Spinning the Web of Organic Food Systems

farm-bbIt was a fine rainy winter afternoon in January when I set off to visit UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Affectionately shortened to “CASFS,” this is a 33-acre paradise of organic farmland and gardens where undergraduates from the University go through an apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. Since its inception over 50 years ago, over 1500 young, ardent souls have ploughed the soil, mulched the compost, and sown the seeds of agroecology in order to make a difference in the world. These seeds have sprouted into an organic food nexus that encompasses the central coast where I live, improving lives here and throughout the good food movement across the country.

German BackyardSince 1967, UC Santa Cruz has been a hotbed of organic learning when legendary English gardener Alan Chadwick began the UCSC Garden & Farm project. I know many who attended throughout the years and broke ground and bread with him. UC Santa Cruz was the first university to endeavor a focus on sustainable agriculture, commercial organic production methods, and the social issues associated with developing a sustainable food system. The Farm and Garden would gradually sprout an offshoot, the current Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems.

CASFS‘s apprenticeship program is like no other. Here they work to cultivate the next generation of organic farmers and gardeners. The organic fields, gardens, orchards, and greenhouses at UC Santa Cruz are the classrooms where students experience the toil and triumph of raising and selling food and flowers. They study how to make the food system more sustainable by addressing issues of social justice.

Many graduates go on to become organic farmers, market gardeners, urban agriculturists, school garden teachers—all working to promote local, healthy food in communities across the land. In my area alone, between Watsonville and Pescadero, the apprenticeship program has played a role in starting more than 25 successful organic farming operations. The impact of the graduates is most visible to me here in the central coast, but it reaches well beyond my region.

In San Francisco, apprenticeship alumni run gardening workshops every weekend of the year, and they teach criminal offenders how to find another way. In LA, they’re breaking new ground—planting orchards for schools and homeless shelters. In Arkansas and Iowa, they are starting small organic farms and shaping to the local food movement. Look to Vermont, were they’re teaching young farmers at the University of Vermont’s beginning farmer program. In Missouri, they’re working with high school youth—teaching farming, entrepreneurship and life skills. Apprentices in New York City are running the Farm School NYC program, teaching city dwellers to grow their own food.

Former UCSC apprentices are working in 45 states across the nation and in many countries. Check out the Farm and Garden Alumni & Project Map to visibly comprehend the scope and breadth this web now covers.

Young SproutsAs I walk across the rows of emerging carrots and kale, I relearn the word Cucurbits (gourd, cucumber family) and I realize learning isn’t only for the university students. Hollowed away and adjacent to a verdant portion of the Farm and Garden land is Life Lab. This innovative nonprofit organization has, over the years, emerged as a national leader in the garden-based learning movement for young students. This garden classroom, protected by an ancient avocado tree, is a living, breathing laboratory. It provides real-time experiential learning for people of all ages through field trips, children’s camps, and teacher workshops. Their outdoor garden classroom is a place to grow and harvest delectable edibles, cook stone soup from what’s in season, and to learn about food and nutrition.

The folks at Life Lab have been at it for over 35 years. Through workshops and consultations, they have reached tens of thousands of educators across the country with the inspiration and information necessary to engage young people in gardens and on farms. Their workshops and award-winning publications are a national web of resources for educators and families interested in engaging youth in farms and gardens.

I culminate my trip with a goodbye and receive an armful of practical farming resources, including Teaching Organic Farming & Gardening and Teaching Direct Marketing and Small Farm Viability: Resources for Instructors, publications of CASFS. With this heavy treasure slung over my shoulder, I ponder the affect this relatively small plot of land has had on not only sustainable agriculture but even on me. The fact that I landed in Santa Cruz some 35 years ago was mightily influenced by the organic web spun by the people at UCSC. The confluences and entanglements have come full circle, as now the UNFI Foundation, of which I am the ED, supports their work through yearly grants.

Without the hard work and vision of the people of the UC Farm and Garden, would I even be penning this blog today? This web is powerful!

2 thoughts on “Spinning the Web of Organic Food Systems

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