Down to earth

Want to save the environment and get more from your meal? Eat local.

Sensuous blues riffs hung in the warm autumn air like ripe fruit about to fall. The Soil Born Farm in Sacramento was doing its annual equinox celebration fund-raising thing, and hundreds of slow-food devotees strolled around the little farm in the city, sampling organic food and wine, some of which was grown where they walked. Dogs and kids chased each other while other garden guests danced, ate at picnic tables or visited tabletop displays. A trio of bluegrass pluckers took charge when the blues band went on break.

There are about 11 million acres of farmland in the Central Valley. You might not expect to run into any of it in a densely populated urban residential area of apartment complexes, houses, strip malls and busy streets. You would be mistaken. A house on Hurley Way, half obscured by trees, serves as the main office of Soil Born Farm. Behind the house, invisible from the street, are three acres of land that used to be barren, vacant property adjacent to the Jonas Salk Middle School. About half of the reborn lot is now planted with drip-irrigated rows of lettuce, carrots, peppers—whatever is seasonal. Much of the produce grown is purchased by the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which also partners with Soil Born Farm in projects such as the Del Paso Heights Project FEED (Food, Education, Equity, Diversity). Another Soil Born project called Connecting Food, Health and the Environment has been developed for Jonas Salk Middle School. The tiny farm was started in 2000 by Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa. Their dream was to reconnect people to the land through healthy, locally grown, organic food and also to provide opportunities for community volunteerism. It’s a busy place. Every Tuesday night features potluck dinners and volunteer work parties. The Co-op hosts a dinner at Soil Born Farm on the last Tuesday of each month. Customers also can pay ahead for their boxes of seasonably available veggies and pick them up at the farm. Harrison is a serious and soft-spoken man who would seem at home teaching a biology class.

“When people demand, for instance, oranges when they are out of season in California, then someone will meet that demand, and the consequences are increased use of fuel to move that produce from South America or Australia or elsewhere, and then refrigeration comes into it, and loss of nutrients over time,” Harrison explained, “so is this really what we ought to be doing? Why not use what is produced locally and avoid all that? It’s an educational process.”

The equinox event was the third annual celebration. Paul Larsick of the new Elk Grove Co-op was there, dishing out an organic feast alongside several other local restaurant chefs. “It’s like a farmers’ market every day at the Foods Co-op,” said Larsick, “except we provide cooking classes for customers, help with recipes, menus and—hey!—no plastic bags.”

Larsick said Europeans tend to shop daily, buying fresh from local growers. “Why buy frozen or canned stuff in preservatives that has to move sometimes thousands of miles and needs to have a shelf life of weeks or even months? What we provide is definitely better for you and better for the environment.”

On a warm September day in the fertile Capay Valley, Paul Muller discussed organic production on the 250-acre Full Belly Farm. Started in 1984, the farm uses less invasive techniques like crop rotation, planting of hedgerows to cultivate beneficial insects and farming on land contours. Full Belly is also a major supplier to the Co-op—with as much as 15 percent of total production going to it. Muller, a tall, lean man with a big smile beneath a baseball cap, apologized for offering his hand caked with dark Capay soil.

“We use cutting-edge technology here the same way conventional non-organic farms do,” Muller explained, pausing as a tractor rumbled by. “But we ask different questions of our technology, such as ‘What are the effects of toxicity on humans or the soil?’” he continued. “Biological systems are wonderfully complex. One teaspoon of soil contains about a billion micro-organisms, and you have a choice of whether to eliminate most of them with chemicals or look for ways to make them healthy and work for you.” Muller stood, signaling his need to return to work, concluding, “It’s about sunlight, seed, water, tools and human spirit.”

Yet another local grower that is a supplier to the Co-op is the Steve and Walt Farm, a 16-acre spread near Oregon House in the foothills above Marysville. You might run into Steve Dambeck in the general store there, where some know him as “the olive-oil guy.” Dambeck describes his work by saying, “Local organic farming is one of the rare places where two really good things meet. It’s common-sense farming, and it’s one of the best ways to make tasty and nutritious food. It’s one of the most life-enhancing livelihoods there is. It’s a way to live.”

The Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in Davis serves as the voice of the “buy local, buy fresh” movement. CAFF’s Temra Costa said buying local food is healthier for the environment and eater alike. “By buying produce from small local growers at farmers’ markets or the Foods Co-op, you help them to succeed financially, making it less likely for them to have to sell land to developers. Locally grown fresh produce actually tastes better, too, and that’s tied in with why it’s better for you. In just a few days, sugars turn to starch, plant cells shrink—and you can really taste the difference.”