California Farmers Face Challenges in Wake of Trump Administration Deportation Policy

The 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican presented a scenario in which fresh produce from California’s farms were being sold on the black market and out of car trunks as a consequence of the sudden disappearance of the country’s Mexican population. Although satirical in nature, the message behind the film is becoming more relevant due to recent Trump administration policies regarding immigration and deportation.

According to statistics from the Farm Labor Survey of the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, in 2012, there were nearly 1.1 million farm workers, on average, working on the 2.1 million farms in the United States. Of those workers, approximately 50 percent were undocumented laborers. This percentage increased when broken down into specific crop production, with undocumented workers accounting for 67 percent of farm workers in the fruit and nut industry and 61 percent in the vegetable industry compared to nine percent and 17 percent, respectively, of farm workers who were U.S. citizens. Read more

LA Compost Breaks through Concrete Jungle to Connect People with Soil

For LA Compost, responsible food use and consumption doesn’t end with farm-to-table practices. The Los Angeles-based non-profit organization supports maintaining the total loop within the story of food, which largely includes compost.

“Healthy soil translates into healthy food, and healthy food leads to healthy people. Composting is just as valuable as any of the other processes,” says Michael Martinez, the Executive Director of LA Compost.

In early 2013, Martinez and other founding members started LA Compost as a food waste diversion service, transporting organic waste from four different cities to composting centers by bike.

“We had a goal of reconnecting people with their food,” Martinez says. “We started composting scraps, coffee grounds, and organics from businesses, restaurants, and residents locally.”

Within five months, more than 15 riders had diverted 30,000 pounds of organic materials from landfills for composting, according to the organization’s website. However, the size and scope of Los Angeles required a more streamlined and centralized approach than the bike collections. So, in 2014, the organization began setting up composting “hubs” around Los Angeles County for people within neighboring communities to use.

Martinez explains that at the hubs, “members of the community come, weigh their scraps, record and enter the information, and place and cover the scraps in the compost pile. Each month, interns or volunteers turn the piles or retrieve the compost that is ready for use by the community.”

Currently, the organization has eight hubs in various locations across the county, including schools, museums, and community gardens.

The hubs also serve as platforms for workshops and workday events to help educate community members, especially children, about the basics of composting either at home or in a community. This educational component is a priority for LA Compost and was the catalyst for the initial idea after Martinez saw how disconnected his fifth-grade students were from food at the school where he taught in Miami.

“We started a school garden, and it was incredible the transformation that took place,” says Martinez. “The kids were blown away by seeing food coming from the ground for the first time and appreciated the whole cycle of seeing it go from seed to harvest. They were proud of being part of something larger than themselves.”

Although inspired by this experience, Martinez wanted to focus on soil when he returned home to Los Angeles.

“We wanted to get people talking about the importance of not wasting food and seeing it as a valuable resource that can help get food to those who actually need it,” Martinez says. “There was little conversation as far as where food goes after the table and kitchen experience, and compost was kind of the great equalizer or missing puzzle piece in the conversation.”

The conversation about composting is picking up, and policymakers are becoming one of the voices. In 2014, state lawmakers passed AB1826, a bill that requires businesses and multiple-family residential properties creating 4 cubic feet or more of organic waste to arrange for recycling services. Although this law will benefit LA Compost down the road, as the amount requirements continue to reduce, there is currently no infrastructure in LA County to process these materials on a large scale, according to Martinez.

“Currently, our approach is more of a local decentralized model,” says Martinez. “We do see ourselves being one of those solutions for businesses and restaurants to become compliant with these laws in the future.”

Martinez says that other restrictions locally and at the state level regulate how much you can compost onsite and transport to other locations, which makes things a bit difficult. However, he feels positive that these barriers will not stop the momentum LA Compost has built over the last few years.

“The laws are changing and becoming a bit more flexible to allow organizations like ours to actually function. They [policymakers] are going to have to start looking at alternative solutions to the infrastructure in place at the moment,” says Martinez. “I feel like our hubs will be part of the solution going forward. The need and demand are there, and we’re working our best to meet them.”

LA Compost is looking to open 10 new hubs in Los Angeles County in 2017 and will continue to provide educational workshops at hub locations and at supporting business locations.

For Homeless in Santa Cruz, CA, Garden Project Offers Hope, Stability, and Jobs

Talking about the homeless population of America is popular these days. And yet fixing the situation seems, to many, an impossibly overwhelming task. Others are proving it’s not. The Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project (HGP) uses sustainable agriculture as the springboard to a safer, productive and more hopeful life for many. The agriculture and gardening training provided to the homeless of Santa Cruz County through the project has culminated in both jobs and permanent housing for its trainees.

“We find people that express much greater degrees of well being after they are with us for a year, whether it’s in their diet, in their sense of self, in their ability to set goals and achieve them, in how connected they feel to the community,” says Darrie Ganzhorn Executive Director of the Homeless Garden Project.

Established in 1990, the HGP was the brainchild of Paul Lee, a member of the Citizens Committee on Homelessness. Lee began spending nights along with other board members in the homeless shelter.

“He noticed that when he woke up in the morning that there was a lot of raw energy and he wondered how could anyone dream of something better and dream of a better future without having safety and beauty during their day? So he had an idea for a garden,” says Ganzhorn. “Somebody donated a whole lot of herb starts to him and he thought ‘well I have to do my homeless garden project now.’”

The “garden” is an organic farm that occupies 3.5 acres of leased vacant land on the west side of Santa Cruz. In-ground farming using biodynamic French intensive methods is split between growing seasonal vegetables with strawberries as a specialty and growing lavender and other flowering plants. After drying, the lavender becomes a main ingredient in the value-added products trainees create during the winter months and sell alongside produce in their virtual and online stores.

Beyond offering a very tactile pick your own program and using the vegetables grown by the homeless and their helpers to create CSA baskets (the CSA program began in 1992, first in the county), the HGP provides agriculture training and transitional employment to the homeless, assisting in housing and permanent jobs. “In the last two graduating classes 96 percent of our people got into jobs and housing,” says Ganzhorn.

HGP provides two main training programs. The Natural Bridges Farm Program teaches participants how to grow, harvest, and sell organic produce and flowers. The Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise teaches flower drying skills, showing how to turn products from the garden into value-added products in the HGP store. Trainees are paid for their time, and interns and community volunteers provide additional work hours. Part of the work involves running the farm stand and preparing orders for HGP’s CSA baskets.

The trainees are the core of the project and the impact of the program is both physical as well as psychological. With an abusive past, complex PTSD and at risk for becoming homeless, 19-year-old Kathleen Groves found meaning through the project. “A new sense of direction and purpose flowed through my life and internal barriers that once seemed impenetrable gave way. For the first time in my life, I felt open, free and capable. I have become free to express myself and grounded in my choices,” says Groves. “I have found stable housing and am working to become a tutor. I have a sense of security and peace now, a foundation upon which I can firmly stand.”

27-year-old Marine veteran Shannon McGurk left jail and drugs behind him when he entered sober living housing and joined the trainee program. “I knew next to nothing about farming or gardening before I started working here, and I learn more every day,” says McGurk. “I’m very grateful to have this program in my life and if every county had a program like it, it would de-stigmatize homelessness statewide, maybe then, the nation. The farm as a whole is a perfect marriage of freedom and structure, and is one of the best things in my life today.”

Initially engaging the homeless is the most challenging part of the process according to Ganzhorn. Word of mouth among trainees plays a large role as does sharing goals with the nonprofit community network. “We have 17 positions that are paid by our program and our goal is to double that over the next five years to 34 positions,” says Ganzhorn. “We’re also working with another agency called Second Career Employment Program and we have a few people that work with us through their program, and we’re getting ready to work with CalWORKs.”

By engaging with other service providers the HGP team assists trainees in finding landlords to fill their housing credits and transition to permanent positions. A local garden nursery has provided several employment opportunities for the once unemployable. A permanent address both administratively as well as physically prevents many homeless people from entering the employment system. The HGP allows trainees to use their address while they are transitioning.

For Ganzhorn, the program’s success grows from the roots. “There’s something about food that just breaks down people’s reserve. They throw themselves head long into it and fall in love with farming and the garden and our work.”

Future plans for HGP include program expansion and finding more ways to engage the homeless population to increase the positive impact of the program.

Hydroponics and Healthy Soil Propel OC Grower’s Urban Microfarm

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has developed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has employed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Launching and running an economically viable urban farm is difficult under even the most favorable conditions. In Orange County, where land prices are at a premium and homes cannot be built quickly enough to fulfill resident demand, the prospect of finding available land and launching a profitable urban farming venture is viewed by many as remote and, at best, a very large challenge.

To an entrepreneur, though, a very large challenge is often viewed as a big fat opportunity. Such is the case with Erik Cutter, a Laguna, CA local and entrepreneur with a background in biochemistry and oncology.  

In 2012, Cutter set out to not only sustainably grow nutrient rich produce, but also to demonstrate the economic viability of urban farming in Orange County. To do so, Cutter designed a farm comprised of 22 vertical hydroponic growing towers holding a total of 750 plants on a 260-square-foot plot in Laguna’s Bluebird Canyon. Cutter christened his urban microfarm, Alegria Fresh. He also built the microfarm to prove that you could use water efficient, environmentally friendly vertical hydroponic growing towers to create a high yield farming operation on a small plot of land, pretty much anywhere.

Cutter says that microfarms are great for urban areas as they can be used to re-purpose existing sites–like abandoned lots–and can be placed on asphalt, on top of contaminated soil, or even on cement. “I actually prefer cement because it is weed free,” he says.

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

In 2013, in order to expand his operation and educate community members and stakeholders, Cutter moved his farm to Irvine’s Great Park and set up his hydroponic vertical growing towers on a half-acre plot there. To complement the vertical growing towers and so that he could grow larger vegetables including squashes, kohlrabi, and beets for local consumers, Cutter incorporated an additional growing system, known as GardenSoxx. GardenSoxx are long, horizontal polypropylene mesh tubes that the farmer stuffs with his growing medium of choice–soil, compost, or coir. The farmer then inserts seeds, or seedlings, into the GardenSoxx, and applies nutrient-dense water. The GardenSoxx are beneficial in that they provide excellent drainage and aeration, thereby helping the plants get the oxygen they need to create strong root systems.

Between its hydroponic vertical growing towers and GardenSoxx, the farm grows over 80 different types of nutrient dense produce including leafy greens, root vegetables and herbs. The farm sells to restaurants and direct to consumers onsite and through a CSA. These sales make the farm profitable enough to cover operational costs and provide a living wage for its staff.

“We average around $12K per month in sales on our little farm, and we are only farming intensely a half an acre at any one time,” says Cutter. “If you extrapolate those numbers out [annually], that’s $144,000 on a half acre and $288,000 on a full acre. […] the average farmer likes to generate $50,000 on a commercial acre, so we’re already doing five or six times that.”

Cutter believes that this system of efficient and dense farming on re-purposed land is a viable solution for anyone striving to launch an economically viable urban farming venture where available and affordable farmland is hard to come by–as it is in Orange County. Alegria Fresh may soon get a chance to replicate its growing success inside new residential communities. Cutter is talking to several developers about placing Alegria Fresh microfarms inside residential communities currently under development. From Cutter’s perspective, “that’s gonna be the new paradigm shift in urban agriculture, that we’ll build scalable, high performance, zero waste, urban micro-farms within a community development. I’ve been waiting for developers to see this as a valuable amenity and they are starting to see that.”

“When you put this in a community model, it benefits the residents,” Cutter says, “[as] you are actually competing with supermarkets, but the food is far superior.”

(Note: At time of writing and due to planned development of a sports complex at the farm’s current Great Park location, Alegria Fresh is moving to a new site on Marine Way just outside the park. Please check the farm’s website for location information and updates.)

Erik Cutter will also be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear him speak about hydroponics, soil health, and urban farming, click here: http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

5 Local Farms Surviving and Thriving in Orange County

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Farming in Orange County is a challenge. Arable and available land is not only scarce, but oftentimes prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers continually butt up against the relentless encroachment of urban development, which forces them to relocate their operations over and over again. But despite difficulties, farmers in the county persevere and even thrive. The growing local food movement in the county and greater Southern California region has also helped to provide farmers with new markets and opportunities. The OC farms listed below have employed grit and resourcefulness to achieve economic viability in a challenging agricultural environment.

Orange County Produce

Run by third generation Orange County growers A.G. and Matthew Kawamura, Irvine-based Orange County Produce, LLC (OC Produce) is a local farming enterprise committed to continuing the tradition of agriculture in the county. They have done this by being adaptable and mobile as they farm on vacant lots they lease. Often these lots are awaiting development, but haven’t broken ground for one reason or another. OC Produce signs a quick lease, they get to farm the land for a couple of harvests, and the landowner sees some income from his land. It is a win-win situation for all parties—including county residents who like to eat locally grown food.

OC Produce grows a wide variety of produce – from squash, tomatoes and peppers to higher value value fruits and vegetables like radicchio, strawberries and an extensive selection of beans produce – on approximately 1000 acres spread across 30 to 40 plots around the county.

OC Produce fruits and vegetables can be found at local farmer’s markets, in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, often just hours after being picked. The company also donates produce to local food banks as it believes in, “the common sense philosophy that food produced and consumed locally has multiple benefits for society, the economy and the environment.”

The Original Manassero Farms

When the folks at The Original Manassero Farms talk about growing for the “local market”, they mean hyper local, as much of what they grow is sold from their own distinctive red barn farm stands located in Irvine, Brea, Tustin and Cerritos. Owned and run by third-generation Orange County grower Dan Manassero and his wife Ann, the farms are famous throughout Orange County for their strawberries. Manassero Farms also grows squash, tomatoes, corn, herbs, lettuces, and a variety of other berries. In addition to selling fruits and vegetables from their farm stands, the Manasseros sell to local Whole Foods Markets. They also produce and sell their own jams, jellies and other preserves. 

To prevent any unsold produce from going to waste, Manassero Farms has partnered with local gleaner, Loaves and Fishes X10. This partnership makes it possible for thousands of pounds of free and fresh produce to go from the Manassero’s fields to local food banks and charities. From there, it is distributed to families and individuals in need throughout Orange County.

Neff Ranch

The presence of Orange County oranges at a number of farmers market in the region is in no small part due to the efforts of Don Neff, President of Neff Ranch, one of the last remaining orange growers in the county. After relocating to Southern California from Washington, Neff, a homebuilder and developer, was presented in with the opportunity to manage the remaining orange orchard on the Yorba Linda, CA estate of Susanna Bixby Bryant.

The location of the estate’s 21-acre orchard in the Santa Ana River floodplain kept its 4,000 Valencia orange trees safe from being bulldozed for new housing. In addition to the orchard that it manages at the Susanna Bixby Bryant estate, Neff Ranch also manages a 13-acre Hass avocado orchard in Tustin that is located on the hillsides of the Emerson tract subdivision.

Tanaka Farms

Glen and Shirley Tanaka and their son, Kenny, run Tanaka Farms on 30 acres of leased land located next to the Irvine Open Space Preserve. The Tanakas have embraced agritourism wholeheartedly and their farm is always teeming with local residents participating in educational farm tours and taking advantage of pick-your-own produce opportunities (they grow some 60 different crops throughout the year). The Tanaka’s also operate an onsite farm stand and a CSA with a membership base of 450-500 subscribers.

Kenny says location is key to the farm’s success. “You cannot tell you are in the middle of the city. We are kind of in a little valley so you don’t see many homes around. There is a different atmosphere here.” He continues, “If we had to replicate it somewhere else in Orange County, we probably wouldn’t get the same amount of traffic.”

Tanaka Farms gets about 20,000 visitors a year, with the largest crowds showing up during strawberry season (March-June) and during October’s Pumpkin Patch. The farm also hosts “Cookout Tours” where participants take a guided tractor or walking tour around the farm to pick their own veggies and then cook them onsite for a picnic.  

They also host regular gleaning days where volunteers pick produce that is donated to the South County Outreach and Families Forward in Irvine food pantries.

Future Food Farms

Chef and farmer Adam Navidi has transformed 25 acres in Brea into Future Foods Farms, a forward-thinking urban farming dynamo. The farm uses aquaponics to raise tilapia and grow a wide array of produce including lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, peppers and flowers.  

Careful use of resources underpins everything done at Future Foods Farms, as Styrofoam boxes destined for the landfill, old nursery pots and even old salad bars are repurposed and used in the growing operation. There is even a herd of goats onsite to tend to unwanted weeds so no power mowing is necessary. Although, in truth, many of those weeds are far from unwanted, as Chef Navidi uses them when creating dishes for his restaurant and catering events.

The list of items grown at Future Food Farms includes an array of organic greens, herbs, vegetables, peppers and even edible flowers. But buyers won’t find the farm’s output in stores as the farm does not sell to wholesalers. Instead, the farm’s produce is available in area restaurants, to CSA subscribers, and at farmers’ markets throughout Orange County.

OC Orange Grower Sees Potential for Orchards on Terraces and Slopes of Subdivisions

Don Neff is president of Neff Ranch, which manages orchards on two different agricultural properties in Orange County. (photo courtesy Don Neff/Neff Ranch)

Don Neff is president of Neff Ranch, which manages orchards on two different agricultural properties in Orange County. (photo courtesy Don Neff/Neff Ranch)

Surprisingly, despite decades of urban development and the paving over of countless groves and orchards in the name of new housing tracts, with a little work one can still buy oranges grown in the few remaining groves that dot Orange County.

The presence of Orange County oranges at a number of farmers market in the region is in no small part due to the efforts of Don Neff, President of Neff Ranch, one of the last remaining orange growers in the county. After relocating to Southern California from Washington, Neff, a homebuilder and developer, was presented in with the opportunity to manage the remaining orange orchard on the Yorba Linda, CA estate of Susanna Bixby Bryant.

The location of the estate’s 21-acre orchard in the Santa Ana River floodplain kept its 4,000 Valencia orange trees safe from being bulldozed for new housing. Read more