Forget idyllic fields out in the countryside. Urban growers want to plant their farms smack dab in the middle of Sacramento.
The Sacramento Valley should be an agricultural Garden of Eden.With its rich soil, Mediterranean climate and abundant water supply, the region produces a bounty of vegetables, rice, nuts and fruits of all variety. Here, we have the ability to grow an extraordinarily diverse, lush diet for ourselves.
But, according to local urban farmers, Sacramento is a food desert.
Large commodity crops grown here are, for the most part, shipped out of state or sent overseas, rather than circulating back into our own community. It doesn’t take Michael Pollan to realize that this arrangement is not unique to our region—it’s part of a global food system that removes the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food from the hands of local communities and places it into the hands of a large-scale industrial agriculture behemoth.
Welcome to the omnivore’s dilemma.
As global food prices continue to rise and food riots erupt around the world, food justice advocates are pointing fingers at this behemoth as the reason for the pain. They’ve issued a rallying cry: Let’s take control of food systems back from the transnational agri-foods industry.
The United Nations estimates that 25,000 people die everyday as a consequence of chronic, persistent hunger. That’s 25,000. Human beings. Every single day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that almost 11 percent of Americans experience “food insecurity,” which means 35.5 million people—including almost 13 million children—are unsure where they’ll find their next meal. A 2003 report by the Sacramento Hunger Commission found that about 56,000 adults were food insecure in Sacramento County.
Proponents of urban farming suggest we consider these alarming statistics as we determine the best ways to make healthy food available to underserved residents in Sacramento.
Look around at all those vacant lots in south Sacramento, Del Paso Heights and other areas of town.
Don’t leave the lots vacant. Don’t develop them with shopping malls and big-box chain stores. Instead, put that land into production.
Plant a farm smack dab in the middle of the city.
A farm is born
Shawn Harrison doesn’t look much like a farmer, besides the fact that he’s muscular and tanned and wears blue jeans. He actually looks more like a professional athlete or a budding politician, with his polished mannerisms and articulate speech. Growing up in Rancho Cordova, he didn’t care about organic food or ecologically sound farming practices. His mom couldn’t even get him to mow the lawn.
After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Harrison participated in a six-month program in ecological horticulture at UC Santa Cruz, which is where he met Marco Franciosa. The pair quickly became friends. Soon Harrison moved, receiving his master’s degree in agriculture from UC Davis. One day, Harrison and Franciosa put a note in the mailbox of a Sacramento resident asking for permission to grow on her land in exchange for fruits and vegetables. The woman agreed.
And Soil Born Farms was born.
Urban farming soon became Harrison’s all-consuming passion. And if everything goes as planned, this will be Soil Born Farms’ coming-out year.
Granted, Harrison’s urban-agriculture project has been operating for eight years now and has made a name for itself as a small nonprofit with big dreams. The project was the vision behind the farmers’ market in Del Paso Heights and has served as a supplier of local produce to some of downtown Sacramento’s most prominent restaurants. The organization also launched an educational program at Grant Union High School, where students learn about healthy food through garden-based nutrition, science and cooking classes.
By all appearances, the farm was already a success. But its founders always knew it had room to grow. And so it did.
Until March, Soil Born Farms grew on 1.5 acres of land behind Jonas Salk Middle School on Hurley Avenue in north Sacramento, where farmers use hand-scale bio-intensive gardening methods to produce leafy greens, carrots, squash, tomatoes, eggplant and more. Apprentices who are learning to farm live together in a small trailer on the land.
Soil Born officially increased its farm size twelvefold, when it planted the first seeds at its recently acquired 25-acre farm on the American River Ranch in Rancho Cordova, land which the organization leases from the county of Sacramento. Surrounded by suburban development, the farm resides within the American River Parkway with the river running to the north. Cordova High School sits across the street, and a few blocks away, liquor stores, a check cashing place and fast-food joints are open for business.
Back in 2000, when Harrison and Franciosa decided they wanted to produce healthy foods and create access to fresh fruits and vegetables for underserved residents in Sacramento, they had a vision: Let’s build the food capacity so our community could feed itself, ensuring food justice for all.
What became of the 1.5 acres on Hurley Way? In addition to continuing to supply food to restaurants and farmers’ markets, the small parcel of land produces enough fruits and vegetables to fill 42 community-supported agriculture boxes, which ends up feeding more than 100 people (seven or eight items go into a box each week, and customers pay for them in advance of the season, investing in the farm in the process).
Farming in the city? Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. [page]
On a hot afternoon in April, 30 people—representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States—gathered around to tour Soil Born Farms’ new site. The visitors sucked down small cups of ice-cold water, none of them saying much as they dabbed sweat off their brows and waited around in the shade of a large oak tree for Harrison to begin speaking and the Spanish translator to relay his words. Why did the California Department of Food and Agriculture bring these foreign dignitaries to American River Ranch?
To show off, that’s why.
Harrison led the group around the site, explaining how as an organic farm, they use cover crops and compost to fertilize the soil, both big no-nos in industrial farming methods. Ten sheep munch through cover crops and release nutrients into the fertile alluvial soil below.
“Look out. Imagine a natural habitat with pockets of food production,” Harrison said to the group, as he waved to an open expanse all around him.
The food Soil Born generates at this site will go toward community supported agriculture boxes, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and 20 percent will be reserved for Sacramento’s underserved population, including food banks and Head Start locations.
“Next year, we’ll probably get up to about 200 families, and it’ll grow each year,” Harrison said of the CSA boxes. “We’ll be diversifying where our food is going, but the one common thread is you probably won’t see our food 10 miles outside of the farms.”
Soil Born Farms truly is a local food system, an anomaly in this county, where most food travels an average of 1,200 miles from farm or fishery to a kitchen table. About two decades ago, the slow-food movement began in Italy, in backlash to the plethora of American-owned fast-food joints popping up everywhere. The movement spread, until it basically became a bumper-sticker slogan: Local is the new organic. Indeed, it seems to be the complete package.
Growing and selling food locally produces environmental benefits by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions used to transport the goods. It also limits wasteful packing materials. Local farmers can offer produce bred for taste and freshness rather than for shipping and grocery-store shelf life. Buying directly from farmers circulates dollars in the community. By knowing where food comes from, consumers can avoid or reduce consuming foods that use chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or are genetically modified.
Most local food finds its ways to farmers’ markets, where farmers sell their crops directly to the public, which increases their profits because they cut out the middleman. These markets are suited to small volumes of produce, affectively creating a market outside large-volume distribution systems. Currently, nearly 500 certified farmers’ markets operate throughout California, with 13 weekly markets in Sacramento County, 11 of those located within Sacramento city limits, according the California Federation of Certified Farmers’ Markets.
Randy Stannard, food access coordinator for Soil Born Farms, helps organize the Del Paso Heights Community Certified Farmers’ Market, which runs from June through October at the Robertson Community Center. The market began in 2005 as a way to connect residents of the predominantly low-income neighborhood to healthy, seasonal produce.
Also, it serves the growers themselves by drawing on the expertise of local Hmong families whose members have a deep knowledge of food production and giving them a viable market in which to sell. But these growers face many challenges; primarily, a language barrier and landowners who try to cheat unknowing immigrants.
Stannard will work with Terry Wang, a soil conservation technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to organize Asian growers in Sacramento. Wang acts as the liaison between Asian farmers in the Central Valley and farmers’ markets. He does most of his work in Stockton, home to the largest Asian farmers’ market in the country, held in a parking lot that separates downtown from an inner-city Southeast Asian neighborhood.
About 5,000 people pass through this market each week, buying produce from Hmong and Laotian growers. Most of the vendors grow organically on land between 2 and 10 acres, because that’s how they originally learned.
“By 6 in the morning, the market is packed. Most of the vendors sell out of their goods by 10 a.m.,” Wang said. “They gross about $500 a week, which is the sole source of income for most of them.”
In Sacramento, many Asian growers produce on small plots of land with virtually no land security, fortunate to even have a one-year lease; much of the land they grow on is slated for development or just waiting for a buyer, Stannard said.
“But with its large amount of open land and large base of skilled farmers,” he added, “Sacramento has the potential to be a unique urban-farming area.”
The store next door
A few years back, a neighborhood association in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat community held a “visioning” workshop to identify needs for residents. The No. 1 need identified was for more for-sale housing. The second item on the list: a grocery store.
Alkali Flat and Mansion Flat neighborhoods have not had a grocery store since the Albertson’s on 24th and F streets closed down in 2006. Nor do the neighborhoods have small retail markets, high-end restaurants or farmers’ markets, which means these residents have limited access to fresh produce or healthy organic foods. But there’s no shortage of liquor stores nearby.
“If you have to work really, really hard to get fresh produce, you’re probably not going to prioritize it in your life,” said Davida Douglas.
Douglas is the coordinator for the Alkali Flat Urban Farm Stand, a micro-farmers’ market that the Alchemist Community Development Corporation and Sacramento Mutual Housing Alliance started last year (farmers’ markets regulations made it too difficult to start a market there).
On the first Tuesday in May, the farm stand opened for its second season—which runs through October—at J. Neely Johnson Park, a small patch of green space nestled on 11th and E streets downtown. While it’s a slow day on this afternoon, last year 150 to 200 people passed through weekly; the majority of the customers lived nearby or worked downtown.
On this particular afternoon, a handful of volunteers rung up customers, as a face painter waited for children to arrive and musicians strummed guitars, stopping to chat or tune their instruments.
“The idea is to make these afternoons a community event,” Douglas explained.
Volunteers arranged organic lettuce, oranges, radishes, sweet potatoes, organic carrots, baby beets, each item marked up between 30 and 50 percent—high enough to generate operating funds, but low enough to keep the produce within financial reach of area residents. Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway’s office loaned the tables on which the food sits.
“He sees how this benefits the people in his district,” Douglas said. “And the city waived the park permit fees. Otherwise, there would be no way we could afford to do this.”
This week’s strawberries came from a grower in Rio Linda. Some other produce came from Vierra Farms in West Sacramento, because owner David Vierra was nice enough to deliver and give them a good price. The rest supplied by the Growers Collaborative, a large-scale virtual farmers’ market that sells fruits and vegetables from family farms to schools, businesses, hospitals and other organizations.
Because of the small scale of the Alkali Flat farm stand, spending a couple hours to sell their own produce wouldn’t be economically beneficial for the farmers. So instead, they simply swing by and drop off their produce. It takes fewer people to run the farm stand, which makes it more practical in more places.
Last year, Alchemist received a grant to expand their effort. In July, two new stands will start up, both in Sacramento Mutual Housing Association communities, one in the River Garden Estates in south Natomas and a second at the Greenway Village in south Sacramento.
Soil Born Farms will also be opening its own urban farm stand in a large green shed at the entrance of the American River Ranch site in Rancho Cordova later this month. Customers have only to walk down the gravel path off Chase Drive, and there it’ll be.[page]
World food web
There’s a larger socioeconomic story behind the current rise of global food prices. It’s a tale that involves climate change (lower yields with hotter temperatures), a Western push for biofuels, the high price of oil and the demand for meat in India and China. As standards of living improve in developing countries, people eat more meat, a shift that is expected to double food demand by the year 2030. But the current food crisis is actually decades in the making, the aftermath of the deregulation of global markets.
In her 2008 article, “Food Crisis in the Age of Unregulated Global Markets,” Gretchen Gordon of Food First, a think tank based in Oakland, explains how “the World Bank and International Monetary Fund conditioned loan policies on the elimination of government intervention in agricultural markets.”
NAFTA and WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture “slashed agricultural tariffs in the developing world, opening up markets for a growing global agribusiness industry,” she writes. “In 1996, the World Bank eliminated domestic price supports for most commodities in favor of a massive system of subsidies.”
Raj Patel echoed this thesis in his recently released book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, claiming that the World Bank and World Trade Organization—both institutions for which he’d previously worked—and the IMF essentially control the economies of the world’s poorest countries, forcing these countries to withdraw support for farmers and grain supplies.
Grain supplies help stabilize food prices. When prices get high—historically because of severe droughts and crop damage—grain reserves are released onto the market. About a decade ago, food reserves had been substantial enough to feed the entire world for 116 days. But by 2006, the world’s stocks had shrunk in half. These reserves have fallen apart, largely diverted for meat production.
Industrial capitalism and food have long had a cordial relationship, one that benefits those few at the top of the economic food chain. Look no further than the early 1900s, when the United Fruit Company established banana republics in Central America and put tin-pot dictators in charge. Even a democratically elected president in Guatemala who wanted to institute a system of taxing the land at fair market value couldn’t undo the damage or help his people. He wasn’t given the chance. In 1954, CIA assisted in a coup, and a bloody civil war followed for the next 40 years, during which at least 100,000 Guatemalans died. But the world got cheap bananas.
Today, the industrial food system in the United States continues to rely on cheap meat and additives that reduce food prices through the exploitation of people and the environment. Rainforests in Brazil have been clear-cut for soy plantations, and according to the International Labour Organization, much of this land is worked by the country’s 50,000 slaves.
Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise. The World Bank estimates that global food prices rose an inconceivable 83 percent in the last three years. In West Africa, food prices have risen 50 percent; in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. Food riots have erupted in Haiti, Cameroon, Senegal and Burkina Faso as a result, with protests in Morocco, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mexico and Yemen. Almost three-dozen countries experience social unrest because of the spike in food costs.
But amid all the news of soaring hunger rates and food riots is a 2,500-page report released in April that found that the world has the ability to feed each and every one of its inhabitants. Although the Bush administration refuses to endorse the report (issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), the study is an outright confirmation that hunger is not inevitable.
Because hunger is not, after all, solely about food. It’s largely about access.
Many Sacramentans recognize this, which is why we now have a handful of farm-to-school programs and an edible landscaping project at an affordable-housing apartment complex on Elder Creek Road in south Sacramento, where residents can pick fruit from trees planted right outside their front doors. It’s why community members worked so hard to revive the defunct Ron Mandella Community Gardens in downtown (paved over for residential development) in the form of the Fremont Community Garden, located at the corner of Q and 14th streets, and the Southside Community Garden at W and Fifth streets. Forty small-scale urban farms exist in Sacramento County, according to Bill Maynard of the Sacramento Area Community Garden Coalition. Some are Parks and Recreation run programs, and others are guerrilla gardens, maintained by squatters.
The struggle to ensure that all people have regular access to healthy food is no longer just a grassroots movement, as even policymakers and local municipalities are getting in on the act. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments recently launched a project called the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy to better understand the challenges rural people face in terms of retaining economic viability in the agricultural sector, and how this might dovetail with the local urban-farming movement.
About five years ago, SACOG developed a blueprint growth strategy, which established a smart-growth vision that calls for more compact growth patterns and a greater emphasis on growing through infill and revitalization than what had been common in the past, said executive director Mike McKeever.
“If we succeed in implementing that vision, then the footprint needed for urbanization—houses and jobs—gets much smaller in terms of the growth increment than it would have otherwise, and that opens up a lot of opportunities to make it easier to preserve farmland, open space and natural resources,” he said.
“We’d love to see Sacramento become the slow-food capital of the country,” agreed California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura back in April, when he was out touring American River Ranch with the foreign dignitaries.
But Soil Born Farms can’t make this happen alone. Even Harrison and Franciosa know that.
“Soil Born Farms is one of two certified organic vegetable producers in Sacramento County and one of the only urban farms,” Harrison said during the tour. “Those two characteristics create more demand than we can ever meet with our site.”
And so they’ve reached out, working with other urban growers and hosting volunteer nights to encourage Sacramentans to come out and help farm and learn how to grow in their own yards. The Hunger Project, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, explains it this way in its mission statement: Breaking down the industrial agriculture system “won’t be as easy as figuring out a development model that works and replicating the model.”
A few years back, Michael Ableman, founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture, ventured on a road trip with his son to visit fruit growers, meat producers, cheese makers and vegetable producers living in Canada and the United States. He later wrote about his trip, remarking that finally farming was returning “back to its rightful place—the heart and center of our society.”
Plant corn, not condos
Wil Holland, a 20-year-old apprentice, walked the American River Ranch fields on a bright, warm morning in May. He squatted down to examine some bugs, his wool beanie protecting his head from the early morning sun. He moved seamlessly as though he’s spent his whole life wandering through dirt and tall weeds and examining insects up close. Which he has.
Holland grew up learning how to farm from his dad, a market farmer. His father used to sell food he produced in his backyard at the Davis Farmers’ Market, but after relocating to the small foothill town of Somerset and obtaining 6.5 acres of land, he sells at a market in Placerville. He also sells food produced on 13 acres of land in Elk Grove owned by Holland’s grandmother. Over the years, Holland has seen developers buy up all the farmland out there; he recently witnessed a dairy turned into an auto mall.
On that Friday, Holland and one other apprentice transplanted eggplant, cucumber and lettuce. They’ll plant through the summer, spending each day weeding, watering, feeding the animals and working on infrastructure projects.
“It helps keep you sane or, at least, it allows you to be crazy,” Holland said, shrugging his shoulders.
Holland’s apprenticeship began back in March. And he loves it, even the part about waking up and starting work by 6:30 a.m. and finishing no earlier than 5 p.m., sometimes as late as 7 at night.
“I’m tired at the end of the day. But I’d be willing to keep going if I had to,” agreed apprentice Sarah McCamman, a 23-year-old with short, spiky brown hair.
She graduated from UC Davis with a degree in biology. During college, she lived in a co-op called the Agrarian Effort, where she had a crash course in small-scale urban farming. Before that, she lived in an apartment where she nurtured a tomato plant in a cut-out Nalgene bottle.
“I know that I’m going to want to grow my own food for the rest of my life,” she said, smiling as she prepared a breakfast of homemade yogurt and granola to share with Holland for a mid-morning break.
This is also American River Ranch assistant farm manager Jared Clark’s first season with Soil Born Farms, but the 28-year-old is already known for his oft-repeated catch phrase: “This is living the dream for me.”
He farms because it’s his passion, but also because he believes wholeheartedly that urban farming is how we’re going to transition away from the dominate industrial agriculture system that exploits or disregards people to an egalitarian system that nourishes communities by ensuring regular access to healthy food.
Rising food prices and the hunger epidemic? Clark sees urban farming as the obvious solution to these crises.
“It’s an immediate answer to food security to grow in the cities,” Clark said.
Clark grew up in Sacramento, playing baseball as a kid out in the fields adjacent to the farm where he now lives and works. He attended college locally, then spent three years farming in Alaska. When he left, he thought he’d need to seek out a new place to live, somewhere besides Sacramento, to do the work he wanted to do. But instead, he returned home to farm in the city he loves.