Central Coast Harvested
City Farm SLO’s first public harvest bash
By Hayley Thomas Cain
published in New Times San Luis Obispo
October 19, 2017 Food & Drink » Flavor
Often, the most delicious part of the lead is buried—underground, that is.
Sort of like City Farm SLO.
Maybe you’ve driven past the 19 acres of city owned farmland located along Highway 101 between the Madonna Shopping Center and Los Osos Valley Road. Maybe you’ve never given it much thought.
What you should know is that, for years, seeds have been germinating in that dark, nutrient-dense soil, and the folks from local nonprofit Central Coast Grown have been tending to the resulting bounty.
Now those small seeds have grown into big, juicy things: Aside from adding flavor to local restaurant menus, this SLO-grown produce is changing the way our kids think about their food. You could even say these fields are somewhat poised to educate all of us about how we can protect and celebrate SLO’s green agricultural spaces.
Located adjacent to the 140-acre San Luis Ranch—part of the City’s Calle Joaquin Agricultural Preserve—the farm is the result of dreams hatched two decades ago.
“The city farm is an expression of the will of the citizens of SLO, who 20 years ago, wrote into the city general plan: ‘This agricultural reserve should remain in ag, regardless of the fact that the land is sought by land owners seeking to develop shopping centers, to pave it over,” said Central Coast Grown President Steven Marx. “Instead, the citizens insisted that 50 percent of that land should remain in ag in perpetuity. This was the will of the people.”
Since signing a lease to manage the land in 2013, Central Coast Grown has worked to put the acreage to good use. Local chefs are subleasing the land to grow everything from broccoli to tomatoes, and educational programs bring a host of volunteers and students to the fertile soil.
However, up until this month, the farm had never been the center of a big public event. That all changed this past Oct. 8, at City Farm SLO’s first ever harvest celebration, featuring tractor-hauled hayrides, educational seminars, seed-saving tips, greenhouse tours, local vendors, and more.
Marx helped pass out cloth tote bags to attendees before they climbed onto hay-laden tractors bound for the overflowing fields. Out in the dirt and among the rows of greenery, the group truly experienced the meaning of “harvest”: picking carrots, beets, celery, lettuce, and peas to take home and cook themselves.
A decade-long volunteer with the nonprofit and organizer of the Cal Poly Land Project, Marx and his friends have waited quite a while to see this kind of public interaction and enthusiasm at the farm.
His team harbors a simple vision, not easily executed: to build local, sustainable, and fair food systems by connecting eater with farmer. When it all goes right, you end up blurring the line between the two.
“Seeing those hayrides go out to the fields—and the ages of the groups, from 90 years old to little kids—was just amazing. You could see it in the expressions on their faces,” Marx said.
About 270 people flocked to the farm for the all-day affair, which included live music performed under a newly completed volunteer-built pergola.
“We have been working for two years on and off on the pergola to be able to finish it and use it for a public event. It’s important to have that protection from the wind,” Marx said. “Of course, the day of the harvest festival, it was absolutely perfect weather.”
It wasn’t just the weather that felt right on that sunny Sunday.
After working with a rotating cast at the farm, the land is currently being leased by four stable and committed growers, some of whom have been involved for years. Individual donations, grants from San Luis Ranch, and support from the SLO Tourist Development Agency have also helped the farm thrive.
And for that, the farm gives back.
Several programs are currently underway in partnership with San Luis Coastal Unified School District: an academic class for at-risk youth simply called “farm,” which brings continuation school students into the fields; another for developmentally disabled young adults; and even a program that brings harvested crops to kids’ lunches throughout the school district.
Farmer Javier Magana, a tenant for 2 1/2 years and a familiar face at the SLO Farmers’ Market, Luna Red and Novo, is now working with the school district to make sure kids have a chance to taste what the city farm has to offer.
According to Marx, that program, although in its early stages, is very promising.
“The food that is harvested the same day that it goes to kitchen then goes to kids,” he said. “Whether planting, harvesting, weeding, cooking the food that they’ve grown out there, students are getting a lot out of this.”
Like I said before, the best part about this story is truly found underground.
Take the farm’s carrots, for instance. The bushy green tops might be visible to passersby, but what really matters is flourishing quietly under the earth while cars and trucks whiz by.
“It is very exciting for all of us to feel the sense of fulfillment and meaning that comes from sharing the growing of healthy produce on a beautiful day,” Marx said. “It’s something really basic to celebrate, yet we certainly saw our vision come to life, and saw the excitement with the children.
“You don’t have to convince kids that it’s exciting to pull a carrot out of the ground, wash it, and eat it.”
Hayley Thomas Cain is harvesting tomatoes (still). She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dig in – Learn more about City Farm SLO and Central Coast Grown at centralcoastgrown.org.