Fresh from the farm
Local couple’s growing operation battles water scarcity, lease problems—and comes out ahead
Farmer Baba Ross-Walcott squatted low next to multicolor bell pepper seedlings and skillfully dipped his foot-long Turnbill machete into the soil, swiftly chopping out the weeds growing at the plant’s base.
“This [machete] here is what the older guys use. My grandfather always had this one,” Baba said, explaining that he learned how to farm while growing up in Jamaica. He pointed to the curled edge that gives the machete its name as he chopped at a purslane. “You can just aerate right around the plant.”
Nearby, his wife and co-farmer, Mharia Ross-Walcott, surveyed the crops, including celery, tomatoes and squash, in the couple’s newly leased 1-acre plot off the Midway in south Chico, adjacent to Butte Creek. This is one of three plots—2.5 acres total—they cultivate as F.R.E.S.H. Farm, which stands for Fine Real Edibles Sow Happiness and is certified organic. They also run a tiny greenhouse, root cellar and kitchen garden in their backyard.
The duo are now in full-harvest mode, delivering bell peppers, melons, eggplant and winter squashes like Kabocha and Blue Hubbard to local stores including Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods.
While things are looking green these days, they haven’t always been that way. After five years tilling the soil at a previous location, they were abruptly asked to leave. F.R.E.S.H. first broke soil on this south Chico plot in March. “We had an acre at the Grace Light Hindu Temple, which was awesome. But then, suddenly, we heard they were in foreclosure, and that there was a fast short sale going on, and then it was sold to a church group who asked us to leave,” said Mharia. Her farming experience started in the late 1970s, when she was a young member of a farming group, living cooperatively on the Trinity River.
“And so, all the investment of five years, in building that soil and everything,” she snapped her fingers, “within 30 days, we were out of there.”
The move disrupted production and funneled their time and energy away from farming their other two plots of leased land, both north of Chico. A caravan of friends and supporters helped move their shed and its contents to their new location. Their fruit orchard was left behind, and has since been leveled, Mharia said. Now, they are starting anew, building up the land and learning about their new plot—its soil, weeds, wildlife. They signed a year-to-year lease to start. “We’re just kind of feeling it out,” Mharia admitted. But, so far, they are “very happy with the soil and the location,” Baba said, nodding his head in the August sun.
Land security is just one of the struggles that F.R.E.S.H. has dealt with. Income is another. Both Baba and Mharia hold down full-time jobs in addition to farming; Baba is a custodian and Mharia is a teacher. That’s in line with most of America’s farming families, where 91 percent have at least one member working off the farm, according a 2013 poll by the USDA Economic Research Service. Additionally troublesome for small farmers is the inability to charge enough to make a living wage, as Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food in the developed world—just 6.6 percent.
These hurdles, Baba says, are just part of the life of a farmer. In mid-summer, despite their location just feet from Butte Creek, their 80-foot well dried up. Many farming neighbors, mostly fruit and nut growers, had already dug deeper wells in the spring, anticipating the dry season, said Wareke Buroz, who lives adjacent to the plot the Ross-Walcotts are farming. Their new well, dug at the end of June, is 300 feet deep.
“You know, farming—if it’s not the water, it’s the birds, or the gophers … there’s always something,” Baba said.
Yet, the couple remain positive. They were recently awarded a grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service to build a 2,178-square-foot hoop house, a huge upgrade from their tiny backyard greenhouse.
In addition, the Ross-Walcotts hope a new line of food products will provide the income they need to help them retire from their jobs and focus on the farm over the next five years. They intend to put out several products, under a label they call Sow Happiness, including a green “callaloo” dip, made with amaranth leaves, which are popular in the Caribbean, and a Jamaican scotch bonnet pepper sauce.
The duo believe farming is about more than just vegetables—the community the vegetables sustain, and the land that nourishes the vegetables, need to be taken into account, as well, they say.
“We’re really into kind of the community momentum with planting,” Mharia said, noting that a late-spring planting party brought out eight people. Several others, including four teenagers and another couple, regularly help out, cultivating their rows for their own pantries and gaining farming skills. “It isn’t about growing food; it’s about growing life, everything working together to make [life] more complete,” Mharia said.
“It’s not about me,” Baba added. “It’s about the land.”