Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Educational farm”

Born this way: Soil Born Farms

Across a field of potatoes, broccoli and green beans, came the crack of a bat and male voices hollering from a dugout. In the middle of a farm tour at Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, a baseball game was underway at nearby Hagan Community Park.

Urban farm meets baseball game

Across another field, this one filled with wispy asparagus, swiss chard and collard greens, bicyclists swooshed past along the American River Bike Trail.

American River Parkway cyclist

Both were reminders that this is an urban farm, one attempting to connect a bustling and active community to its agricultural roots, and getting them to grow and eat fresh, seasonal food along the way.

Soil Born Farms veggie signs

My family and I visited Soil Born Farms at American River Ranch for its annual Day on the Farm Celebration this past weekend.

Soil Born Farm signs

The nonprofit, educational, certified organic farm pulled out all the stops, with workshops on everything from composting and raising chickens to seed saving and the importance of bees. Cooking demos taught new ways to tempt kids and adults to eat their veggies. Participants could meet the farm animals, tour the youth garden,

Soil Born Farms youth gardenas well as the farm,

Soil Born Farms tour

visit the newly constructed outdoor classroom,

Soil Born Farms, outdoor classroommake eco-friendly crafts, hear some live music, eat organic hot dogs and ice cream, and, of course, stop to smell the flowers.

Lily and the poppies

Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa began Soil Born Farms in 2000 as a for-profit farm, transforming it into an educational nonprofit in 2004. It has grown to operate two urban farms on 55 acres in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, with a focus on promoting urban agriculture, sustainable food systems and healthy food education.

The historical American River Ranch has been farmed since the 1840s. Soil Born Farms leased the land from Sacramento County in 2008.

On any given week, the farm may have a class or event intent on teaching people how to “grow your groceries.” Among the June class roster are topics such as weed management, the business of starting a small farm, and how to make herbal medicine.

But the owners, farm apprentices and volunteers here aren’t just teachers; they’re doers. They also operate a CSA program; sell at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and Midtown farmers market; operate a farm stand; and help Sacramento-area restaurants like Grange, Magpie Cafe, and Mulvaney‘s do the farm-to-table thing.

Soil Born Farms education coordinator Sarah Barnes, our farm tour leader, is in her third season with the farm. She began as an apprentice in 2011, when she spent the summer living in a tent on the farm. Before coming to Soil Born, the Connecticut native was a fourth grade teacher in New York City, who knew little about gardening, much less farming.

“The more I learned about how our food system works, the more I wanted to learn how to grow food myself,” she said. “I wanted to be on a farm that was not just commercial but also had educational programs. So here I am, on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California.”

At the Hoes Down

For many  of the past few years, my husband and I have gone to the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco during the first weekend in October. The lineup is always awesome; the crowds sometimes are not. This year, we opted for something more low-key, more family friendly, and closer to home: The Hoes Down Harvest Festival at Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley.

I’d been hearing about this annual “celebration of rural living” since we moved here about a year ago. We found it to be intensely family-friendly, dialed in with the crowd management, and a place where you can contra dance, listen to Americana music, swim in the creek,  learn how to raise chickens, make mozzarella, paint a gourd, and have a lot of fun all in a spectacular setting for a good cause. (Proceeds benefit future farmers, sustainable agriculture and community organizations.)

By the end of our visit, we’d helped Lily climb a giant hay stack,

petted some cows and sheep,

watched a sheep shearing, painted with Lily,


carved a pumpkin,

and lay in the grass down by the river and listened to some sweet harmonies from The Driftless, and Paige Anderson and the Fearless Kin.

We also took a horse-drawn trailer ride around the farm, where I heard a father say to his kids while they oohed and aahed over some ginormous pumpkins: “See guys, when we get our food baskets every week? This is where our food comes from. Remember that.”

But we felt like we didn’t fully take advantage of all that was offered. Looking at the schedule, how could anyone, really? There was so much to do, from workshops  on soil building to melon tastings, wine tastings, farm tours, apple bobbing, story time in a tipi, a circus, lots of music, and even a manure pitch-off. Good times.


They also offer camping in the orchard for people who already knew they couldn’t fit it all in within, say, 5 hours. And while the main festival ended Saturday, today offers another round of workshops, though visitors have pre-registered for them.

I could go on and on, but then I’d miss what’s remaining of this beautiful weekend. Suffice to say, we’ll be back next year — with our swimsuits and tents.

The Center holds

Like any good farm-loving family, we appreciate a good rain. But I admit, after days and days of it, our soggy spirits were ready for some sunshine last weekend when my husband, daughter and I headed to the Farm at Putah Creek in Winters, Calif., just west of Davis. The farm is the headquarters of the Center for Land-Based Learning, which was holding its annual spring open-house.

While assembling our picnic lunches in the back of our car and rousing Lily from her carseat-induced nap, we noticed family after family of kids in rain boots. “I think sandals may not have been the best footwear choice,” said Grant, looking down at his sockless feet in sandals.

But he needn’t have worried. The ground had dried and the skies had cleared to warm us on a perfect spring day.

The 40-acre property, stretched across a walnut orchard, welcomed us and dozens of other families for a day of hayrides, animal petting, and general meandering across its grounds.


We began in the barn, where lights strung from the rafters suggested a place with a history rich in food-sharing and perhaps a little dancing. A bunch of baby chicks peeped under a heat lamp in a galvanized tub in one corner. Lily approached them carefully, then slowly worked her way up to petting their soft, delicate heads. She loved it, and came back for more later.


From there, we went outside to visit some lambs and goats brought in from some nearby ranchers.


While we waited for the next hayride to start, we wandered through raspberry trellises, peeked into the composting area, noticed the fava beans planted in cover crops, and watched the bees trying to swallow a buzzing ceanothus (California lilac) shrub whole.


Once aboard the hayride, we learned about the farm’s work to create a place where agriculture and wildlife habitat can coexist—with native plant hedgerows designed with wildlife and pollinators in mind.


We also found out more about the Center for Land-Based Learning, which has interested me since moving here 7 months ago. It boasts the California Farm Academy, where budding farmers are mentored and taught about producing, managing and marketing specialty crops. Its SLEWS (Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship) program gets high school students involved in habitat restoration projects. And its FARMS Leadership program turns young people on to sustainable farming and connects them with working farms for hands-on experiences. (And they make a nice spot for weddings, so there you go.)

The property is home to Free Spirit Farms, a sustainable farm run by Davis native Toby Hastings. He leases a few acres of land from the Center for Land-Based Learning, with the understanding his farm can also be used for educational purposes for the youth programs. Hastings runs a small CSA and sells food to Bay Area restaurants, which makes me want to return to find out more about him and his farm. He wasn’t available the day of our little tour, but this 2008 Davis Enterprise article is an intriguing read about him.

Our visit was only a small snapshot of this busy farm. But it all seems tied to the idea of creating a place where healthy food systems and healthy ecosystems go hand in hand, and then teaching the next generation how to bring it to the table.

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