Features & Columns
Eliseo Aceves talks passionately about his eggplant and tomatillo seedlings while he eats homemade enchiladas at a Valley Verde graduation potluck. More than a few dozen, including Aceves, have gathered at Los Arboles Elementary School, where they accept certificates for completing the nonprofit's gardening classes. The sprouts at Aceves' south San Jose home, sheltered by greenhouse heat, will bring in extra money for the family, his wife and their two children.
"I try to convince my neighbors to plant in their front lawns," he says. "Without a garden, it's wasted space."
The seasonal carpet-layer, who once helped harvest nursery plants in the Central Valley, has become something of an evangelist for backyard farming. He fell into planting during a slow season at work—broke and frustrated with the unwanted free time. Valley Verde offered him odd jobs, building planter boxes. And working with people excited about growing their own food sparked his own interest. Now, his family gets most of its produce from food they grow themselves.
Since launching in 2012, Valley Verde has taught 100 families like the Aceveses how to garden, while also building scores of planter boxes in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and throughout San Jose. Meanwhile, Garden to Table has planted eight backyard gardens and trained dozens of families to tend them.
"We want to reach more people, but we don't have much of the manpower to expand outside this small area," says Sami Monsur, a Garden to Table trustee who opened up her front yard nearly seven years ago as a tiny community farm for neighbors.
Her property spans 7,500 square-feet of a corner lot in San Jose's Five Wounds neighborhood, historically a Portuguese enclave but now a predominantly Latino immigrant community. The space, abloom with kiwi and grape vines, persimmons, artichoke, carrot stalks, cilantro, garlic and fava beans, somehow doesn't feel out of place less than a mile away from the heart of the city. Maybe it's the judicious use of space or the outline of hotels and condo towers on the horizon. Chickens in a fenced-off corner of the back lot, by a boxed-up beehive, peck at scattered broccoli stalks.
"We want more of this," Monsur says of her little urban farmyard. "And thanks to the fluid nature of Garden to Table, we can expand throughout the city. It doesn't necessarily depend on us having a permanent site, like Veggielution, though it's great we have that, too."
Another element of Garden to Table she hopes to see amplify in reach is fruit gleaning. Nearly every weekend, a group of volunteers join homeless residents, who trade work for housing vouchers. They visit previously scouted-out addresses to take unwanted fruit and donate it to the food bank. An app called Trimble tracks the homes of residents who agreed to donate their backyard bounty. On average, the gleans net 2,000 pounds a month to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank, says Lan Ngo, an Americorps staffer assigned to help manage the program.
"So much of this would've gone to waste," says Ngo, 23, who remembers standing in line with her mom every week at the food bank as a kid growing up on San Jose's East Side. "There's literally tons of food here, it's just a matter of getting it to the people who need it."
Small Scale Growth
While urban planners in the past few decades have pushed for denser growth in metropolitan centers, San Jose has lingered in its suburban sprawl. For the 10th largest city in the nation, third largest in California and a population a million strong, it's larger than San Francisco yet generally considered to lack a cohesive, marketable character. Veggielution co-founder Mark Medeiros believes San Jose could emerge from its big-city identity crisis by re-branding—not just a technopolis, but as an urban ag utopia. It seems fitting, with the city's 177 square miles of space and 6,000 acres of vacant lots.
"Imagine a metropolis that is known around the world for its successful integration of open space, working farmlands and well-designed urbanized areas," Medeiros says. "We have the opportunity to create a world-class city. Local farming can be a key part of our identity as San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley, and one of the reasons that people are drawn here. We still have a lot of land to create a sustainable local food system."
The Santa Clara Valley Food Alliance—a band of farmers, health groups and political leaders—echoes that vision. In a report out this winter, the group says that despite decades of policy efforts to protect farmland, the region has lost 200,000 acres, or 8 percent, since 1984. During the mid-1980s, San Jose declared the fields and orchards in the northern reach of the city "blighted" to justify spending Redevelopment Agency dollars. The city grew the industrial tax base and built office parks and housing. Fifty-five percent of remaining agricultural and range land is at risk of being built over, according to the Greenbelt Alliance, which also aims to protect Coyote Valley past the southern border of San Jose. With large-scale farming on the way out, the region should invest in smaller farms, whether on the urban edge or inner city, the food alliance advises.
Of course, small-scale farming comes with a unique set of challenges. The social mission often cuts into profitability, and community farm groups are often run by people with little business experience or limited knowledge of complex land-use policies. Urban farmers who want to focus on crop calendars and the grander scheme of food access and sustainability have to write grants and solicit donations to stay afloat.
But urban ag proponents have celebrated a few big victories so far this year.
In February, 88-year-old farmer Walter Cottle Lester bequeathed 284 acres of farmland along the lower edge of San Jose to the county. He could have sold the property to a developer for hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead he preserved it as farmland and open space. The first phase of development will create Martial Cottle Park, named for Lester's grandfather. The park should be completed by the end of next year, thanks to $26 million in voter-approved funds, and it will include land for farming, agricultural exhibitions, a visitor's center, picnic area and trails.
County and municipal governments also now have the go-ahead to create urban ag incentive zones, thanks to AB 551 becoming law in January. Though no one's taken action locally yet, Lewis, of Garden to Table, hopes to rally local lawmakers to take action like San Jose did last fall.
"That really paves the way for us," Lewis says. "It gives us a better chance to grow."