This article was written by Information Program Coordinator Carrie Bennett.
On a drizzly June morning, a group of eight Ecology Center staff, volunteers, and friends visited Dig Deep Farms, an urban farming enterprise with seven farm plots within Alameda County. Our first stop was a plot of land lent to Dig Deep by the next-door neighbor – Alameda County Fire Station #3. The ground was bursting with rows of tomato, zucchini, and other vegetable crops. A small team of urban farmers was tending the plot, experimenting with various trellising methods for the tall tomato plants. We met the farmers, who range in age from 17-37 years old, and the farm manager. Sam, Dominic, Maurice, Tommi, Chardella, and Reggie are all staff farmers at Dig Deep Farms, an urban farming program providing green jobs and training for at-risk young adults, and growing healthy fresh produce for the surrounding community. Along with farm manager Jesse, these farmers are growing a variety of produce at several different sites, as well as developing new farming locations and diversifying their crops even further.
Dig Deep Farms is based in Ashland and Cherryland, two towns in unincorporated Alameda County, near San Leandro. These two towns, with a combined population of 35,000, have little local industry, and access to quality groceries is limited. The people living in these towns are struck by disproportionately high levels of health problems which are attributable to diet and lack of access to healthy foods.
When the rain and wind started to get stronger, we decided to take the conversation inside the on-site trailer. Donated by the sheriff’s department, the trailer serves as an office, a tool shed, and a comfortable place for the Dig Deep staff to gather. Inside the trailer, Hank Herrera, the director of the program and the leader of our tour, shared the history of Dig Deep Farms, as well as some of his own experiences prior to this project, and the immediate and long-term goals of this enterprise. Hank grew up in the Santa Clara valley, when it was still primarily agricultural land, and has worked in California and on the east coast on urban agriculture, community revitalization, and food justice projects for decades. Hank and Tammy run the business of Dig Deep Farms, and are dedicated to growing a truly sustainable urban farming enterprise that is able to support its farmers with living wage jobs, while still providing quality food at affordable prices to its customers.
Dig Deep Farms is a program of DSAL — the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Activities League. DSAL was designed to provide recreational and educational opportunities for the youth of unincorporated Alameda County. In addition to Dig Deep Farms, DSAL also offers a Youth Leadership Program, various dance and exercise classes, and a thriving soccer league comprised of 900 youth and 50 coaches! Hank credits DSAL Executive Director, Sergeant Martin Neideffer with having the insight and passion to create and support Dig Deep Farms. Inspired in part by Van Jones’ book, Green Collar Jobs, the vision of urban agriculture as a viable means for creating real green jobs took root, and Dig Deep Farms was born. In April 2010, with support from Kaiser, Koshland, and federal stimulus grants, among others, 10 urban farmers were hired, and Dig Deep Farms broke ground, launching a community-based food system with strong roots and big plans.
Currently, Dig Deep Farms offers a CSA bag, and also sells fresh produce to restaurants. The CSA bags include vegetables grown by Dig Deep Farms, supplemented by fruits from Veritable Vegetable, a supplier of certified organic produce since 1974. The healthy food bags are packed at rented space in a local church. CSA subscriber numbers have climbed from 20 to 150. The bags come in various sizes, and with a variety of payment plans. Restaurant customers especially like the squash blossoms and collard greens.
Recent funding sources have included a USDA research grant, as well as a grant from the Alameda County Community Development Agency. The Alameda County General Services Agency manages land belonging to the county and has provided a 5-acre lease for four years. Another property owner is negotiating a long term lease for 20 acres at $1/year. This will be planted with several acres of vegetables and 12 acres of orchard crops. The grant funding is essential for the build-out of the various farm plots, but the long-term goal of Dig Deep Farms is to model a self-sustaining business supported by the sale of the farms’ products. The goals for 2011 are to increase production capacity and increase the number of families connecting to the services. They hope to break even financially by September 2011. Additionally, Dig Deep Farms’ community development manager Julie is working on outreach and marketing. As Dig Deep Farms grows, they plan to feature produce stands and farmers’ markets. Eventually, the plan includes opening a grocery store.
The farmers of Dig Deep Farms understand the demands of farming, and are committed to the work and to the mission. Their approach to food justice is to build a successful food enterprise network at scale. Previous industries, such as automobile manufacturing, have left the area, resulting in a dearth of job opportunities and economic instability. An equitable business model is being created that can be replicated and used to inspire others. Dig Deep Farms could eventually open a local cannery, providing jobs and preserving the summer’s crops.
Recruiting for the first group of farmers was done through DSAL. Dig Deep Farms is planning to recruit new farm team staff through working with Youth Employment Partnership, faith-based groups, and re-entry programs from the criminal justice system. The current staff of about ten farmers has had very little turnover since the work began. When asked what makes the staff want to stay on board, the young farmers say that they enjoy growing and distributing healthy food for the community, and the feeling of planting a seed, helping it grow, and knowing they made it happen. This is the kind of ownership and personal investment the program intends to inspire, and succeeds at. Other than the farm manager, none of the farm team had previous growing experience, yet all now identify as farmers, and take pride in growing healthy crops. Farm manager Jesse mentions that as they farm each plot of land, the efficiency will keep improving, and they will continue to build and improve the soil and maximize production.
The next stop on our tour was a formerly unused lot next to Pacific Apparel. With the blessing of the work clothes store, Dig Deep Farms created a vegetable garden beside the parking lot. Beans, chard, radishes, favas, and other plants are lined up in neat rows. Across the street is the Jack Holland Sr. Park, home to a popular skate park and picnic area. Dig Deep Farms plans to open a produce stand at the park. A growers certificate is required for each selling location.
We then traveled a short way to a home with a farm on its sizable grounds. The pineapple guava tree was in bloom, and Hank told us the petals were edible. They were delicious. The grounds also house a barn with three goats, who take care of the weeding. Fig and walnut trees, bees, and freshly planted vegetable beds fill out the backyard farm. Well water is used for irrigation.
Our last stop on the tour was farther away, up in the hills of Castro Valley. It consists of two parcels of land within a 2,000-acre cattle range. The one-acre parcel features a large historic barn emblazoned with a painted “Spark Stoves” vintage advertisement on its face. Just a jog down the road brought us to the larger parcel, a graceful upslope that will hold an 11-acre orchard, as well as vegetable crops and animals such as goats and sheep. The plan is to use diversified farming methods, rotating cover crops, animal grazing, and vegetable crops to continually build the soil and keep it healthy and fertile.
Dig Deep Farms is an inspiring and exciting project – and it is just getting started. These young farmers are building soil, community, and economic security. Visit their website to learn more, or to subscribe to their CSA bag.