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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Long Beach, CA Urban Farm Shows Success of New Food Movement Will Come from Lots of Small Efforts

August 29, 2013 |

Photo credit: Gladys Avenue Urban Farm

Photo credit: Gladys Avenue Urban Farm

Thirty-eight years ago, before he discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and became an advocate for sustainable oceans and built a boat out of plastic bottles to sail to Hawaii, just to make a point about ocean pollution, Charles Moore had a little farm.

On a 2,000 square foot plot smack in the middle of Long Beach, with an upholstery shop on one side and an auto body repair clinic on the other, Moore started growing vegetables and fruits so he could make lunch for his employees in his own furniture repair shop. From that effort, Gladys Avenue Urban Farm was born.

“We had the Long Beach Food Coop back then,” Moore said. “A bunch of us started advocating for turning vacant lots in the city into community gardens. Till then, the city was just pouring pesticides into vacant lots to get rid of weeds. But we started mulching and making compost and eventually, our farm turned into a nursery for the Long Beach Organic Community Gardens.”

In the intervening years, the land has seen many iterations – CSA, nursery, pick-your-own farm stand. The farm has morphed into a testing ground for new kinds of organic growing and a search for a business model that is sustainable. And it’s all been done on a volunteer basis.

Maya Hey, one of those volunteers, said that the little farm just “draws like-minded people like a magnet” and their efforts now yield enough bounty to supply a handful of farmers market vendors, a catering company, a CSA group, a forward-thinking neighborhood preschool and a private chef.

“We grow certified organic,” Hey said. “All of what we make is ploughed back – no pun intended – into the farm. We’re a gaggle of volunteers who can’t get enough of getting our hands dirty. So our livelihood is not based on sales. At Gladys Avenue, we have people sincerely engaged with this slow rumbling of a new food movement. We want to be connected to Mother Earth.”

Their passion has yielded impressive results. Corn, beans, lettuces, melons, fruits, winter root vegetables – all are harvested with an eye toward sustainable practices, from crop rotation to organic composting to companion planting to reliance on helper insects like ladybugs to keep pests away. They use a cistern to collect water. The proceeds of their harvest go to purchase seed stock, equipment and a drip irrigation system.

Moore sees the farm as an extension of his philosophy about the modern lifestyle.

“We no longer have a sense of place,” he said. “People need everything now and we’ve become appendages to our own electronic devices. So the idea that you need a commitment to the soil over decades doesn’t work with the new economic model that only takes into account quarterly reports. It’s shortsighted, but shortsightedness is rewarded with high profit.”

Gladys Avenue supplies others with profit, however. Aliye Aydin of beachgreens, in Long Beach, is one. She tweaks the CSA model, providing home delivery for her customers and recipes for whatever goes into the farm box that week, thanks to her years training as a chef.

Her supply chain reaches all the way up to Fresno for the cherries and pears she can’t find around Los Angeles, but she relies on Gladys Avenue for a large chunk of her weekly deliveries. beachgreens has been thriving since 2006, to Aydin’s great surprise. And she says she is continually gratified by customers’ comments upon tasting her organic produce, like, “Is this what vegetables are supposed to taste like?”

“beachgreens works for our family,” Aydin said. “We have a good quality of life and eat good food. It’s not just a business decision, but a way of life. The Gladys Avenue people feel the same way. Success for the new food movement will come from lots of small efforts like ours.”

Hey said that community outreach is what is working for Gladys Avenue. They partner with a local preschool to bring organic produce for the children’s lunches and they invite the children to the farm to “see things growing.” She also says it’s just another step to getting people to change the way they think about food.

Moore sees enough localism to begin to believe there will be a change in the paradigm, crediting advocates like Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver with making consumers aware of our nation’s food cycle. He says people need to “withdraw” from the status quo.

“With the farm, we’re creating our own regional economy,” Moore said. “Since you won’t change the corporate food system, we’ll change the way we eat.”

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