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Urban farm offers land-based learning

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By Carol Bogart

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Sacramento Nature Examiner

How often have you driven around your community and wondered why an apparently abandoned lot isn’t being used to grow food? West Sacramento owns such a lot at 5th & C Streets and that lot is right now becoming an ‘urban farm.’ It will soon be planted in vegetables by ‘urban farmer’ Sara Bernal, 32.

Most recently Bernal was farming two acres in the Delta near Walnut Grove. Her 2/3 acre plot in West Sacramento is coming together through a combination of grants, discounted materials, volunteer labor, Bernal’s own sweat equity and that of Mary Kimball, Executive Director of the Center for Land-Based Learning based in Winters. This ‘urban farm’ is a pilot project, the center’s first. Bernal is the sole farmer. It’s a commercial venture, not a community garden with lots of plots.

Because the site used to have a gas station, Bernal won’t be planting directly in the ground. Her vegetables will be grown in $14,000 worth of trucked in uncontaminated soil. Possible sites for future half- to 5-acre urban farms in West Sac include acreage just up the way on Lighthouse. State Parks has plans to put a new Indian Museum there but if that falls through, “other uses”

– such as urban farms – will be considered, the city council told Kimball March 19 at the council meeting. Kimball says sites throughout the city, including privately owned land, may one day host an urban farm.

The city is leasing the southeast corner at 5th & C to Bernal for five years. Her rent? Just $1 per year. At the end of her 5-year lease, she may have to move her crops to a different site. The city cautions that 5th and C is a prime location in the city’s evolving ‘Bridge District.’ Just north of Raley Field, urban farm is walking distance to the I Street Bridge and minutes from Old Sacramento. Kimball and Bernal know the corner may ultimately be developed.

The city envisions heightened commuter interest in West Sac thanks to the urban farm’s location. On the first day of the farm-site cleanup, a TV 13 videographer driving by on C stopped to get a closer look at what was going on. Learning it was the beginnings of an urban farm, he did an impromptu interview with Bernal.

The Center for Land-Based Learning is on a mission with projects like the urban farm. Its website says:

Our mission is to inspire and motivate people of all ages, especially youth, to promote a healthy interplay between agriculture, nature and society through their own actions and as leaders in their communities. The Center for Land-Based Learning envisions a world where there is meaningful appreciation and respect for our natural environment and for the land that produces our food and sustains our quality of life.”

In keeping with that philosophy, mountains of safe soil laced with cow manure (600 cubic yards!) were being dumped at the West Sac urban farm pilot project site April 25. Volunteers from NCCT (Northern California Construction and Training), a construction pre-apprenticeship program in West Sacramento, made raised boxes as Rotary Club of West Sacramento volunteers raked, trimmed trees, and picked up trash.

NCCT’s Gerald Satterfield, 47, drilled screws through sections of corrugated metal into posts as other workers attached the sides to build the boxes. Satterfield says, “We donated our time for the community.” Kimball says, “We absolutely need the volunteers. We want this to be a community project. That’s the goal.”

Volunteer Robert Walker, a Rotarian and bank executive, pulled on gloves and started bagging trash at 9 a.m. He says he also volunteers for community projects with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not long ago, Walker, a Woodland resident, was in West Sac with literally thousands of Mormons. The ‘Helping Hands’ project helped the city do park repairs, clean ups and improve trails. On Saturday, Walker was in Woodland with other church volunteers sprucing up a local cemetery.

That spirit of volunteerism permeates the corporate culture at the First Northern Bank branch Walker opened in West Sac, he says. Asked if he’ll need an Advil after two+ hours of bending and lifting in the rain, Walker, 63, shakes his head and smiles. “No, I have 16 grandchildren,” he says. They keep him fit and active.

Bernal, a former San Francisco social worker who disliked paperwork, took up farming four years ago and works alongside the volunteers as does Kimball. Bernal already has a client list that includes restaurants and West Sac’s Farmers Market. She says she’s grateful for the strong support the urban farm initiative has gotten from Chamber of Commerce CEO Denice Seals. Seals has been a driving force in bringing a farmers market to West Sacramento.

The Center for Land-Based Learning and city leaders hope the Land-based Learning urban farm will be the first of many in West Sacramento. Mayor Christopher Cabaldon says creating activity on that corner “will connect neighborhoods and kids to where food comes from.” He envisions school buses rolling up as kids go there for a tour.

West Sacramento City Councilwoman Babs Sandeen notes that the urban farm is in line with the city’s growing status as a food hub. “The city continues to develop itself as an international hub of food-related industries and businesses,” she says. “We are advancing food-related community events and programs such as the West Sacramento Farmers Market and the Urban Farms Initiative”

In addition to being on the city council, Sandeen is Vice Chancellor, Resource and Economic Development, for the Los Rios Community College District. An education advocate, Sandeen says, “The Urban Farm at 5th and C will focus on farm education and will (also) activate a vacant property with a temporary but quite productive use.” Cabaldon pictures urban farms revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the city. He says West Sacramento “is making a permanent commitment to urban farming.”

Bernal’s farm at 5th and C will offer West Sac residents the opportunity to buy ‘shares’ of produce, a practice known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A person who ‘owns’ a share of the crop will be able to pick up a box of fresh vegetables in season.

The city is always hoping to attract more restaurants and Sandeen says, “It is possible that new businesses, such as restaurants, may find the availability of conveniently located fresh produce another attractive reason to locate in West Sacramento!”

In Winters, another agriculture-related program sponsored by the Center for Land-Based Learning is its Farm Academy. The Academy offers hands-on training for those who want to learn how to farm. To date, the Academy has graduated two classes – 40 now-working farmers, with 20 more graduating soon. Kimball says students range in age “from 25 to 55,” and about 60 percent are female. Most of the would-be farmers did not grow up on a farm, she says, but may have been exposed to farm life through their grandparents.

Classes meet in the evenings and on weekends for seven months at the Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL) farm (5265 Putah Creek Rd. in Winters, 95694).

The center also offers Land-Based Learning opportunities to area schools. Now that West Sacramento has an urban farm, Kimball hopes the center’s FARMS Leadership Program will be introduced to students at West Sac’s River City High School. According to the Center for Land-Based Learning website: “Each (FARMS Leadership Program) student spends an average 35 hours in the field engaging in hands-on experiences at farms, wildlife areas, agriculture related businesses, colleges and universities (such as UC Davis).” Kimball says the program already serves more than 230 youth from 30 high schools in 10 California counties. In 2013, the FARMS Leadership Program celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Bernal’s 5th & C farm won’t be fenced. Fencing, she says, is just too expensive. So what about the homeless? Just blocks away under the I Street Bridge and up and down the Sacramento River there are homeless camps. On the opposite corner from the Urban Farm, homeless can be seen sleeping (or passed out) against the building. West Sacramento City Councilman Bill Kristoff during the urban farm presentation March 19 said to Bernal and Kimball, “I hope you know what you’re getting into.”

Kimball shrugs off warnings that a homeless person “might take a tomato.” Her response: “So what if they do?” The Urban Farm will be donating free produce to food programs for the indigent such as Meals on Wheels and the Yolo Food Bank. Grant-funded, the urban farm initiative plans to put up neighborhood farm stands to sell affordable fresh produce to West Sac families.

Both Kimball and Bernal are optimistic the little farm will prove so popular with neighborhood residents that nothing bad will happen. Will Bernal’s little white dog Leche ('Milk' in Spanish) be the guard dog? Bernal laughs and says, “Oh yes. She’s terrifying.”

Information about the FARMS Leadership Program for schools in Yolo and Sacramento Counties can be found at www.landbasedlearning.org/farms-days/?year=13/14&region=Sacramento+Valley.

To read more by independent journalist Carol Bogart, go to www.westsacweb.com and Bogart Communications.

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