Organic agriculture and activism
intersect at UCSC’s farm apprentice program
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS
For 20-some years, while sitting in her office and working as a bilingual counselor at Santa Cruz High School, Ana Rasmussen longed to take six months off and study organic farming just up the hill at UC Santa Cruz. But the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture has always been a residential program and she was raising her kids, so as soon as they grew up, she wasted no time in applying and becoming an apprentice.
Friends had told her, “It will change your life,” and she agrees the program inspired her in many ways. “It was a combination of excellent teaching—what we learned to do with our hands—but most of all getting to know the other apprentices while we were working side by side and learning where they came from and what they hoped to do with this training,” she recalls.
As an apprentice, she was especially impressed by the work of two alumni who returned to speak to the group: Doron Comerchero (2004), who runs the Santa Cruz-based FoodWhat?! youth empowerment organization, and Karen Washington (2008), recently recognized by the Obama Administration for developing urban gardens in New York City neighborhoods.
“It just never occurred to me that you could do social justice work in a garden,” says Rasmussen, who went on to found her first community garden program, Mesa Verde Gardens, in Watsonville.
Today Rasmussen and two former farm-workers run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program called Esperanza Community Farms in Watsonville. She says the community is ringed by organic farms, but much of the organic produce is shipped away and priced too high for farm-workers to buy. So they offer affordable organic CSA boxes containing the types of tomatoes, chiles and cilantro familiar in Watsonville kitchens.
Second year apprentice Lucas Hill (top row) hopes to grow stone fruits in the Davis area, apprentice instructor Kellee Matsushita-Tseng (center row-left) and Chadwick garden manager Orin Martin (center row-right), graduate Ana Rasmussen of Esperanza Community Farms (bottom row)
As one of the country’s most respected organic training courses, UCSC’s farm apprenticeship program has been challenging conventional agriculture for 50 years, but now the focus is shifting with instructors, students and alumni—like Ana Rasmussen—challenging the nation’s food system as a whole, asking why some people still don’t have access to healthy food and others still go hungry.
The 30-acre farm and 3-acre Alan Chadwick Garden host the highly competitive apprenticeship program, held each year from April to October. Some 39 individuals are selected from an international pool of hundreds of applicants. Tuition is about $6,000; but to make it as accessible as possible, no eager organic advocate is turned away for lack of funds. Many scholarships are available—including the Matthew Raiford Scholarship for veterans and the Food Justice and Equity Scholarship that funded six apprentices this year.
“We get the activists and teach them how to farm,” says Orin Martin (1974), beloved teacher, gardener and orchardist who has been part of the program for 40 years. “We have a strong tradition of practical apprentice-style learning about gardening and farming and now we’re weaving in the threads of social justice, so it’s a really robust tapestry we’re building here.” Other notable instructors include Jim Leap, Christof Bernau, Lyn Garling, Liz Milazzo, and Kirstin Yogg, to name a few. In addition to ensuring each group of apprentices is as diverse as possible, part of keeping the program relevant in today’s world begins with tackling food insecurity right on campus.
Physics professor George Brown has spent a great deal of his spare time championing the apprentice program among donors. He used the word “magical” to describe the farm more than once during an interview under a walnut tree on the farm. In 2012, Brown helped recruit environmental studies professor Daniel Press to take the reins as executive director when the program was facing devastating financial consequences as a result of the recession.
Press, who admits he loves the challenge of fundraising, points out that these are extraordinary times when students can go hungry because of the inadequacy of student aid and rising rents.
“As we increased our production of food (grown by the apprentices), it was diverted off campus,” Press says, acknowledging that was a natural way to teach farm business skills. “Now we turn that food up the hill toward the students,” in the form of low-cost, pop-up veggie stands and even emergency food pantries to address student food insecurity.
Brown says the philanthropic community began paying attention to food security issues just in time to save the apprentice program by providing multi-year operating support, so it didn’t have to double tuition.
The newest apprentice instructor, Kellee Matsushita-Tseng (2014), has a background in community organizing. She became the current farm and garden assistant manager after two seasons of apprenticeship, and calls the farm a place of transformational thinking. She wants the apprentices she trains in organic farming techniques to also develop “the capacity to think critically about the food system and their place in it as a whole. I found farming to be the intersection of all the things I was working on,” which she lists as labor rights, community and women’s health issues, education, youth empowerment and prison justice.
However, like many people, the cost of land in California is prohibiting her from even imagining having her own farm.
“We’re at a really crucial place right now where so much land is turning hands,” says Matsushita-Tseng. “It’s actually something I stay up at night thinking about because I know dozens and dozens if not hundreds of young farmers who are so eager and so knowledgeable and so skilled, but they can’t access the land and the capital to do this and yet all that land is being lost.”
Part of last year’s curriculum was a presentation by farmer and role model Mai Nguyen who is the California organizer of the National Young Farmers Coalition and on the board of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. She also co-owns and operates the Sonoma Grain Collaborative, and her work complements that of former apprentice and attorney, Neil Thapar (2012), from the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland.
Thapar and Nguyen are some of the midwives of a re-energized interest in alternative farm ownership models in California, and are hoping to re-shape the food system into something more responsive and fair to both eaters and farmers. “Consolidation of farm land ownership by non-farmers who don’t know anything about producing food threatens the availability of food itself,” Thapar says.
Through land trusts and agricultural easements, new legal ownership structures for beginning farmers are in the works in California.
The UCSC Farm & Garden have always been populated with people pushing the limits of their era who relish hard work. From Steve Kaffka—who as a conscientious objector taught the first group of apprentices—to the class of 2018, the farm has been and continues to be a place of transformation.
Says Kaffka: “I was working pretty much seven days a week. The work ethic that Alan brought and embodied was basically the only thing I knew as well; there was only one way to do things, and that was to work constantly, dawn to dusk, which everybody did. Actually, when you’re young, it’s a glorious thing to do. It’s a glorious thing to be so in your body. I think one of the most powerful things that Alan taught had nothing to do with particular gardening techniques; it had to do with being in your body, and being able to physically effect change in the landscape with your muscles and have that kind of direct, intimate connection with the land.”
And Martin, who has personally mentored nearly all the apprentices since 1977, says he still loves coming to work every day.
“One of the joys of my life is working with bright, motivated 20- and 30- somethings. They come here to learn and then go on to do things I would neither dare nor dream of doing, and they succeed! I am honored to play a small role in teaching them.
They are truly the ‘light of the world’ and have measurably improved the face of organic farming.”
Ellen Farmer is a freelance writer and organizer living in Santa Cruz.
GRADUATES IN THE FIELD
“The mothership of organic,” is what Bob Scowcroft calls the UCSC Farm. He was the first executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and founder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). Our myriad regional farmers’ markets and CSA programs, along with the legitimizing legal structure of organic certification, all were developed in our backyard with continuous input from the apprentice program. How many of these local farmers do you know?
- Jim Nelson and Beth Benjamin (1967)
Camp Joy Gardens, Boulder Creek
- Dennis Tamura (1979)
Blue Heron Farms, Corralitos
- Kelly Mulville (1984)
Paicines Ranch, Hollister
- Jered Lawson (1994) and Nancy Vail (1997)
Pie Ranch, Pescadero
- Joe Schirmer (1995)
Dirty Girl Produce, Santa Cruz
- Tom Broz (1995)
Live Earth Farm, Watsonville
- Ryan Casey (2001)
Blue House Farm, Pescadero
- Mike Irving and John Vars (2002)
Fifth Crow Farm, Pescadero
- Jasmine Roohani (2002)
Route 1 Farms, Santa Cruz
- Teresa Kurtak (2004)
Fifth Crow Farm, Pescadero
- Emily Freed (2005)
Jacobs Farm/del Cabo and Farmer Freed, Santa Cruz
- Heather April and James Cook (2006)
Groundswell Farm, Santa Cruz
- Caleb Barron (2007)
Fogline Farm, Santa Cruz
- Marsha Habib (2008)
Oya Organics, Hollister
- Emily Parsons (2011)
Everett Family Farm, Soquel
- Caroline Martin (2015)
Wild Moon Flowers, Santa Cruz
- Laura Vollset (2016)
Fieldsketch Farm, Soquel
Photo courtesy Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz
ALAN CHADWICK’S LEGACY
More than 1,500 apprentices have participated since the farm was built when the back-to-theland movement was in full swing in the 1970s.
Thanks to the robust efforts of Alan Chadwick—whom many people considered a genius—a rocky hillside on the brand new campus was transformed into an eye-catching flower, fruit and vegetable garden. A Shakespearean actor and World War II British Navy commander trained in biointensive gardening techniques by the likes of Rudolf Steiner, Chadwick had what we now call PTSD from the war and had, by his own description, “forsaken mankind.” He maintained a reverence for the bounties of nature, however, and this proved contagious to students.
When called upon, he could also be an excellent chef and host, a tradition that continues at the farm. Copious Chadwick lore can be found at alan-chadwick.org or by reading Paul A. Lee’s tribute in the summer 2017 issue of EMB or online. Faculty and staff witnessed the miracle unfold, and soon had the daily option of picking up free flower bouquets freshly cut at dawn by student volunteers. The French-intensive, always-organic garden and farm with the ocean view became embedded in UCSC culture and that of the wider Monterey Bay community.
Now operated under UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), the Environmental Studies department and the Social Sciences division, the farm and garden are open to the public for strolling daily from 8am–5pm, and children are welcome. The public can also participate in the Friends of the Farm and Garden program initiated by Louise Cain, a faculty wife impassioned by the farm’s importance to the surrounding community. There were many times when nobody knew where the next dollar would come from, so Cain built a membership organization which continues to train docents and volunteers today. Community members can take gardening classes with Martin and others, and Friends members get a discount.
The weekly farm stand at the foot of campus and annual plant sale provide income and marketing experience for apprentices.
Ellen Farmer is a freelance writer and organizer living in Santa Cruz.