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KPBS Midday Edition

Urban Farming-Grow It Yourself Movement

Suzie's Farm
Scott Ballum
Suzie's Farm
Urban Farming-Grow It Yourself Movement
When food is accessible anywhere from supermarkets to drive-throughs, why is the movement to grow your own food becoming so popular?

We kick off a series of programs on Urban Farming in San Diego by finding out why people are doing it. When food is accessible anywhere from supermarkets to drive-throughs, why is the movement to grow your own food becoming so popular? We'll hear from the co-founder of one of San Diego's best-known sustainable farms and an I-T entrepreneur who has just joined the urban farming movement.

Urban Farming Series

Monday-The Grow It Yourself movement (GIY).

Tuesday- We look at problems with urban farming, and how that might affect local refugee and immigrant communities.

Wednesday- Low water edibles and growing your own at home without a yard

Thursday-Local restaurants embracing community farming and bringing it to the table.


Lucila De Alejandro, co-owner Suzie's Farm


Lauren Shaw is president of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Read Transcript

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.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Today, we begin a series of conversations about urban farming. It's been the hottest trend in the sustainability movement for several years. People are growing produce on roof tops in New York, former abandoned lots in Chicago, and of course in yards and patches all over San Diego. But why? Super markets are offering a greater variety of food than ever before, and it's not as if we all have a lot of extra time on our hands. There seems to be a mission, an attitude, even a world view that's shared by today's urban farmers, whether they are new to farming or come from an ethnic background that's close to the earth. We'll be exploring how urban farming is changing the look, the laws, and the taste of San Diego. Today, I'd like to welcome two local pioneers to San Diego's urban farming movement. Lucilla de Alejandro is coowner of Suzie's farm, located in the Southbay north of Boarderfield state park. Welcome.

ALEJANDRO: Thank you very much for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Lauren Shaw is here. She's president of San Diego roots sustainability food project which runs the wild willow farm and education center also in the South Bay. Hello.

SHAW: Thank you so much.


CAVANAUGH: Now, Lucilla, the growth of Suzie's farms really showcases the booming interest in small local farming. You started the farm in its present form in 2007. How many acres and how many customers did you have to start with in.

ALEJANDRO: Actually we started the farm in January of 2009, and it was just Robin, myself, and our farm manager Ellie Sherman. And we only had an acre and a half, and we had no customers at that time. When we moved to our larger location, 40†acres in July of 2009, we had 28 CSA customers, no farmers markets, no restaurants, no grocery stores, we just had 40†acres and 20 believers.

CAVANAUGH: And now, what do you have?

ALEJANDRO: Now we are in at least three whole foods, and more in LA. We deliver over 200 CSA boxes a week. We are in 11 farmers markets, and we have 25 CSA host sites around the county.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think probably now would be a good time to define CSA.

ALEJANDRO: CSA stands for community supported agriculture. That is that the community supports agriculture by prepurchasing a share of the farm. They can either buy a 12-week share of six boxes, or 12†boxes, and in return they get the best that the farm has to offer that week. So in today's box, we have melons and okra, two heads of lettuce, two pounds of tomato, green beans, all the best that the summer has. And then the boxes change. So then the customers really understand what it is to eat seasonally. They're getting what the earth naturally produces at the time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know Lucilla, that you and your husband already operated a kitchen sprout's farm for several years. And you've had a lot of experience in agriculture. But when and how did your interest get sparked to start really with this bigger urban farm?

ALEJANDRO: After I had worked at our other farms, sun grown organic distributors, I started to be an organic inspector for a few years. And to further my education, I went to a conference, the Moses conference in the midwest. Apparently there's weather in other parts of the kitchen.

CAVANAUGH: I've heard.

ALEJANDRO: So when they're not farming, they're talking about farming. So the conference was in February of 2003. And I came home from that conference and said to Robin, honey, there's actual farmers out there who grow real food in the ground, and they know their customers. They do this CSA thing and they're in farmers markets, and I would love to do that because sun grown was primarily a wholesale business. And we didn't really know our customers. It was all over the phone and trucking at night. So we really wanted to start to connect with our customers, with our community, get to know them, and see -- have them come to the farm, experience the farm, experience our food, and us get to see their reaction to that.

CAVANAUGH: Lauren Shaw, I want to bring you in the conversation. It's my understanding that San Diego roots started as an effort to save some local farms. When did it switch toward learning to grow your own food?

SHAW: Well, you're right. It started to try to save one particular farm. And when the founders got together to do that, they realized that nobody understood why they should want to save a farm and didn't really know what that meant or why we should care about it. So then they started doing a whole bunch of outreach to educate people about that. And I'd say it switched or it -- we added kind of the focus on helping people start growing their own food in 2009 when we started victory garden San Diego, which is one of our programs, and through that program, we will go to people's homes and help them start gardens, and we do classes, and I think we were just realizing that there was more and more interest in doing that, but people didn't really know how to start. Or they felt like they didn't have the knowledge or the experience, and we wanted it try to give them the hands on experience that helped them boost their confidence.

CAVANAUGH: I started this out by saying this that there seems to be a collective mission, a world view that seems to link between who were involved this the urban farming movement. I'm wonders, Lauren, how would you describe -- would you agree with that? And how would you describe it?

SHAW: Yeah. I think it's definitely a collective movement. Partially because in terms of growing your own food, it's something that you learn from doing, and from other people. So you can read books about it, but you don't really get as much as by actually doing it and talking with your neighbors who are doing it, and finding out, how are you dealing with this problem. And because of that, there's a natural kind of community around it. And in addition, there's a big part of it that's about building community around food that hasn't really existed for a long time. And helping build both the kind of environmental community and also keeping our money in our local community. And if we're growing food together, we're sort of creating more of a community and people interact more than they would otherwise.

CAVANAUGH: Right. You know, terms like food security and sustainability are used frequently in the urban farming movement. I'm not sure that everybody knows what those terms mean. So let me start with you, Lauren. Of and I'll go to Lucilla. What does urban farming have to do with food security? What does that mean?

SHAW: Food security basically means does everyone have access to good food? Food that actually is healthy for them. Access in terms of whether it's actually around them and also whether they can afford it. And urban farming can impact that just because can be more healthy food available in local areas so much if we're doing more urban farming, there's more farmers markets to be provided, those can survive, and people have an option to buy healthy food. But also urban farming on an individual scale, that's a way for people to produce healthy food in their own backyard and produce their own food security. It can be cheaper, and it's right there. It's a way for them to access it when they maybe wouldn't have been able to before.

CAVANAUGH: Lucilla, what makes urban farming sustainability?

ALEJANDRO: One of the things that making urban farming sustainable is dovetailing on what Lauren said, which is sustainability has to do with keeping cars off the road, paying employees who live in a community and then having them put the money back in the community, trying to keep in our case inputs on the farm, generating your own seeds, having chickens on the farm that help with the fertility. Those kinds of things are -- the different aspects of sustainability.

CAVANAUGH: When you talk about keeping cars off the road, you mean about the huge number of trucks and things that it takes to bring food into the way we usual get food from super markets and across the country.

ALEJANDRO: That's right. And whether it's cargo containers that are bringing apples from new zeal abdomen, and grapes from Chile, frying your grapes from Chile, something I tell people a lot on our tours is would you ever fly on a plane to Chile just to pick up a bunch of grips? No, you wouldn't. But every time you choose Chilean grapes oust season in January, as opposed to California grapes that are in season right now, that's essentially what you're doing when you do that.

CAVANAUGH: Lucilla, is the urban farming movement essentially for affluent people whore maybe people who have time on their hands?

ALEJANDRO: I think actually it starts in the communities that are not affluent. They go to the grocery stores and even the prices that you can get from commodity foods, they're still outpriced. Many of the immigrant communities are not able to find their indigenous foods in the grocery stores and they miss that. Will they miss that part of home, and they want that. And so they start either in a community garden, if they live in an apartment, or even in the smallest patch 67 land, the smallest little part of your front yard, you can put a box in there and grow some things. And I think it's actually instead of coming from the top down, I think it's gone from the bottom up. And I think what has happened is a resurgence for a different demographic to get their hands dirty. They spend so much time at desks, at computers, in offices, and they're away from being in the sudden sun and the earth and getting dirty. And I think that they want -- human beings need that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lauren, you talk about San Diego roots, teaching people how to start growing food. There are some misconceptions people have when they start out? Do they know how much time and effort it's going to take? Do they think it's going to take more than it does or less than it does?

SHAW: There's probably a mix. I think the main thing that people feel is a barrier is that they think they don't have the knowledge to do, and they're just going to mess it up or they won't be successful. So it's really about, you know, it just takes practice and patience and it takes learning from people who have been doing it for a long time. So we were just trying to help people actually boost their confidence and feel like they can do it. In terms of the time component, you know, it really depends on how much you want to do. You can easily start small. Am we encourage people to start small and do what they actually have the time to do, and have the space to do. And it won't be something that they just get frustrated with right away because it's feeling like too much work.

CAVANAUGH: And do you have any examples of perhaps somebody started to do this and just sort of gave up and said it's too much work? I just don't have the time?

SHAW: Actually we hear that all the time in our gardening classes. Often it's people who say I'm signing up for this class because I tried to grow and I just wasn't having that much success, and I felt like I didn't have the knowledge. So I really want to get back into it. So I think that does happen. You know people get frustrated and had the their gardens go fallow. And it just takes having that persistence.

CAVANAUGH: If at first you don't succeed, right?

SHAW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Lucilla, what's fun about growing your own food?

ALEJANDRO: What's not fun? When was the last time you got really dirty and you didn't care and you were out there and you're watching the butterflies in your yard, and the hummingbirds come to visit you. And you plant something and every time you plant something, you plant a seed, and it's a wish. It's a hope and you cover it with soil. And then you wait. And you let the sun do what it does, and you let the earth do what it does, and you water it. And then something happens. Of and you didn't necessarily have that much to do with it. But you did! It couldn't have happened without you. And then you wait, and you watch. And then you can feed yourself with it. You can feed your family. You can have people come to your home, and you can say look at what I did. And it's actually something. It's not pushing pixels around on a screen. Of it's something tangible. And tactile. And you can taste, you can truly, truly taste the fruits of your effort.

CAVANAUGH: When you do actually put food on the table that you have grown, you make the point, Lucilla, that this is seasonal and sometimes you don't really know so much about what to do with the stuff you've grown. Is learning res fees a new ways to use this food also a part of this movement?

ALEJANDRO: Absolutely. And you can see that from the proliferation of cook books and the food network, and top chefs and chef masters and Gordon Ramsey, and Nigella, all those people are proving that people want to get back in touch with thirds requirement food. They recognize that when you sit around a table with your loved ones, you are sharing something more than just fuelling your body. And more than just a meal. It really can be a spiritual communion with the people around you. How do you present that food in the most beautiful way that honors the food and honors the people that you're with and making every meal a celebration and not just I got to hurry, got to got to got it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Just bolting it down so to speak. Lauren, one of the aspects of when you have a community of people and a neighborhood, let's say, who are growing their own food, they -- people are kind of getting together now in those communities and learning different ways to use that food and maybe even trading some of the things they grow.

SHAW: Absolutely. There's official and also unofficial kind of food swaps where people have too many zucchinis or more tomatoes than they eat, so they trade. Or they make pickles or jam, and trade these things too. And you typically, if you're growing food, you're probably going to have more than you can eat of a particular thing at a particular time, so you might as well share with your neighbors. And it really does create more of a neighborhood often. We try to encourage with victory gardens, we love doing front yard gardens because it -- people stop by when they see the food growing, and it start it is conversations between neighbors that wouldn't have happened otherwise, and it really does create a sense of community.

CAVANAUGH: If people listening to this say, you know, I got a patch that I don't know what to do with, how do they get in touch with you, Lauren?

SHAW: Well, if you go to victory gardens San or San Diego, we can -- you can e-mail us or sign up for a news letter and find out when there are garden builds happening. And then also let us know if you are wanting to start a garden but you don't quite know where to start, we can help you out with that through volunteer laborer that will come to your yard and help you build a garden.

CAVANAUGH: And if they're interested in a CSA box?


CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

ALEJANDRO: What a pleasure. Thank you.

SHAW: Thank you.