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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Suburban Organic Paradise Fairview Gardens, Goleta, California

By Chris Lazarus

Compared to the micro-scale agriculture projects scraping sustenance from the harsh inner city, Fairview Gardens (in Goleta, near Santa Barbara) seems to have it made. Twelve and a half acres of rich farmland are tended organically, producing 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables, as well as chickens and goats -- all in all, enough food to feed 500 families and employ 23 people full time. Equally enviable in the eyes of those farming on someone else's property is the fact that the land is owned by a local non-profit dedicated to urban agriculture and protected from development in perpetuity through a conservation easement with a land trust, specifying that the land must continue as a working organic farm.

Life at Fairview Gardens wasn't always so serene and well-ordered. Typical of agriculture projects in heavily developed areas, success has come -- after many years -- as the result of an enormous amount of dedication and hard work on the part of one persevering visionary and those whom he has inspired.

Michael Ableman arrived at Fairview Gardens 20 years ago to graft fruit trees, soon became the manager and, through trial and error, transformed the small fruit farm shipping its produce to distant markets into the abundant organic supermarket for local consumption that it is today. He is passionate about involving and educating people, particularly children, in the process of growing their own food, and initiated many outreach programs to the local suburban community, as well as the inner city of Los Angeles, 100 miles south of Goleta. More than 5,000 people visit Fairview Gardens every year for tours, farming and cooking classes, internships, festivals, and cultural events.

Ableman is also the author of two books (From the Good Earth and On Good Land), lushly illustrated with his own photos, describing his own organic learning process of working with the land and the long, ultimately successful, struggle with developers and suburban neighbors, who don't want to listen to tractor motors humming after 5:00 p.m. or roosters crowing at sunrise.

The farm is run on a for-profit basis and is economically viable, selling organic and unusual produce to the affluent community surrounding it. Ableman focuses much of his non-profit outreach and educational work on communities in need, however.

Fairview Gardens has enjoyed many advantages over inner city farming experiments. The fertile land had never been anything other than wild or a farm. Its owners (until 1994 when the non-profit purchased it) were sympathetic to the concept of organic farming and tolerant of the changes wrought by Ableman. Despite the complaints of tractor noise, compost odor and roosters, crowing, the surrounding suburban community seems a world away from the crime, drugs, and poverty of the most blighted neighborhoods of our largest cities.

But two aerial photos of Fairview Gardens, one taken in 1954 and the other in 1998, poignantly reveal a more ominous threat to healthy food, sustainable culture and humans beings, connection to land and nature than any criminal or chemical pollutant -- the destruction of some of the richest farmland in the world by wasteful, automobile-dependent sprawl development. In the first photo, Fairview Gardens was just one fairly indistinguishable farm in a lush, gentle landscape of fields and orchards. The second photo, taken from the same vantage point not quite fifty years later, shows a tiny green island nearly swallowed up in a concrete and asphalt ocean, crowded in on all sides by industrial parking lots, tract housing, roads, and shopping malls.

Here is the ironic corollary to the accelerating abandonment of urban properties. While community and entrepreneurial gardeners in large cities labor mightily to coax life out of debris-strewn, contaminated, abandoned plots, huge holdings of clean, fertile, relatively untouched land are being paved over in more sparsely populated areas so that real estate developers can reap their far more lucrative harvest.

Confronted with this insatiable appetite for land, responsible for the annual loss of 400,000 acres of farmland in the U.S., the persistence and flourishing of any small farm, even one as blessed as Fairview Gardens, must be recognized as a miracle. Michael Ableman is one of the many heroic Davids battling the Goliaths of an unsustainable system.

Contributing Editor, Chris Lazarus, is a principal of A.J. Lazarus and Associates Public Relations in New York City. As a freelance journalist, she writes on environmental and sustainability issues for television, radio, and print media.

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