Veggies on the move
GRUB CSA Farm moves to a new location.
Farming is a profession of uncertainty: A hard freeze in May might kill the tomatoes, or dime-sized hail in March might shred all the spring greens. But local farmers at the GRUB CSA Farm, who are finishing their final growing season at the GRUB Cooperative, have had to deal with an additional uncertainty—the renewal of their lease.
“If we stayed here and the [landowner] pulled the plug, we’d be one to two seasons without any farm—we’d lose everything we’ve gained as a business,” like a slot at the Saturday Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, said Michael Shaw, one of the GRUB CSA farmers. “And we’d have no income.”
The farmers—Lee Callender, Francine Stuelpnagel and Shaw—recognized that the possibly of non-renewal of the GRUB property lease, which is up in October 2013, meant they would need significant lead time in order to not interrupt their blooming business. So they recently picked up the GRUB CSA Farm and moved it off of the GRUB Cooperative property on Dayton Road to a new 10-acre farm on West Sacramento Avenue, while retaining the GRUB CSA Farm name. The GRUB Cooperative will remain at its current location.
GRUB CSA Farm began in 2007 without an official farm or cooperative, when Stuelpnagel and Callender, a married couple, and their friend Max Kee put out a public call for back yards and empty lots available in Chico for them to garden in. From those plots, they cobbled together their first CSA (community-supported agriculture) in September 2007 for 12 members. For a monthly subscription cost, each member got a weekly share of the produce the young farmers grew. The next year, the growing CSA allowed Callender to quit his day job; by 2009, both Stuelpnagel and Callender could finally work as full-time farmers.
“When the whole thing started, it wasn’t about creating a CSA farm, it was about growing food. It was a very organic thing—trying to teach people in the community how to grow food, and to provide people with food in the community,” explained Stephanie Elliott, a GRUB Cooperative member and head of the GRUB Education Program. Stuelpnagel, along with Sherri Scott, had started the education program alongside the CSA-farm idea, to promote their overall goal of food education for the public. Then, Elliot and Scott landed a grant and took the GRUB Education Program to the next level, teaching food and gardening to schoolchildren across Chico.
Stuelpnagel, Callender, Elliot, Scott, Kee and other friends caught wind of a way to continue their mission of promoting local and sustainable agriculture, but in a more closely linked fashion: The Victorian houses and barns on GRUB’s Dayton Road property (then known as “The Palms") and the several acres of farmland surrounding it came up for rent in October 2008.
The cohorts moved in together, and the GRUB Cooperative—referring to the element of communal living on the Dayton Road property—was born. The CSA Farm and the GRUB Education Program, both already established, moved in as well.
“It was fallow with weeds, no irrigation,” said Callender of the property. Lots of backbreaking work by Kee, Callender and Stuelpnagel followed to get the farm up and running.
And that’s where the confusion began: People began referring to the cooperative and the farm as the same entity, but living in the cooperative’s living quarters did not require members to work on the CSA farm. And, subscription to the GRUB CSA Farm did not fund, for example, the GRUB education program; the CSA Farm focused on growing vegetables for the CSA members and covered its own costs in doing so.
In 2011, Stuelpnagel and Callender decided to form a general partnership and hire an additional farmer, Shaw, as they were finally coming out of the red from their work on the farm.
When the CSA farm became a business, Kee went back to focusing on nonprofit agricultural projects instead, like his compost program—collecting gallons of food scraps from local restaurants and composting them on the cooperative property—and on his then-newly planted fruit orchard, which is next to where the GRUB CSA Farm’s vegetables have been growing.
“The idea that we could live on that piece of land and make a living there … that was the grand ideal,” said Callender. Despite the threat of possibly losing the land’s lease, many GRUB Cooperative members have begun projects that make the cooperative their workspace and living space, just like the farmers. In addition to Kee’s projects, Scott began GRUB Grown, a nursery of edible and useful plants grown at the cooperative. More recently, Ron Toppi began Oldspokes Home Chico, a community bike shop inside a shipping container parked at the cooperative.
“The main focus is that there are people out here that want to farm and support farming taking place at 1525 Dayton,” said Elliott. “With that farming comes experimenting with ways to support ourselves on this land while respecting the land and all those who would like to help.” To that end, GRUB Cooperative members are planning a new farm to take shape in the acres once occupied by GRUB CSA Farm, with lots of volunteering, work/ trade, and education about growing food.
The GRUB Cooperative members are content to make the most out of their time on the land, and are hoping for a smooth lease-renegotiation next year. “Our time here is uncertain, but we are in this for the experience, and every day we learn something new that will help us here, or wherever we shall end up,” said Elliott.
As for GRUB CSA Farm, Stuelpnagel and Callender are expecting their second child in March, right before their spring CSA gets underway at the new location. They’ve already planted onions and garlic at the farm, which is four miles from downtown Chico. Last week, they sent out a letter to their CSA members, describing the new property.
“The property owner’s grandfather purchased the property from John Bidwell,” states the letter. “The longtime chicken ranch, melon patch, and pumpkin patch at the property kept this land connected to the Chico community for many years as a destination for food and family outings, and we hope to rekindle this!”