doing. It makes me happy, proud.”  And while Gabriel works hard in his gardens, he does something frequently that is perhaps foreign to many other workers: he smiles.

His smiles, it seems, are contagious. A natural byproduct of Frisch Farms has been large community support and involvement. While Gabriel grows frisch food, he also sows the seeds for an engaged, happy, smiling community. clip_image009

Part of Gabriel’s mission is exactly this: to engage and teach homeowners and community members the necessary skills to grow their own food. He hopes that they can grow so much, that they must share it…with each other. The food Gabriel grows thus serves as a catalyst for community conversation.

“This is the most natural way to involve people, because people care about food, and it’s fun. Growing food brings people together. What’s more important than food?” Gabriel asked. “It changes the way people relate to each other, when you see someone digging up dirt and growing vegetables, you want to go see what’s going on because it’s so foreign.”

But it’s not just growing food that has become foreign to us. We are increasingly foreign to one another. A 2011 Vancouver Foundation report delivered troubling news: Vancouverites are lonely. The report identified “a growing sense of isolation and disconnection” as the issue most important to Metro Vancouver residents. In response to these findings, the city of Vancouver enacted an “Engaged City Task Force” that works to “increase neighbourhood engagement, and improve upon the many ways the city connects with Vancouver residents.” clip_image010

While the specific measures of the task force remain unknown, perhaps they can look to Gabriel for inspiration. Gabriel lays the groundwork for community members to grow together. As we reconnect with the land we in turn reconnect with one another.

Frisch Farms is nothing if not a community-oriented endeavour.  And for all Gabriel brings to the community, he is equally reliant on the help of the community for his farming.

clip_image011Both the wood for his plant beds and the soil that fills them are for the most part sourced for free from simply asking people; for example, the wood is extra from local construction sites. Herschel Supply Company, a local lifestyle company, supplied Gabriel with backpacks necessary for transporting his supplies. Homeowners allow Gabriel to use their tools, minimizing what he has to lug back and forth on his bike trailer, which is also a donation from a local community member. Volunteers who feel claustrophobic in office buildings and cubicles lend their time and labor in the gardens as well. Perhaps the most significant contribution, however, was from Pacific Northwest Seeds, which donated what Gabriel estimates to be over $1,000 worth of seeds.

“This is real community building,” said Gabriel, “I just talk to people and stuff comes for free when it’s needed.” clip_image012

In the same Vancouver Foundation survey Vancouverites reported that neighbours were friendly, but distant. As we shorten the distance between ourselves and our food, so too do we move closer to one another, aggregating as a community working toward shared goals.

Our relationships with one another and our relationship with food can grow together, as food is universal, the shared sustenance for all of humanity. So often the good of community becomes secondary to the private will of individuals. When we learn to sacrifice a little bit of this individualism and give ourselves over to a greater good, the limits to what we can achieve stretch to new bounds. If nothing else, Frisch Farms — both fueled by community and fueling it — proves this to be true.

clip_image013Gabriel gave me a small tomato plant to take home after our interview. Never one with a green thumb, it is the first plant I can call my own. Its leaves have multiplied and its stems have shot up as I water it fastidiously in the way Gabriel instructed me. In several weeks time I will move the plant into a larger pot and place it outside, where it can continue to grow and flourish and where I, a proud owner, can step out onto my balcony and water it.

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