No lawn. No pool. Hello, urban farm

Sacramento agriculturalists turn their yards into gardens to feed the city

Judith and Chanowk Yisrael dig their urban ag lifestyle.

Judith and Chanowk Yisrael dig their urban ag lifestyle.

photos by kevin cortopassi

Chanowk Yisrael stands tall above a plot of dark green leaves, stems and pods, ready to harvest. He nimbly slices off okra into a brown wicker basket with his tool of choice: a machete.

No, no, no, he insists, laughing. He doesn’t have a weird thing for machetes. He just grabbed it for some reason. Besides, his clippers are unavailable— he already handed them to four volunteers harvesting bright red Thai chili peppers. His helpers are down in the dirt, breathing in the clean, urban farm air, saying things like “so peaceful” with a sigh. Chanowk’s shoulder-length dreads bounce with him as he scours beds for more peppers prime for plucking.

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm sits in south Oak Park, across from the now-shuttered Fruit Ridge Elementary School, south of 14th Avenue, just off of Stockton Boulevard. Like other homes in the residential neighborhood, it sits behind a towering, padlocked fence, though sunflowers creep over to greet visitors.

Here, volunteers arrive weekly—anywhere between one or a dozen—eager to learn more about growing food and the Yisrael way of life.

Chanowk, 38, started the urban farm about eight years ago with his wife, Judith, their children and zero farming background. Back then, Sacramento hadn’t yet been deemed the country’s “farm-to-fork capital” by Mayor Kevin Johnson. The city didn’t tout a huge farm-to-fork festival every September.

Yet even then the Yisraels already exuded the farm-to-fork spirit, working to solve Sacramento’s farm-to-fork riddle: despite being such an important agricultural hub, only 2 percent of the food grown in the Sacramento region is actually eaten here, according to a 2010 report from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. Sacramento is still home to persistent food deserts and persistently hungry people. Chanowk and other food activists see urban agriculture as the answer.

Chanowk envisions a Sacramento with a hyperlocalized food system, with beautiful green spaces instead of blight, with more jobs and improved health in impoverished neighborhoods. Sacramento passed its first urban agriculture ordinance earlier this year, and a related tax incentive went into effect earlier this month.

But, there are legal hurdles: The Yisrael Family Urban Farm is technically in county territory, which means that, unlike their peers in the city, they’re still prohibited from selling any of the veggies they grow.

Chanowk is pushing to change that law and, in the meantime, it hasn’t stopped him from becoming the face of Sacramento urban agriculture—the everyman turned celebrated farm-to-fork pioneer.

Other cities across the country—Detroit, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Seattle and many more—have passed similar ordinances over the past few years.

Now, Sacramento’s urban agriculture movement is just starting to heat up. Are there are enough passionate people to push its growth? Is farm-to-fork more than a popular ethos?

“The thing with farm-to-fork is, everyone talks about agriculture,” Chanowk says. “But at the end of the day, only 1 percent does it. Because it’s work.”

If you grow it, they will come

“We’re going to turn this place into a tourist attraction.”

Chanowk remembers uttering those words 10 years ago to one of his sons—after a stretch in public housing and before Chanowk ever learned how to grow a tomato. He had just moved into the home that would become the Yisrael Family Urban Farm. His son laughed, but remarkably, those words sort of came true. Urban agricultural tours regularly make a stop at the Yisrael residence. Excited gardeners come through, snap photos and check in on Facebook.

Before the Yisraels, the quarter-acre backyard had five fruit trees and grass up to Chanowk’s chest. Because of a neighboring foreclosure, Chanowk knocked down a fence and expanded his farm by another quarter-acre Now, there are 40 fruit trees, five roaming chickens, bees, a greenhouse and 1,500 square feet dedicated to growing food—rows of enormous zucchini, pale butternut squash and tall cardoons with spiky purple flowers. At the peak of fig season, Judith says she couldn’t keep the chickens from flying into the trees and stealing bites of jammy fruit.

It all started in 2007, when Chanowk still worked in comfortable corporate America. He was a systems engineer in Rocklin. He had been doing the standard 9-to-5 for a decade. He didn’t even mow his own grass back then. But then he started to notice foreclosures around him, and working in a cubicle didn’t shield him from frightening news reports.

At Bird Dog Farm, Shanee Barner grows unusual flowers and squash alike.

“Not only were they talking about it being the second Great Depression, but there were also a bunch of scares as far as food goes,” he says, recalling outbreaks in E. coli and salmonella poisoning.

Suddenly, Chanowk felt food insecure. His location in south Oak Park didn’t help—the area is often called a food desert, with far more convenience stores and fast food restaurants nearby than grocery stores selling fresh, local produce. He wanted to buy everything organic, but realized that was prohibitively expensive. Especially when he was feeding such a huge family—eight biological children, one unofficially adopted child.

Eating organic didn’t always matter to Chanowk. Raised by a single mother, he taught himself to cook in third grade. That meant hot dogs, macaroni with Velveeta and whatever else he could find. It wasn’t the healthiest of diets for him or his parents. And both of his parents suffered from cancer. His dad had to have his kidney removed. His mom is a four-time breast cancer survivor.

“Doctors told me I was gonna probably get cancer because it’s hereditary,” Chanowk says. “I think what’s more important in a person’s life is culture. Eating habits are hereditary.”

In an effort to avoid his parents’ fates, Chanowk slowly transitioned into a plant-based diet. He put three planter beds in his backyard. He would wake up at 6 a.m., garden for an hour, drop off the kids at school, drive to Rocklin, work for eight hours, drive home, start up dinner, pick up the kids, drive home, eat dinner and close out each day gardening some more. He did that for about a year before quitting his office job and settling into farming full-time. Eventually, Judith quit her 9-to-5 as well.

Initially, they dug into their savings, but they quickly realized that between gas, daycare and lunches out at restaurants, it costs a pretty penny to work full-time. Now, their food bill is basically zero bucks; they sell jams and soaps; and as the new poster boy for Sacramento urban farmers, Chanowk regularly speaks at events and conferences related to food activism, farm-to-fork and urban agriculture. Hello, honorariums.

Next month, Chanowk will fly to Italy for Slow Food’s big Feed the Planet conference. Charity Kenyon, governor of Slow Food California, picked Chanowk to represent Sacramento—one of two people chosen in the entire state.

“He’s a great leader and a real example,” Kenyon says.

But to achieve true financial success, the Yisraels want to sell their fruits and veggies to the public. For now, they can’t.

In March, Sacramento City Council passed an urban agriculture ordinance, effectively making it legal for anyone to sell produce grown in a backyard garden or minifarm smaller than three acres. For the first time since the 1950s, no permit or special zoning is required. Earlier this month, a tax incentive kicked in as well for owners of vacant properties who transform them into urban gardens or farms.

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm—just barely—lies outside of city lines, however, leaving Chanowk in limbo. The Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition—the same group that worked to get the city ordinance passed—is still working on a county ordinance. Organizer Matt Read says he hopes it’ll pass early next year.

Chanowk still took advantage of the city ordinance, though, in a smaller fashion. He also farms on what used to be a vacant plot in Oak Park, just south of Broadway near 42nd Street—within city limits—and set up a stand there every Tuesday for eight weeks this summer. He usually sold out—though there was always plenty more ready to go somewhere. The other day, the family harvested 100 pounds of produce.

“We have food coming out of our ears,” he says. “I have to give food away to people because we just don’t have anywhere to put it.”

Usually, Chanowk donates to people in the neighborhood. But he wants the Yisrael Family Urban Farm to be a for-profit entity, creating jobs and opportunities for folks in the community instead.

“We produce a lot of food in Sacramento and most of it’s not eaten here,” Chanowk says. “Of course, someone is economically benefiting from that, but it’s not the local economy that’s benefiting. There’s a whole food system that should be located here in Sacramento—and it’s not.”

Grow local, eat local

At Bird Dog Farm, unusual varieties of squash, watermelon and peppers emerge from patches of green—along with just about everything else Shanee Barner and Jenny Anschutz could think to plant. Colors and textures abound. Wrinkled, crimson flowers feel just like velvet; tiny white blossoms crinkle like paper. For fall, they’re especially excited about a small patch of butterscotch squash, a more petite and sweeter version of the well-known butternut.

But before Bird Dog was born, growing food was a hobby for Barner and Anschutz. Still, their Tahoe Park backyard yielded pounds and pounds of tomatoes that they couldn’t possibly eat all by themselves. Last year, they set up a summer farm stand in front of their house, selling their organic produce under a little canopy. Neighbors flocked.

Technically, last year’s farm stand was illegal. But they viewed it as no different from the countless other produce stands that pop up on street corners and off highways. The payoff appealed too much—not the actual money, but the idea that farmers market-less Tahoe Park could have a hub for fresh produce; that every neighborhood in Sacramento could one day have a hub for fresh produce.

“For every one person’s success—like Yisrael—it’s success for what you believe in,” Anschutz says. “It means the idea of small urban farming is growing.”

Barner and Anschutz had been avid home gardeners for several years, and Barner knew he wanted to make growing food his life one day. He graduated from the California Farm Academy, via the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, and bought a one-acre plot in residential West Sacramento—a field of nothing besides the Delta breeze and the roar of Amtrak passing by. In February, they built their PVC-pipe greenhouse. By early May, they were selling salad greens and flowers at the Midtown Farmers Market. Soon after, they resumed their Tahoe Park stand as well.

Now, Bird Dog sells directly to several restaurants. Anschutz remembers seeing their long beans pickled at Magpie, their baby squash as a side dish at Biba and their tomatoes served in all sorts of dishes at Dad’s Kitchen and Tower Cafe. Already, Bird Dog has made a profit this year—proof of urban farming’s economic potential.

“This is a doable size for someone with no real farming background to be successful,” Barner says. “This scale is low-risk, high-reward.”

When Barner wanted to glean tips from other small urban farms—something bigger than a backyard, but smaller than a multi-acre enterprise—he couldn’t find much. He visited Soil Born Farms’ original farm on Hurley Way, the most well known urban farm in the area. Barner says he wound up getting the most insight from the two-acre garden at Yountville fine dining destination the French Laundry.

That’s changing quickly though, especially in West Sacramento, thanks to the Center for Land-Based Learning’s new West Sacramento Urban Farm Program. In less than two years, it has turned four vacant lots into urban farms.

With California’s drought, new farmers do encounter some backlash. But what about the 98 percent of food grown here that gets sent somewhere else?

“We’re just shipping our water away in the form of food,” Anschutz says. “We all have to eat. By growing our food here and eating it here, we’re keeping our water here.”

It’s about keeping resources in Sacramento and boosting the local economy. Though Bird Dog and the Yisrael Family Urban Farm are currently too small to hire additional employees, that could certainly change in the future. Chanowk is often asked for help building out gardens or farming someone else’s land, but he doesn’t have the manpower to do it all. The demand is there, and so is the potential to monetize—even in south Oak Park, once the county ordinance is passed.

“The reason why neighborhoods are like this is because there’s no employment here, no businesses, no way to make a living,” Chanowk says. “You can make money growing food and selling food, you just gotta learn how to do it.”

Amber Stott, food activist and founder of the California Food Literacy Center, calls Chanowk a role model—proof that passionate gardeners can turn their hobby into a full-time enterprise and tackle bigger community issues at the same time.

“Now, it’s about culture—there’s an active grassroots food movement and people want to get involved,” Stott says. “It’s about empowerment.”

There are so many people to feed in Sacramento, and if the food they eat is grown in Sacramento, the carbon footprint will be so much less. “It’s critical to the health and sustainability of our cities,” Stott says.

And let’s not forget that the urban agriculture movement is about food. We all want more delicious, nutritious food.

“So much has gotten lost with the whole mantra, ’We need to feed the world,’” Barner says. “We’re not trying to grow 2 million pounds of tomatoes, we’re just trying to grow 4,000 pounds of really, really good tomatoes. I think if there’s enough growers doing that, you can inundate the community with better quality, better tasting produce.”

‘Transforming the hood for good’

Fifteen women show up to the Yisrael home on a Monday night armed with aprons and brine on the mind.

A week earlier, Chanowk had harvested 30 pounds of cucumbers. For Judith, that meant a pickling party was in order. She posted an event on Facebook and a mix of neighbors, regular volunteers and new supporters quickly snatched up the spots.

At the party, Judith splits them up into tasks: chopping garlic, thinly slicing cukes, placing feathery dill into jars and simmering the brine. She apologizes for her five-song playlist, but no one stops bobbing along to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” even two hours later.

Judith looks completely at ease—and pleased—teaching the group the wonders of apple cider vinegar and sterilization. Here, Chanowk loiters in the shadows of the one-story home—available, but not necessarily needed. This is Judith’s show. She regularly teaches classes at both the Sacramento Food Bank and the family farm—one way that the Yisraels aim to be a catalyst for change in their neighborhood and beyond. “Transforming the hood for good” is painted on one of their fences; Judith coined the slogan years ago.

Judith’s childhood was similar to Chanowk’s, foodwise. Early on, her parents often served fried chicken or fried pork chops—maybe smothered in gravy—and if there were vegetables, they were canned. Then her parents divorced, and she and her siblings had to fend for themselves. They ate a lot of government-assisted food, like day-old jelly doughnuts, canned corn and Top Ramen. “We’d get creative and mix the chicken packet with the shrimp packet,” she says, laughing.

She grew up obese, and as soon as she became a mother, realized she didn’t want that for her children. She stopped eating meat, lost 30 pounds and suddenly had a captive audience of family members eager to learn her dietary secrets. The teaching began.

That’s the main way Judith sees the Yisrael Family Urban Farm’s impact on her food desert of a neighborhood: “People are actually transforming their thought process about food,” she says.

Judith remembers once hosting a honey harvest for about 40 people—mostly mothers and children. A few days later, she ran into a mother in the neighborhood who touted buying honey instead of sugar on her last grocery run. Another time, Judith taught a group of women how to make kale pesto—and how they insisted their kids would never eat anything with kale. Then, she watched them pick up the dark leafy greens to take home.

It’s a family effort. At the last pickling workshop, Judith and her daughter Tirtsah proudly wore matching Yisrael Family Urban Farm aprons, white with the family name in green cursive. Tirtsah snapped photos and hunted down bowls for food scraps.

And the Yisrael home is very much a home. Yes, the fridge displays ancient grain cooking guidelines and a plant-based food pyramid, but also chore checklists and homework reminders. The backyard holds crops and irrigation systems, but also stray Lego pieces.

The other big way the Yisraels are transforming the hood? Judith points to We Diggit Urban Gardens, a collaborative program funded by the California Endowment that builds edible gardens in backyards at no cost to the homeowner. It targets Oak Park and parts of Tahoe Park and Fruitridge Manor and has created about 150 gardens. But many of those gardens went dormant—the brand new gardeners didn’t know how to keep plants growing.

About a year ago, the Yisraels took on a leadership role and made education a priority. Now, garden recipients need to attend a free organic gardening workshop and spend time volunteering at another urban farm. These were easy requirements for Shani Melinda Drake, who arrives at the Yisrael home bearing gifts: piles of cucumber lemons from her new garden.

Drake has lived at the same house as her mom for more than 16 years, now with her baby daughter and 7-year-old son as well. One weekend in July, volunteers with We Diggit Urban Gardens transformed her Rainbow Park yard into a collard greens-growing paradise. With a school nearby, Drake envisions setting up a farm stand and selling produce to children who stroll past daily—stands selling candy and processed snacks already pop up regularly to take advantage of the clientele.

“Any family can do it,” she says about growing her own food. “And as families pass by, they actually see it.”

Food activists agree getting kids to think about food and agriculture is increasingly important. Chanowk launched a one-month pilot earlier this summer for what he hopes will become an after-school program at the Yisrael Family Urban Farm. Called Project GOOD!, teenagers learned all about seed starting and bed preparations as well as public speaking and trust building. Unlike most after-school programs, GOOD! paid attendees for their work.

But it’s tough getting teens from the neighborhood interested in agriculture, which Chanowk in part attributes to what he calls the plight of the black farmer. According to census data, there were 2.1 million farmers in the country in 2012. Among them, 33,371 were black—less than 2 percent.

“It’s because we have a different history than everyone else in the country,” Chanowk says. “Part of why people left the South and came north was because people were working on the land—Jim Crow, sharecropping, racism in general—our connection to land has been colored with that idea.”

Attracting all youth to farms, though, is becoming vital for the country’s food supply. The number of farmers keeps dropping and the average age of farmers keeps rising, according to census data. In 2012, that age was 58. Urban farming can help with its simple virtue of being urban, says Stott.

“Youth want to live in cities. For young families, they can still have a city life or one parent can still have a city job,” she says. “Urban ag can be the tidal wave that shifts more younger farmers into the field.”

At the house, Tirtsah unveils a batch of homemade carrot hummus for communal snacking. The crowd of volunteers goes crazy and begs for the recipe, but Judith refuses to reveal this particular secret. One woman in particular is in complete awe—she guesses spice after spice in between bites. “You know what? I think I can be vegan,” she said, spooning more fluffy orange dip onto her plate.

Chanowk’s enthusiasm doesn’t stem from simply feeding his family. For the Yisraels, the farm has come to mean much more. They say it’s allowed them to grow in many ways—mentally, physically, spiritually.

“It’s not necessarily about the tomatoes, the grapes and this and that,” Chanowk says. “It’s about creating a new way of life that you are now the creator of value as opposed to always searching for something to make you valuable.”