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SD Community Farm Padlocked

SD Community Farm Padlocked
We'll hear about a long-time community farm in City Heights that is caught up in red tape.

Maureen Cavanaugh (Host): A plot of vacant land in a City Heights cul-de-sac served as a small farm, a source of extra food and a place of security for a group of Cambodian refugees for 26 years. Now, it's closed and padlocked, and the handful of remaining immigrant farmers are wondering why.

The story of what happened to the farm is part culture clash and part bureaucracy - and some concerned folks are trying to find a way through that maze to bring the farm back.



Adrian Florido, reporter,

Anchi Mei, Manager, Food Security and Community Health for the San Diego International Rescue Committee.

Hay Chay is one of the original farmers on the farm lot in City Heights.

Phal Chourp is a city heights resident and interpreter.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A plot of vacant land and a place of security for a group of Cambodian refugees for 26 years. Now it is closed and padlocked and a handful of remaining immigrant farmers are wondering why. The story of what happened to the farm is part of culture clash and part bureaucracy. And some concerned folks are trying to find a way through them and to bring the farm back. Joining me to talk about the city Heights Farm is the reporter who broke the story, Adrian Florido of the voice of San Diego and Adrian welcome.


ADRIAN FLORIDO: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Anchi Mei is the manager of food security and community health for the International Rescue Committee here in San Diego. Anchi, welcome.

ANCHI MEI: Hi, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Phal Choup is a city Heights resident and interpreter for our next guest. Phal, welcome. Hay Chay is one of the original farmers on the farm lot in city Heights. And we are going to say good morning to him through Phal.

PHAL CHOUP: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Adrian, let me start with you. How did this vacant lot become a thriving farm?

ADRIAN FLORIDO: Sure. Just a quick correction, Maureen, the farm is actually in southeastern San Diego, not City Heights. Well, the origins of the farm are somewhat unclear. Mr. Chay and the group of about a dozen other Cambodian farmers are refugees from Cambodia who came to San Diego in the early 1980s. And they signed up for a training program, agricultural training program in City Heights back then, which set them up on this piece of property which they've been farming ever since. The property is owned by the city of San Diego, but is leased by a nonprofit organization called the neighborhood house. And it's been almost 3 decades and there's been a lot of turnover in the leadership there. So no one has really certain exactly of what the arrangement was that allowed the farmers to work on the property originally. What's clear is that they've been farming ever since and they've made lots of improvements to the land over was 26 years. And grew crops and installed water lines and installed fences and just sort of built a really close community of farmers within the Cambodian community since then. So that's how it came to be.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As part of your story Adrian, there was the idea of this farm not only being a place for some extra food, maybe a bit of extra income, but also as a place of security and bonding for the Cambodian refugees. Tell us a little bit about that.

ADRIAN FLORIDO: San Diego has a huge refugee community and it's something a lot of people don't know. By some measures with other refugee capital of the United States. Often went refugees come to the United States and to San Diego in city Heights specifically where a lot of refugees resettle in San Diego they have a hard time kind of finding their footing and finding a real kind of way to incorporate themselves into their new communities. What happened with this group of Cambodian farmers almost 3 decades ago is that they were fortunate enough to be set about this land and have the way to really feel like they were figured into something, not only to the community around them, but to help them overcome a lot of the trauma that a lot of them experienced before arriving in San Diego. And they did that by really kind of forming a close-knit group of people who are working toward a common purpose which was growing food and reconnecting with a lot of the same kinds of practices and agricultural production practices that they practiced before leaving Cambodia as a result of the war that was there. And Mr. Chay and just about all the farmers who are there have very kind of gripping personal stories about what happened before they came and the way that the farm helped them and continues to help them overcome a lot of the mental trauma.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Phal Choup, besides being interpreter for Hay Chay and we're going to speak with him in just a moment, but I'm wondering what do you think that this farm brings to the Cambodian refugee community?

PHAL CHOUP: It brings close this, contact with other people. Commonalities. A sense that you are still worth something. And a place to showcase your expertise. A place to escape. If there is something wrong at the home, you don't want, it's too crowded and stuff like that. A place to reconnect or fantasize about what your homeland is like.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to speak with Hay Chay and will you interpret for me?

PHAL CHOUP: Certainly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mr. Chay I want to ask you how long did you work on this farm?

(Speaking in Cambodian)

PHAL CHOUP: Can't remember, but start since 84.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 84, and what crops did he grow?

(Speaking in Cambodian)

PHAL CHOUP: Mostly greens, vegetables like lettuce, different types of lettuce and peppers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mr. Chay, I read that you and your fellow farmers built huts. And had feasts on the land. Tell us a lot about that.

(Speaking in Cambodian)

PHAL CHOUP: We built it for shade. For a place to rest, when we have lunch and we gathered there. And we share lunch.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. Speaking of, Hay Chay was one of the original farmers on the farm lot that we've been speaking about in southeast San Diego that was recently shut down. Both chips is a resident and interpreter and Adrian Florio is from the voice of San Diego. He is the reporter who broke the story and An Chi who I want to speak with now is the manager of food security and community health at the International Rescue Committee here in San Diego. So tell me, An Chi, the story goes as Adrian has been telling us that this plot was shut down because it just didn't have the proper permits and so forth and the IRC knows a little bit about permitting. Tell us what you know about that.

ANCHI MEI: More than a little bit. Yes, I hope at the beginning when you talked about the City Heights Farm, I hope people weren't worried because the city Heights farm now is thriving and we just finished about one complete season but it took about a year and some just go through the permitting process and over about $46,000 in permitting fees, reviews and just staff time to process it as well as our own IRC staff time of figuring out how to work through the bureaucracy of it, what the right channels are, what the right documentation for people who aren't planning experts. So it was a lot of work on our part as well as the city's part to get that permitted, but we ultimately did. So it is now a community garden permit. But as of now the process is still a process that requires formal application and a $5000 deposit. We are working with the city to hopefully improve that process.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Anchi and Adrian I want to ask you both does it surprise either of you that this was going on for 26 years without the proper permitting?

ADRIAN FLORIDO: And actually, and we haven't been quite clear as to why the farm was actually shut down. And that's a good question. I think we need to establish that first. So I think what happened was they were operating there for 26 years without any kind of sort of real public notice. And what happened was this nonprofit Neighborhood House Association, which was leasing this land from the city had been leasing it for about 30 years. Their main facilities, the main social service facilities where they administered the Head Start program for the county and also some sort of Senior services and health services are on an adjacent property to the property from where these Cambodian people had been for almost 3 decades but they never developed this parcel that the Cambodian farmers had been using. While they have developed the adjacent property into their facilities. What happened was that this year the Neighborhood House's long-term lease with the city came up for renewal. And as part of that process they had to renegotiate the lease which prompted the city to send some real estate officials down to all of the property that Neighborhood House leased and assess the current situation, what the status of the land was, what was on the land, just to kind of begin the negotiation process.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it your understanding that this the first time that the city realized there's a farm here?

ADRIAN FLORIDO: Right. That's exactly what happened at least in any form only because the city had been in this long-term lease since the 1970s, since before the farmers arrived and so what happened was the city realized that this parcel was, had been developed and told Neighborhood House that if it wanted to renegotiate its lease it had to give back this parcel of land so that it could lease it out again. The Neighborhood House approached the farmers essentially and told them they had to leave because its top priority as an organization is to secure the rights to remain on the property where the other facilities were. So the city asked for the parcel back. So we need you guys gone. Nighborhood House had essentially been looking the other way as the farmers had developed the community and this farm over the decades. It really is an adjacent property and they knew that it was happening. But never were really, they never had any formal relationship with the farmers, at least in recent years. So they said that it was an unfortunate reality that they had to get the farmers out, that the farmers had been there without any kind of proper permits for such a long time and in a lot of ways and said the farmers were lucky to get at least that much time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, Neighborhood House of course being a nonprofit itself and trying to do good work in the neighborhood. But I'm wondering part of the pathos of the story and in your article is that the farmers weren't actually given any advance notice because neighborhood house couldn't find out who the leaders were or anybody in the leadership of this farming movement, if you want to put it that way, and they basically came on the premises one day and found it padlocked.

ADRIAN FLORIDO: They found some notices that had been posted basically giving them 30 days to get off but it speaks to really kind of the informal way in which this operation has been going on for so long. There was no formal relationship between the farmers and Neighborhood House. One official in neighborhood house essentially called the farmers of squatters because they had been using the land without any legal right to do so. The farmers because many of them like Mr. Chay has been here for so long, but without, are often older generation who a lot of them didn't learn English, didn't necessarily go to school once they arrived in San Diego, didn't understand the structure of sort of land ownership and rights to sort of legal tenancy of property, so never really had a real idea of who the property belonged to or whether they had a right to be there. They just assume they have the right to be there because for so long no one had ever challenged that and obviously they were mistaken because almost overnight you know, within a month they were forced to leave and it really turned a lot of their worlds kind of upside down.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Anchi Mei, doesn't this sort of, we constantly talk about community gardens and sort of the Greening of urban areas and doesn't this sort of fly in the face of the trend of what communities are hoping to achieve in urban areas and being able to grow things and have fresh produce etc.?

ANCHI MEI: Absolutely and the IRC has been learning from the Cambodian farm all these years. IRC staff, New Roots farmers have gone over to look at their property to look at the farm to learn from and adopt to what we do at New Roots. So they've been a model for us. I was thinking this morning Michelle Obama called New Roots model for the rest of the world but the fact is the Cambodian farm has been a model for us 26 years of not just growing food for their family but the surplus they've been able to sell. That kind of entrepreneurship is exactly the kind of creative, self-reliant leadership we are trying to cultivate around the country These Days. And I know there's a lot of federal and city efforts to try to improve health in low income communities, improve access to fresh affordable foods and to provide good public spaces in communities that don't have the great streets, the great plazas. And so this community garden is providing all of that and just basically the labor and hard work and good hearts of the residents themselves. So that is what is the real travesty. Is that we are working day in and day out to try to create what the farmers have created over the last 20 some years on their own and so for us it's a real example of what we are trying to do, what we are aspiring to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Adrian how big a piece of property are we talking about here that's being farmed?

ADRIAN FLORIDO: It's a pretty sizable piece of property. It's about 2 acres. Early on there were about a dozen farmers who were working the property according to my conversations with Mr. Chay. Over the years a lot of them got older, too old, like Mr. Chay to continue farming there and turned their parcels over to younger farmers. In recent years the number and really kind of trickled away and there were only four farmers left but they were constantly looking for more people to join them and take up some of the responsibility of tilling the land.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Phal Troop, what does this piece of land mean to the Cambodian community in that area of southeastern San Diego?

PHAL CHOUP: It's a place that we could call a Cambodian center. It's community, it's an outreach, it's a little piece of identity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think it was going away on its own though since there were so few farmers left on the land? Was it sort of dying out on its own before this happened?

PHAL CHOUP: No, actually, people frequently visited there just to have fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, or to gossip, catch up on the latest news. Find out what's in season. To find out their long-lost classmates.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it was sort of a central, a clearinghouse of information along with a place to grow vegetables and fresh produce?

PHAL CHOUP: Yes, and a place to just get out and get some fresh air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'd like to ask Mr. Chay another question. Have you been back to the farm and what does it look like now?

(Speaking in Cambodian)

PHAL CHOUP: Vegetables are growing wild with the rain, but no one is taking care of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does he have, do you have hope Mr. Chay that this will become a farm again?

(Speaking in Cambodian)

PHAL CHOUP: I have a lot of hope that it's going to continue to be farmland in the future.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Adrian, I want to, it's easy for the city to be the big bad guy in this because they closed down this lot, but for permitting purposes, if somebody was actually badly injured on this lot and there's no insurance and so forth, again, there have been no bad accidents in 26 years, but if indeed something happened wouldn't the city actually be on the hook for a lot of money?

ADRIAN FLORIDO: Sure, and that's a big part of the story. What, ultimately this is is a story of the way that the city kind of permitting and bureaucratic kind of permitting requirements often are caught up with farmers who technically didn't have any right to be there. So, yes, the city has very legitimate claims and concerns about why the farmers should be permitted there. But it's something that the farmers for so long didn't even understand that they had to be in compliance with and over the period of time that the city wasn't aware this was happening really developed a reliance and dependence on this place as a very key and important part of their lives. The international rescue committee is looking into the possibility of turning this parcel into something like what they did in City Heights with the New Roots community farm. They are exploring that possibility and talking to city officials about if that's something that they decide that they are interested in they might pursue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great comment, Anchi. I was reading back across the IRC $40,000 in permitting to get the New Roots community farm off the ground but there is some hope that it would cost near that amount to even, maybe secure the proper permits for this particular lot. Tell us about that.

ANCHI MEI: Well New Roots is across Troyes Creek that was some part of that cost is the additional environmental impact assessment and review that you needed to do any sort of development along it. Part of that is also basic permitting costs in San Diego are much higher. when you look at other cities across this country they are not nearly as exorbitant as they are here in San Diego. So for this property here for the Cambodian farm, you know, if there are no environmental issues then a $5000 deposit is needed to start that process.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And have you started fundraising at this point?

ANCHI MEI: I would like to also say that IRC would take a very collaborative approach, and so at this point we've been talking with different people here to support the process, but we see this as a place that sends out the San Diego. There's a lot of great community partners there that are already working hard to create local food, urban agriculture and access to healthy food. So we want to make sure that whatever happens in the future really does keep the spirit and identity of the farm. The Cambodian farmers and what they've created is urban history, so whatever is the next life of this farm I would hate to see it as a cookie-cutter garden, community garden approach. But that IRC would be one of several advocates of the table trying to create what is a rightful next life of this farm and of course the Cambodian farmers we think should be kind of front and center holding a strong place in identity for that farm and hopefully continue that place of Cambodian identity and culture and pulling in the great community partners and IRC would be there to bring whatever steps we had to the table but really a very collaborative approach.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Adrian, a quick last question how amenable to city officials seemed to be to the idea of continuing this lot in some form as a community farm.

ADRIAN FLORIDO: I spoke to Jim Bartlett who is the director of real estate assets for the city who said that they have no problem with this continuing as a farm. They just want to see the proper permits in place. So, if there happens to be a coalition of nonprofit organizations in southeastern San Diego in city Heights that want to get together and do something about this that the city is going to work with them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much Adrian for your voice of San Diego, Anchi, Mei, manager of food security for IRC here in San Diego, Phal Chourp thank you for interpreting for us and Mr. Hay Chay, thank you so much for being here today.

(Speaking in Cambodian)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you again. Anyone who would like to comment please go online Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes on KPBS.