Crop swap fever

Oak Park program means produce won’t go rotting

Here come the crop swappers: (left to right) Neil Thomson, Kara Thomson and Bill Maynard.

Here come the crop swappers: (left to right) Neil Thomson, Kara Thomson and Bill Maynard.

Photo By cole allen

The Oak Park Crop Swap runs every Monday night from 6 to 7 p.m., July 6-September 28 at McClatchy Park. For more information, visit

The Colonial Manor Crop Swap runs every Wednesday night from 6 to 7 p.m., July 22-September 16 at Bill Bean Jr. Memorial Park.

Oak Park has deep backyards, and in some of these yards, residents grow their own food. Sometimes they have too much, and edible produce ends up rotted on the ground and tossed into the garbage.

But a group of neighbors figured out how to prevent the waste while improving their own variety of fruits and vegetables, through a practice known as a crop swap.

“I’ll have all these people ask me how we do it,” said Kara Thomson, coordinator of the Oak Park Crop Swap. “It’s really very simple.”

For a crop swap, neighbors trade unwanted or excess produce grown in their own yards. No money is involved. Organizers of the Oak Park swap only require that the produce be organic, grown without the use of pesticides or petrochemicals.

With Oak Park’s crop swap entering its second season and a new swap starting in Colonial Manor, Sacramento’s local-food movement is at an exciting juncture on the eve of the inaugural Food Independence Day (July 4), say members of the swap. The city has so much food capacity, they claim, let’s use it.

In January of 2008, two groups met in hopes of developing a community garden for Oak Park before one group branched off to establish something much more immediate—a crop swap. The small group of five neighbors, including Thomson, held two community meetings and more than a dozen people showed up at each one.

“We couldn’t believe so many people were interested,” Thomson said.

Between five and 25 households gathered at the park each week last year, and by the end of the season, 363 pounds of produce had been traded.

Because crops have different values, the group devised a trading guide based on organic prices. Organizers weigh the food then convert that number into units. For instance, 1 pound of tomatoes might equal three tradable units. The system basically operates under an honor code, but Thomson said last year the group had plenty of leftover food, which would be redistributed at the end of the evening. Each person usually takes home about one grocery bag full of produce.

Neighbors in the Oak Park group will meet at McClatchy Park every Monday night for an hour to trade vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers when the swap starts next week. It runs through September.

As part of the weekly gathering, speakers will present on such topics as composting; beekeeping; cover crops; solar ovens; and how to can, dry and preserve food at home.

The swap featured chard, tomato, cucumber, zucchini and eggplant last year, Thomson said. The swap system allows for residents to barter for produce they either don’t or can’t grow themselves. For instance, people with shady yards might produce leafy greens and blueberries, and those people with sunny yards might more easily grow tomatoes and watermelons.

The simple premise of a crop swap has already caught on. The Colonial Manor Neighborhood Association has started its own crop swap, which will run every Wednesday evening from July 22 to September 16 at Bill Bean Jr. Park, according to association president Diana Portillo.

Meanwhile, another group of neighbors in Oak Park and East Sacramento called Harvest Sacramento recognized last year that there was an abundance of fruit trees underutilized. So they knocked on residents’ doors and asked if they could harvest some fruit off the trees. Workers take a cut and then donate the rest to the Sacramento Food Bank. Davis residents recently started a similar program.

For many participants in the crop swap and Harvest Sacramento, the goal of their activities is to reclaim and fix our food system, while building a community in which food is a focal point.

Members of the Oak Park Crop Swap recently canvassed their neighborhood to expand the group. Eight volunteers recently planted raised flowed beds for an elderly neighbor so she could also participate in the swap. It doesn’t matter if people don’t have food to exchange; they can still attend to learn about gardening and hang out with neighbors.

“I have met so many of my neighbors through this,” Thomson said. “It’s so cool.”

Crop member Jaclyn Hopkins has lived in Oak Park for three years now, and she and her husband call their house with its large backyard and multitude of crops their “urban homestead.” She grew up in an agricultural area of Kentucky and always wants producing her own food to be part of her life.

“From the beginning, it was a very social endeavor,” Hopkins said. “It’s not just about food, but about building community. It’s a hoot. It’s a lot of fun. Hopefully, eventually, every neighborhood will have something like this.”