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Urban farmers find niche with local and state support — from Ag Alert

On the job at CRECE Farms in Santa Ana.

By Hannah Getahun

Tucked behind the First Congregational Church, in one of Santa Ana’s oldest neighborhoods, are verdant rows of spinach, Brussels sprouts and other leafy greens dotted with the orange hues of marigolds.

Six-year-old Diana Bautista, a mainstay and unofficial tour guide at the CRECE Urban Farms Co-op in the Orange County city, takes care of the lavender, tends to the oyster mushrooms and teaches patrons the difference between the fragrant and not-so-fragrant herbs.

“We help the plants, and the plants help us,” she said.

Founded in 2016 as a farming co-op by Abel Ruiz, Valeria Esqueda, Emanuel Presiado and Diana’s father, Jaime Bautista, the CRECE garden had a simple goal: to give back to the city through food. The operation serves a steady clientele of local customers by providing produce staples that they can pick up at the farm.

Serving its low-income immigrant community, CRECE represents just a small part of urban farming ventures—from modest community co-ops to larger-scale agriculture—that are now thriving in many California cities.

The ventures have been helped along in part due to 2014 California legislation, Assembly Bill 551, which allowed cities to create urban agricultural incentive zones that offer tax incentives for urban farmers.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom also allocated $12 million to jump-start the state’s first-ever Urban Agriculture Program. These days, the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program provides educational resources and technical assistance for city agriculture.

“Urban farmers can bridge gaps between their more peri-urban and rural counterparts and inner-city food supply needs, serve as community food systems leaders and support healthy retail opportunities at the micro and small scale,” said Rob Bennaton, an urban agriculture advisor for UC Cooperative Extension, which includes the sustainable agriculture program.

To be certain, expansive rural farms in California’s traditional agricultural economy provide the overwhelming share of produce in urban markets and food banks. But inner-city farms provide a convenient, healthy produce niche in communities with a dearth of nearby grocery stores. They can also foster a close relationship between farms and customers.

Over 1 million Californians, many from low-income communities, live without easy access to fresh food, according to California FreshWorks, a grant and loan program that provides financing for urban food producers.

“It’s a very common story to be growing up in neighborhoods where a bunch of liquor stores and junk-food places are everywhere, more so than in the more affluent sides of town,” said Ruiz, a driving force behind the CRECE farm.

The farm provides everything from kohlrabi to kale, which Ruiz said is one of its most popular produce items. CRECE also runs a small-scale crop-swapping program, through which people exchange fruit from their yards for farm-grown leafy greens.

The urban garden also grows produce of specific cultural interest to its neighbors in Santa Ana, which has a large population of immigrants from Mexico. Among its selections are prickly-pear cactus and pitayas, both of which are native to Mexico but grow well under the Southern California sun.

Globally, the urban farming market accounted for $213 billion out of the world’s $5.5 trillion agricultural industry in 2020, and is projected to increase as populations grow, according to IndustryARC, a market research firm. Advocates say it is a natural for California, which boasts both America’s largest agricultural economy and its greatest concentration of cities.

According to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources research, urban farms can stimulate local economies, promote local job creation, help people save on food and potentially serve as incubators for growing businesses and technologies.

Open Silo, a nonprofit organization that provides educational resources and assistance for urban agriculture in Los Angeles County, now lists 18 client farms including in Compton, Boyle Heights, El Monte, Long Beach, Whittier, Vernon and Bell.

In East San Jose, the 6-acre Veggielution farm started in 2008 and benefited in the years since from technical advice from UC urban agriculture farm advisors “who are able to help us through any questions we have,” said Emily Schwing, the farm’s public affairs director.

In the past two years, Veggielution has partnered with other community farms and workers to grow $6 million in produce for the local food ecosystem. Schwing said the urban farms are providing food as well as “compensating and contributing to the economic well-being of those who are growing our produce and driving the produce to us.”

Urban agriculturalists say the pandemic likely helped sprout a wider appeal for their farms as people took to eating more at home and looked for easy-to-obtain local produce. Some urban gardens also stepped up with additional provisions as California food banks reported increased demand amid the pandemic. And many inner-city farmers who worked in wholesale pivoted toward community-supported agriculture after pandemic-related restaurant closures.

“I think there was a feeling of safety in the local food supply chain, and in particular in (community-supported agriculture) because the relationship with your farmers is so much more close,” said Julia Van Soelen Kim, North Bay food systems advisor for UCCE.

Veggielution recently transitioned to a farm box donation model to help families in the low-income Mayfair neighborhood of East San Jose. Many families included members who were medically vulnerable to COVID or became unemployed due to the pandemic.

What began as a 40-person program two years ago has now ballooned to hundreds of patrons, with 500 individuals benefiting from the program by next summer, Schwing estimated. Veggielution is providing community members with vegetables such as lettuce, radishes, carrots and beets.

Schwing said nonprofits such as Veggielution help connect residents to what they eat by providing them food grown in their own neighborhoods.

When Ruiz co-founded CRECE Urban Farms in Santa Ana, he brought with him a knowledge of gardening that many immigrants know from traditional growing practices back home. From learning how to farm from his grandparents in the small town of Tlachichila in Mexico to helping feed residents of Santa Ana, Ruiz has spent his life working around food.

“I was able to fill in that gap between my childhood and what I want to do with what I am doing now for a living,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said he and his team members take their mission to heart and are working toward obtaining land for more urban farms throughout the city, and they’ve already acquired some property through a land trust. He said they also want to start wide-scale fruit exchanges, start operating an aquaponics system and plant more culturally relevant foods such as quelites, wild greens native to Mexico, and amaranth.

“I really look forward to that,” Ruiz said, “(to) being able to incorporate plants that not even the stores have.”

Link to Ag Alert story on California Farm Bureau website

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