On Land Once Occupied by a Tomato Cannery an Agrihood Rises to Grow New Farmers and Feed a Community

The Cannery, a farm-to-table housing development in Davis, California, is the first agrihood of its kind in California. With its own urban farm and small orchard, the unique housing development can offer its residents fresh, hyperlocal produce as well as pastured chickens and eggs.

The land for The Cannery, aptly named because it was once the site of a tomato cannery, was sold to The New Home Company by ConAgra. The City of Davis has a rule that if developmental land borders agricultural land, then a 300-foot buffer is required. In this case, the buffer was about seven acres in total. Instead of opting for a plain green space, though, the developers were attracted to the idea of creating a working farm on the land. Once the City of Davis accepted its proposal, the company turned to the Center for Land-Based Learning to plan, develop, and run the farm. It has taken over six years to get to the point where the farm is now operational.

Sri Sethuratnam of the Center for Land-Based Learning says that The Cannery is one of the few examples where a housing developer has specifically set aside land for the purposes of farming.

The Cannery Urban Farm is part of the Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy, an incubator farm program that trains and mentors beginning farmers in agricultural production, business planning, and marketing. Sethuratnam, who serves as director of the incubator farm program, points out that traditionally, farms are passed down within families, making it difficult for outsiders to gain entry to the farming sector. The incubator farm program at The Cannery seeks to remove this barrier by providing access to farmland to those individuals that do not come from traditional farming backgrounds such young urbanites, immigrants, refugees, and those who wish to pursue farming as a second career. Participants can remain in the program for up to five years, taking advantage of “a slew of workshops and courses” that are designed to build their knowledge of farming and the business of farming. “It is a low risk space in which new farmers can make mistakes,” notes Sethuratnam. He adds that an experiential learning space is very important as farming is best learned hands on.

Last year two farmers in the incubator farm program working approximately three-acres of the farm’s land grew a wide variety of vegetables and maintained pastured chicken and eggs. The farmers sell their produce both to residents of housing development and outside clients. Sethuratnam estimates that three-acres that the farmers are utilizing can yield anywhere between 5,000-10,000 pounds of produce per year.

Sethuratnam is aware that it might be a stretch to say that three-acres will feed all 700 homes once they’re completed (currently 150 of the 700 homes have been completed), but he sees great value in the fact developers are looking to incorporate agricultural food production into their plans. “If all our housing development projects can set aside land for growing their own food, that I think, is an important thing,” he says. After all, Sethuratnam adds, we set aside land for parks, schools, but not for the one thing that keeps us alive.

The Cannery Urban Farm and urban farms the world over have a role to play beyond producing food. Sethuratnam emphasizes that one cannot put a dollar value on the subtle changes that happen and the awareness that is created when farming projects come into urban spaces. Through urban farming he adds, “you can reconnect that disconnect in the food system between the eater and the grower.”

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