A 125-year-old formerly rural farm holds out in a sea of suburbanization.
By Edwin Marty
WhyHunger is partnering with Breaking through Concrete, a media team of “three men and a short bus” for a cross-country tour of American urban farms. Michael Hanson, photographer, Charlie Hoxie, videographer, and David Hanson, writer, will visit over fifteen urban farm projects from Seattle to Santa Cruz to New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Chicago.
Edwin joined us for a four-day stint, beginning at the Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara. He then rode with us in Lewis Lewis for a limping trek across the southern Cal desert and into Flagstaff before returning to his family and farm.
I’m standing in the last patch of working production farm in the once verdant Goleta Valley. We’ve arrived at Fairview Gardens just after dawn and the farm crews are heading into the fields. Many on the crew, including Javier and Caesar, have worked this land for over twenty years and know it like a sibling. We meet Toby McPartland, the Farm Manager, and he gives us a survey of the 12-acre urban farm nestled amongst suburban houses in the heart of Santa Barbara.
We walk slowly among avocadoes, peaches, plums, figs – all the wondrous fruit that used to be commonplace in the Goleta Valley. Annual vegetables form geometric lines between the orchard rows. Chickens wander the farm like they own the place. I breathe in the beauty, a different world from my home in Birmingham, AL.
I have my own farm there. I started Jones Valley Urban Farm eight years ago on a vacant city lot. Today the working production and education farm encompasses three acres of vacant property in downtown Birmingham. I was there yesterday in the ninety-degree southern heat for our second annual Slow Food Fair. Dozens of local chefs, brewers, winemakers, and artesian food craftsmen share with our community what food in central Alabama should taste like.
As soon as the event wrapped up and the last keg of Good People ale was floating, I jumped on a flight to California to rendezvous with the Breaking Through Concrete crew headed south from Seattle. Unfortunately, our converging travel plans were equally cursed. The BTC crew’s van, Lewis Lewis, was immobilized on the side of the road in Berkeley. My flight got delayed before it even began and I missed my connection in Minneapolis. I eventually make it to Los Angeles but without my trusty backpack. Michael and Charlie have rented a car in Berkeley and head south to meet me in Santa Barbara, leaving brother David to sit in purgatory waiting for a miracle to lift Lewis Lewis out of the diesel mechanic’s arms.
So it’s nice to be here now, on the Fairview Gardens farm where, in the post-dawn cool, I can relax and appreciate someone else’s work and the history behind this beautiful growth. Unlike most urban farms in the country, Fairview has been a farm for the last 125 years. It’s one of our few examples that does not break through concrete; in this case, the farm came before the city. Housing developments and roads with increasing amounts of traffic sprouted where the avocadoes and plum trees once lined up. Fairview hung on and the new suburban backyard walls hemming in the island of agriculture could not eliminate the traditional farm sounds, smells, and critters.
There’s an expectation of a certain order and “cleanliness” that accompanies suburban living. The farm’s realities – compost, tractor engines, roosters – were not considered amenities, despite the fact that Fairview produces fresh food available to all. Neighborhood tensions arose along with real estate pressure. In 1994 Fairview Gardens was saved from development through a conservation easement and the creation of a non-profit organization called the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens.
Toby takes me to the freshly plowed fields waiting for the first rounds of summer crops. His vision for the future of the last farmland in Santa Barbara unfolds as he drops sunflower starts into the rich dark soil.
“Fairview needs to be a model for small-scale sustainable farms. We need to provide an example to young farmers that you can make a living on this scale of agriculture. If that happens, our urban spaces will be transformed by entrepreneurs reconnecting consumers with their food.”
This vision might seem like a bit of long shot. Prime farmland is still being developed on the periphery of every urban area and the scale of farms is increasing, not decreasing. Mark Tollefson, the new director of Fairview, has a complimentary view of the future of this farm, one that just might turn the tide of our globalizing food system. Fairview offers summer camps for kids and an apprenticeship program of workshops and courses for young farmers.
“We just need to have kids laughing on the farm. Once they understand the place of the farm in their lives on that level, everything else takes care of itself.”
Mark’s own child, three weeks old, born on the porch of this farm hemmed in on all sides by the suburbanization of America, is laughing for us all.