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|July 3-9, 2008
• Good times, guilty pleasures
Finding nostalgia in a delicious, grease-soaked slab of beef
by Clay Fong
• Grill-perfect pineapple
by Carole Kotkin
Soil and the city
Urban farms sprouting up to feed poor
by Mary Lynne Vellinga
Just yards from the cyclists whizzing by on the American River Parkway, Shawn Harrison is planting the seeds of a food revolution.
Harrison and his partners in the nonprofit Soil Born Farms are growing tomatoes, kale, chard and other vegetables on 25 acres they’ve leased from Sacramento County, Calif.
Their vision, however, is much bigger than this patch of fertile loam — a remnant of the historic Leidesdorff Ranch, now wedged next to the athletic fields of Hagan Community Park in Rancho Cordova, Calif. They hope to sprinkle urban farms throughout Sacramento neighborhoods, providing affordable, healthy food for people right where they live.
“We would like to really redefine how we feed ourselves,” Harrison said.
Soil Born has attracted substantial attention despite its small holdings, which include the American River Parkway site and a 1.5-acre farm on Hurley Way in the Arden Arcade neighborhood.
Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, the region’s largest developer, recently took Harrison on a tour of potential farm sites on his properties. California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura visited in April with a delegation of agriculture officials from Mexico, Canada and the western United States.
Harrison said Soil Born has tapped into a deepening well of public concern about the environment, obesity, fuel costs and food prices. All of this, he said, is making people eager to find healthy food close by at an affordable price.
“We’ve come along at the right time and the right place,” Harrison said. “The cost of fuel alone justifies putting more farms in locally.”
Others involved in promoting local farm products said they’ve also seen a surge of interest. Ranae Best, whose family manages farmers markets around Sacramento, said attendance is up at least 25 percent this year.
At the Sunday farmers market under the Capital City Freeway in Sacramento, a normal June crowd is about 5,000 to 6,000 people. But more than 9,000 people a day have been showing up this month.
“We’ve noticed there’s a big increase in public awareness of wanting to know where their food comes from,” Best said.
By eating what’s in season, she said, customers can also save money. “People go into sticker shock at the grocery stores.”
Organic producers such as Soil Born usually have somewhat higher prices than conventional farmers. But they’ve found plenty of people willing to pay. Customers come to the stand operated at the farm. Soil Born has a waiting list for its weekly boxes of produce.
Upscale eateries and specialty grocery stores are another important outlet. Harrison said Soil Born supplies produce to such restaurants as the Esquire Grill, Waterboy and the Kitchen, as well as to stores such as Whole Foods and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
“If we were for-profit and we were able to access enough land, we’d be going gangbusters,” Harrison said. “Every restaurant in town would like to have our food.”
But Soil Born is not for profit, and its mission goes far beyond feeding the affluent. Harrison said he and his partners’ main goal is to provide affordable, fresh vegetables to lower-income populations hit hard by the obesity epidemic. The farm runs a farmers market in Del Paso Heights and farm stands at Head Start facilities.
It also runs Youth Corps, a volunteer program for students from 13 to 18 years old to help on the farm. The students learn to cook the food they grow, and they get to bring some home. Soil Born makes donations to food banks as well.
About 30 percent of the produce from Soil Born farms is distributed this way, Harrison said, and the partners would like to see it go much higher.
“That’s a direction we’ll be going in much more heavily,” Harrison said.
Soil Born’s plans for the American River site include an orchard, a kitchen and an outdoor classroom. It has joined with the California Native Plant Society to build a native plant nursery on the site.
Neither Harrison nor his original partner, Marco Franciosa, was raised on a farm. Both were undergraduate history majors in college. But they found themselves drawn to farming and did several farming apprenticeships. Franciosa spent a year traveling around the world working on organic farms. Harrison earned a master’s degree in international agriculture development.
In 2000, the pair started their Hurley Way farm as a for-profit enterprise. In 2003, they were joined by a third partner, Janet Zeller, who is the marketing manager at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Shortly thereafter, they converted to nonprofit status.
The farm’s programs are now supported by various grants and private donations.
Harrison said the three would like to see urban farms open up all around the region — in existing neighborhoods and new ones. One potential strategy: working with Sacramento County’s large contingent of Southeast Asian farmers — who largely lack long-term land leases — to place them on more secure plots.
That’s where Tsakopoulos comes in. The developer and his partners control about 40,000 acres of land in the Sacramento region and neighboring San Joaquin County.
“If somebody like Angelo jumps into the mix we could really make an impact,” Harrison said.
Tsakopoulos could not be reached for comment during the past week. But earlier this month, he spoke enthusiastically about the potential for such farms on his properties.
Harrison said Tsakopoulos took him on a tour of his land about two weeks ago. “He offered up five different farm sites — hundreds of acres,” Harrison said. “Taken at face value, it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
“Some of the land he showed us was stuff he was never going to develop. Those are the ones we’re most interested in,” Harrison said. “We’re also interested in the land where he already has permits for development. In those instances, farming makes perfect sense. If a development is going to happen that’s already approved, there should be a farm there.”
Soil Born’s big ambitions dwarf its current size; just 15 employees, two tiny farms and a $700,000 annual budget. But Harrison says the model makes sense to replicate. As long as you grow the right crops, and sell directly to consumers, you don’t need a giant farm to make money, he said.
“You can make a living off of 20 acres, and you can do quite well.”
He’s not the only one to see potential in small urban farms.
Kawamura, the state agriculture secretary, said such local operations are an increasingly important segment of the state’s massive agricultural industry. “This is a very solid part of the ag community that’s growing all over the country,” he said.
His own family grows green beans, strawberries, bell peppers and squash on leased parcels sprinkled throughout highly urbanized Orange County.
Just about any fertile vacant lot will do, he said.
“If it’s growing wonderful weeds, it will grow wonderful crops.”
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