A Big City Chef Returns Home to Plant Urban Farming Roots
October 20, 2016 | Karen Briner
Nolan Schmidt of Tower Urban Family Farm (TUFF) in Fresno, recalls a particularly eye-opening incident at one of his urban garden sites, when a group of children from a local school stopped by to sample some of their produce. “One of the kids tried a kiwi and you just saw his eyes light up like he had just discovered something he never knew was possible.” Nolan learned that none of these children had ever seen a kiwi. The irony was not lost on him. Not far from where these children lived, kiwis are farmed commercially on a large scale. “So maybe two miles from their home is a kiwi farm, but yet they’ve never seen a kiwi.” And just like much of the produce grown in this fertile area, it ends up being shipped elsewhere, served up in big city restaurants and markets around the world, while neighborhoods of Fresno are plagued with food deserts.
It was an unusual path that led Nolan to urban farming, for he is actually a chef by trade. At 17 he pursued the culinary arts, working in many restaurants in Fresno, until he realized that to progress he would have to move to a big city. He ended up working at a three star restaurant in New York. “It’s kind of funny that I had to cook in New York to realize I wanted to be a farmer in Fresno,” he says. It was there that he realized that Fresno and the Central Valley grow some of the best produce in the world, “And it’s then shipped around the world for all these chefs to define themselves.”
He moved back to Fresno with the idea of starting a restaurant and soon recognized that instead of trying to compete with other chefs, he could create something that’s missing for chefs in Fresno. “A lot of the produce is produced here, but it’s all immediately shipped either to Los Angeles or San Francisco, to a larger or better market.” This makes it harder for chefs trying to do high-end food in Fresno to have a price point that works for them, because the price of the produce is so inflated. He could offer them fresh, local produce at a reasonable price.
While Nolan had always kept small vegetable gardens, he’d never farmed professionally. He invested one of his paychecks – about 500 dollars – into a backyard where he started growing tomatoes and vegetables that he sold to local restaurants. But setting up an urban farm proved to be more complicated than anticipated, as he soon discovered that there was a city ordinance that made it illegal to farm within the city limits. While you could grow produce in your own garden, it was not legal to sell that produce. “Fresno is very much an ag city but at the same time it’s very much geared to industrial ag and not towards small farmers,” he explains.
Nolan thought the ordinance was preposterous, so with the help of his brothers, Kiel and Jordan, he went ahead with his urban farming project and was very vocal about it. They went to the paper, to the news, and even addressed the city council. They invited people to their farm and showed them what they were doing. Some people in the community were supportive of him, while others were not. Nolan feels that this lack of support came mostly from ignorance and he realized that a lot of reeducation was necessary. What he found really surprising is that he received more support and encouragement from outside sources than from within his own community in Fresno. “Individuals and private people and neighborhoods definitely supported us, but as far as the City Council – they definitely stood in our way before they ever tried to help us.”
It took almost two years to get the city to change the ordinance, and while it was in effect it presented a huge hurdle to the farm. For example, Nolan says, they couldn’t get grants or even open up a bank account in the farm’s name because it was not legitimate. Once the ordinance was removed, they continued to grow steadily and now TUFF boasts three acres, comprised of backyard gardens scattered around the city, as well as an acre and a half where they grow row crops. The next step Nolan is hoping to take is to buy a vacant lot in the inner city, “and to then slowly be buying vacant lots throughout Fresno and turning them back into agricultural plots.”
Reluctant to become one of the many Americans who live in debt, Nolan opted for growing the business slowly and being independent rather than take out a loan. For the first couple of years he worked as a chef while running the farm. But for the last year and a half the farm has been supporting him full time. Because he had no debt, as soon as they started turning a profit he was able to put the money back into the farm or towards wages. This season he’s hoping to employ a couple of part-timers – paying them $12.50 an hour – which is a good wage in economically depressed Fresno. He points out that soil in the Central Valley is amazing, especially in his neighborhood where most of the houses were built around 1900 and where a lot of the original good farm land was. He aims to show people how much potential revenue there are in backyards in Fresno and to educate people who don’t have a farming background on how to grow produce in the inner city.
While the farm is not yet certified organic, Nolan has spent a lot of time educating himself on how to farm organically. The farm doesn’t use any pesticides and one of their main sustainable practices is not tilling the earth. “When you till you’re releasing water and carbon out of the ground – two things we desperately need to keep in the ground.” They also make sure that carbon is put back into the ground – whether it’s through compost or wood chips – and irrigation is done with a water-saving drip system as opposed to sprinkler irrigation.
Nolan’s sensibility as a chef influences what he grows and has helped him to carve out a niche market. He started with tomatoes because he realized that they are so important in many cuisines, from Italian to North African. He also grows cucumbers, eggplants, melons, peppers, with a focus on produce that is hard to find, like purple, green and yellow tomatoes, or round lemon cucumbers. With herbs they stick to less common varieties, such as French lavender, which is more fragrant, and preferred by chefs. Nolan seeks out ordinary ingredients that a restaurant needs every day and grows a variety that he considers to be spectacular and uncommon. It gives him an edge because then he’s not trying to compete with the larger farms, instead providing a supply of more rare ingredients.
In the future, Nolan would like to see the farm expand to about 60 or 90 acres. “Then I’d be large enough to actually really be affecting food issues in Fresno.” Right now, although he’s providing great produce, he believes that the level and the size that he’s operating within, “is only making an ideological effect, rather than an actual physical change to the access in Fresno.” He wants to see the farm get large enough to have an impact on Fresno County as a whole.