Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: On Good Land

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I stumbled on this book at the library while hunting down gardening books. Written in 1998, it describes the history of Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California.  It's a quick read with its thick, glossy pages and numerous photos (though maddeningly without captions). It's yet another example of my being late to the party (I'm an overly excited 'noob' about all things gardening and sustainable living—much has been written on the topic over the years). Lucky for me, I found it—it's a fantastic story and a perfect model of how agriculture might survive in tiny bits and pieces among unending suburban sprawl.

Right away the book captures the imagination with google-map style views of Fairview Gardens: one picture taken in 1954 and one in 1998. This 12 acre parcel of land has literally been swallowed by suburban sprawl, highways and development, yet it thrives as an organic farm.

The story of how this land was kept from being turned into development itself is an inspiring tale. Author Michael Ableman takes over as a 'manager' of the land, living in its rickety old farmhouse with his wife and new baby, and tending the small orchards and fields, though he must report to the land's long-time owners, the Chapmans. He has expensive false starts (a whole orchard of green peaches, planted, tended, and harvested with immense care, that never proved sellable) and many tough obstacles (accidentally bursting irrigation pipes and causing a flood), but nothing provides as much frustration and challenge as the neighbors. Many are outright angry and want him—and the farm--gone. They had not purchased an expensive home in a sought-after neighborhood only to learn after the fact that a rotting compost pile lay behind their yard, or that roosters would crow in the early hours. Or that a tractor would make its rounds, quite literally in their backyards.

Never knowing exactly how he would save the land from being sold by the owners to development,  Ableman charges forward, working hard and winning over neighbors who learn to love the fresh food the farm produced. Ableman never shies from reaching out to everyone around him, whether to stand up to their demands or to calmly invite them to come see for themselves what was happening on the farm. He exhibits a gutsy determination that I find admirable. There are times it seems it would be much easier to give up on this parcel of land and try his hand at farming somewhere else (at one point his father offers him family land in Deleware--a climate that would in many ways be easier to deal with). However, Ableman perseveres through setbacks and even a divorce. After over a decade of challenges, sweat, and tears, the landowners allow the 13 acres to sell (for a whopping 750k)...but NOT to the developers. Cornelia Chapman allowed Ableman and a group of committed activists in the community—who formed a non-profit organization--to purchase the land and place it in a public trust. In Ableman's words:

“Fairview Gardens was never mine—and not just because someone else held the title. I have known for a long time that its role was to be a public place. It could never be just a private farm, or someone's personal retreat back to the land. Instead, this farm has provided a way for people to reclaim a connection to one of the most important and intimate acts: growing the food that they and their children eat. Over the course of a few generations, most people have given that power away to distant farms. They let this vital process take place out of sight, losing the pleasures and the connections that come with it. ...We cannot all go back to the land, but we can provide something of the land to everyone.”

Ableman's book is succinct, and his words are powerful; none wasted. Although the book is very quick and easy to read, it doesn't lack in humor, insight, and powerful motivation.  Models like Fairview Gardens will be more and more necessary as we navigate new ideas for agriculture (namely, small community farms). I was thrilled to have happened upon such a gem, and I plan to look into the present day Fairveiw Gardens at www.fairviewgardens.org.

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