The Farmers’ Market run is one of the highlights of my week. We’ve been going to the same market for the past four years, and pausing to chat about why the cara cara orange season was cut short (heavy winds), what to do with Pippin apples (make applesauce), or the absence of morels this Spring (too little rain) has deepened our relationship with food and our appreciation for the people involved in producing it.
Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale, California, takes the social aspect of the farmer’s market to a whole new level by combining Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) with a working farm that relies on a combination of local residents, private businesses and a non-profit organization to flourish. The 11-acre, five-year-old farm in the heart of Silicon Valley is a project by the local non-profit, Sustainable Community Gardens. While the organization has a roster of 15 staff that oversees everything from production to education and partnerships, it is still a very tight ship and relies extensively on the local community for its success.
“Labor is one of our biggest challenges,” shared Rose Madden, the farm manager, as she harvested pea shoots on a sunny Tuesday morning for that afternoon’s CSA pick-up. “Not only is it costly, it’s also hard to find the right talent that can harvest and pack produce quickly and efficiently with enough attention to detail.”
Besides managing the production schedule, Rose runs the farm’s 100-member CSA program and sales to local restaurants with the help of two full-time staff, Austin and Evvie. Between the three of them, they seed, transplant, harvest, wash and pack all the produce destined for the farm stand and CSA member pick-ups, in addition to all the farm tasks like maintaining and repairing farm structures, weeding and the like. It’s a tall order for such a small team, even on a relatively compact farm like theirs.
“Our work here is very labor-intensive,” Rose continued. “Everything is done by hand, from planting to weeding to harvesting. We only use tractors for tilling and creating rows for planting, but otherwise it’s all manual labor.”
The farm began a production farm volunteer program in February 2011 that runs every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. where about 15 to 20 folks stop by and help with harvesting, weeding and greenhouse work, helping Rose and her crew accomplish in a day what would usually take a few days to finish. Local voluntary organizations like One Brick and Hands On Bay Area visit once a month, as do high school and college students enrolled in horticulture or social justice programs looking to log community service hours towards graduation.
While individual volunteers chip in on a weekly or fortnightly basis, local technology firms help on a larger scale by donating the funds and labor to execute major farm projects. Applied Materials donated the shade structure, gravel and flooring for greenhouse and their staff came in one day and helped to set it up. Nvidia is the farm’s biggest corporate donor to date. “The company has a Project Inspire program where they send 2,000 employees out to local organizations and donate the money that would otherwise have been used for a holiday party,” Rose said. “They donated $100,000 to the farm earlier this year that we used to acquire storage containers and build a farm stand and a bigger packing shed. 1,500 staff turned up in one weekend and they set everything up. It was amazing to see a team of that scale and what they accomplished in such a short time.”
The farm produces about 5,000 pounds of vegetables a month, and it’s hard to believe that they’ve only been around since 2007. With just five acres in active production, a three-acre orchard, a generously-sized chicken coop, a greenhouse, an educational garden for the neighboring middle school, a farm stand, packing sheds and storage units, it’s a stunning example of what a truly local, self-sustaining food eco-system might look like. The land is leased from the local school district. Individual volunteers come in weekly to help with farm tasks. Local residents sign up for the CSA program or shop at the farm stand. Local businesses weigh in with their monetary donations and staff for infrastructural projects. Everyone who can, and who cares, chips in, and the result is a working, self-sustaining farm that brings a new meaning to the concept of community-supported agriculture, one that goes beyond a seasonal commitment to a produce box and instead forges and builds upon relationships across different segments of the community.
What’s your version of community supported agriculture?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.