Vacant city lots rarely inspire hope in the residents who pass them daily. Too often they’re used as a dumping ground — weed-infested icons of urban blight.
Meanwhile, many of the people living near those empty lots have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, their only options within walking distance being the few wilting vegetables available at their corner liquor store.
Fortunately, in a growing number of communities nationwide, unused land located in “food deserts” is enjoying a rebirth.
Urban farm incubators
Last year, the Center for Land-Based Learning began cultivating a vacant lot at 5th and C Streets in West Sacramento. The Center works with land owners and the city to obtain leases for unused land, and prepares the lots for graduates of its Farm Academy who need land to work. Along with very low-cost leases, the Center helps farmers secure capital and even offers a tool “lending library” to keep start-up costs down.
New farmers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the arrangement.
West Sacramento’s mayor and city council recognized other benefits of having beautiful and productive urban farms replace vacant lots:
- Healthy fresh food is readily available to residents
- Blighted areas are revitalized
- Security is enhanced
Schools like the educational opportunities of giving students access to gardens.
“It gives kids a chance to come by and see what plants look like before they make it onto the shelves,” says West Sacramento Urban Farm Program Director Sara Bernal. “Most importantly, it just changes the vibe of an entire community. It’s just really gratifying to feed all the neighbors.”
The West Sacramento Urban Farm at 5th and C hosts a farm stand open to the public on Fridays, and provides produce to local supermarkets and food banks. Each month two tons of food are harvested from the 5th and C site alone.
But urban farming is just getting started in West Sacramento. Scotts Miracle-Gro recently awarded the Center for Land-Based Learning and the City of West Sacramento a $40,000 grant to grow more fresh produce in the city. The Center is in negotiations with the city and school district for six more acres to open in 2015.
“By the end of the year I’d like to see all those six acres managed by a farmer, doing a small business, feeding lots of people, providing educational programming for the schools, and just revitalizing a huge amount of land that’s been sitting vacant,” Bernal says.
Legalities of urban farming
After a recent screening of “Growing Cities,” a documentary that explored urban agriculture across the United States, policymakers and farmers met to discuss the status of urban farming in the Sacramento region. Along with Bernal, West Sacramento City Council Member Chris Ledesma, Matt Read from Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture, Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Farm and Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning, shared their vision for urban agriculture.
West Sacramento is still small enough that policymakers were able to just “figure out” the logistics and make it happen, noted Kimball.
Ledesma agreed that the city council’s job is, in large part, to “get out of the way and make these things happen.” “This isn’t some big issue,” he said. “We’re just trying to further an economic need, which is feeding people.”
Across the Sacramento River in the state capital, urban agriculture is on the cusp of respectability. An ordinance is now before the Sacramento city council that would legalize small-scale farming operations and sales within the city limits. A similar ordinance is under consideration in the county.
The Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition is promoting the ordinance, which will be heard by the city council March 17. The ordinance would revise zoning codes to allow individual residents, nonprofits or other organized groups to cultivate produce, raise small animals and sell their products to the public.
“It’s nice to have an example right across the river,” said Read, whose organization is a member of the coalition. Assuming passage of the ordinance (see a copy here), Read says they’ll continue to work with the city and county to deal with barriers are they arise, such as the cost of water and land for urban farmers.
The epitome of Sacramento urban agriculture, Chanowk Yisrael is passionate about the need for farms as an economic engine in his neighborhood.
“We’re taking a stand for self-sufficiency and hope,” said the founder of Yisrael Family Farm. With his wife, Judith, and eight children, Chanowk works half an acre in Oak Park. “We’re showing people in our communities, especially where I live, that somebody who looks like you can do something positive.”
Yisrael is eager to do more than grow the food his family eats. With an ordinance that would allow him to sell his produce, he might become an employer in a neighborhood that really needs options for its youth.
Ultimately, Yisrael envisions a program to train young people — at his farm and in schools — “so that when they get older they’ll understand that this is an actual, viable profession, and all farmers are not old guys sitting on tractors that are not cool.”
The restorative power of working the soil and growing one’s own food is what urban agriculture is all about, Yisrael says:
“As you start to put your hands into the soil and return back to that ground level of where things grow, then you start to see where you are in the universe and on this planet in a whole different way.”
Over in West Sacramento, Council Member Ledesma says he’s heartened to see neighborhoods being rejuvenated by the partnerships supporting the urban farm — from the growers and neighbors who look out for the farm, to the markets and restaurants who use its produce.
“To me, that’s all about community. That’s the pride you get from things like this.”