Urban Farming and the Wonders of Nature In a Food Desert

Chanowk and Judith Yisrael are farmers in the suburban South Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, which has been designated as a food desert. On their half-acre property, they grow 40 fruit trees and raise bees and chickens in what they refer to as a “home grown revolution.” Chanowk, who left his job as a software technician to become a farmer, is the president of Slow Food Sacramento and he and Judith joined forces with other urban farmers to pass a law permitting residents to sell their homegrown produce. Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director, interviewed Chanowk and Judith at the annual EcoFarm Conference.

ARTY MANGAN: Tell me about your farm.

CHANOWK YISRAEL: Our farm is where all the animals in the neighborhood live. We’re surrounded by so much life, people say there’s so many living things here, whether it’s the squirrels, rabbits or the cats that stroll around – for some reason they don’t mess with the chickens and they don’t catch mice, they’re just hanging around. What it’s a testimony to is that they know there’s a space where it’s safe for them. That’s just something we don’t get in our neighborhood because in most of our neighborhood you’re going to find pit bulls in people’s yards, you’re going to see gates around most of the houses and things like that, so it’s not necessarily very inviting.

Our farm is a sanctuary for life. It’s also a place where people can step out of the pressures of an everyday city life and be able to step into a new world where there’s nature, where there’s food, where there are bees, where there are chickens and start to recover some of that awe and wonder of nature that we seem to lose as we get older.

ARTY: Agriculture, for you, has a spiritual component.

CHANOWK: If I could have a room full of farmers, I would ask, “Who told you that your only job is to grow food and sell it to people?” If you go back, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 years, maybe even more, you see the people who were doing agriculture were not just growing food to feed people, but they were also the people you would go to for herbs. In many cases, they could have been people who carried on some of the shamanic traditions. They were the people you went to in order to enact a ceremony that usually took place in a natural environment. So, it was these stories of the land that provided so many different functions in society other than just food production.

Western society, especially academia, operates as if the physical science is the only science there is, like there’s no such thing as a spirit because you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, and you can’t hear it, so it doesn’t exist. But at the same time, you can’t see the rays of the sun, but you can feel the heat. So, we know that all of these things are here, and there are things outside of our five senses that really play into what we call agriculture or nature. However, most farmers are not in tune with those things. Even being at the EcoFarm conference, I talk to farmers, and I’m like, “Okay, let’s look up what’s happening right now.” And nobody knew the constellations. Nobody.

Give me a night sky and I can tell you what season we’re in, I can tell you when we’re supposed to be planting things. When you think about the makeup of the universe, they say the visible part of the universe is just a small part. You’ve got all this dark matter that nobody can see.

Where you see the spiritual aspect of farming is in biodynamic and in permaculture, which are based on Indigenous wisdom. We can’t change the farming process to make it more convenient or to incorporate so much heavy machinery because when you’re touching the soil, you’re touching the food, you’re the ones planting the seeds. There’s this thing that takes place in your spirit, your mind, your body, your soul, and it makes you stand up straight and walk around knowing that you’re living in an environment where there are unseen things, and you’re working with them, even though you may not know exactly how it’s going to turn out in the end.

ARTY: Indigenous wisdom, carried through by Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics, understands that food is also nourishing the spirit. If we don’t eat nutritious food rich in minerals, our spirit becomes weak and we can’t deal with all the forces that are pushing us in the wrong direction.

JUDITH YISRAEL: That’s absolutely right. One of the speakers on the first day at the EcoFarm conference talked about agriculture being man’s first vocation, if you look at the creation story. So, that’s always been a very deep part of many cultures and even ceremonies.  Things like harvest festivals and living according to the cycles of nature are very powerful, but have become lost.

ARTY: How do you define food justice and food sovereignty?

CHANOWK: Talking about food sovereignty and food justice is very symbolic because we’re about at 40 years of EcoFarm right now, and at the same time, also culminating with 400 years of the first documented slave that came to the United States in 1619.

When the Pilgrims got off of their ships they found themselves having to survive in a land they had no knowledge of.  If it wasn’t for the gift of the people who were here, by taking them under their wings and showing them how to survive, the history books may have been written totally different. In payback for that wisdom, that humble gift, they were subjected – they and we – were subjected to some of the most heinous conditions in the history of the planet.

If you think of the 400-year time period of Black people in the United States, the farmers, from then to now, have not only been stewards of land, but also the stewards of ancient practices, whether they want to admit it or not. Now, our Indigenous people are starting to ask, “Are you going to admit where you got this stuff from?” It’s now time for the people who started these things to come back and not take your power, but to be in collaboration, bring the spirituality back into agriculture in a way where it’s not something that’s done just to grow food to sell it. You bring the ceremony back. You bring the value back.

Western society just doesn’t push those things. When you talk about food justice and food sovereignty, what it really comes down to is there are people holding the food and farming space – that was once held by the ancient traditions – in a way that ultimately results in the destruction of the planet. It’s time now to re-incorporate the ancient wisdom that can still provide the results of people being able to eat, and will also be regenerative, not destructive as it is now.

Youth learn beekeeping skills

Here at EcoFarm, we have the changing of the guard. Now it’s time for younger people, people of color to help lead. And when the elders in any society get to 50, 60, years old they’re going to sit down. We ain’t forgot about you. You cool. We still love you. But we need to have the fire and the innovation of the young people. The elders can be the rudder, but who’s going to row the boat, right? I think this is where we are right now. We’re at the crux of the matter. How that situation is handled is going to determine how we end up living on this planet going forward.

ARTY: What kind of work are you doing with youth and what are their challenges in this crazy world?

JUDITH: I remember when we first started to work with youth that came to visit the farm. We had given them a chore, we had them do an activity. They got to see the chickens and the bees and all of that. Towards the end of the tour, we like to have the youth actually get dirty. We want them to leave with some soil under their nails.

ARTY: Inoculate them.

JUDITH: Exactly. I remember Chanowk was working with the youth, and one of the young ladies stood up and said, “This is like slavery.” At that point, I remember there being a silence. Chanowk graciously addressed that. He talked about the difference between what we’re doing now and what was learned in school about slavery. He explained the benefits of growing your own food.

One of the challenges of asking youth to work in the soil, especially for Black people, is there’s some trauma involved in that, there’s a stigma attached to working in the soil. Sometimes we have youth whose parents, whether they’re black or brown, for whatever reason do not want their children in the soil or have not yet realized the value and the benefit. So, there’s definitely some challenges with getting them to realize the power and the sacredness of putting their hands in the soil.

Some of the things we do with the youth in addition to our programming is we teach them not only to cultivate the soil, but we also teach them to cultivate themselves. We teach them leadership skills. We give them an opportunity to serve the community in ways they may not have had, but also to be able to collaborate within the youth group. They find that very powerful.

CHANOWK: When we talk about youth, we talk about them as if they’re these independent entities. Every youth is connected to a parent. When you start working with youth, you’re not going to be able to make the changes you need to make unless the parents are involved, because young people don’t usually buy the food. If you’re doing specific youth outreach, and we’ve actually had this happen, where you’re telling youth, “Yeah, man, let’s look at Food Inc., let’s look at the chickens, let’s look at all of this, don’t you see what’s happening?” They may go march into the house and be like, “Mama, we’ve got to throw everything in the refrigerator away!”

JUDITH: They’re fired up!

Yisrael Farm teaches families how to eat healthy

CHANOWK: And mom’s looking like, “What are these people telling my children? They won’t eat no food now. We can’t eat chicken.”

We had one of our students who went shopping with her mom, she was like, “I had to tell my mom. My mom was putting stuff in and I was just taking it out.” So, we realized at that point it’s really about getting families together – moms, dads, aunts, uncles, anybody connected to food. That’s where we started to do family cooking classes. That’s where you see parents and children interacting with each other, they’re cooking food, they’re spending time together in a way they probably weren’t usually doing, because going consensus now is that we get dinner if it’s cooked and then separate out.

JUDITH: Go into our rooms and the different places. Absolutely.

ARTY: You use the phrase “People, profit, and planet,” and you add presence to that. What does that mean?

CHANOWK: What kind of presence does your business occupy in your community? What does it do? Of course, when we start a business we want to hire people, and even with farming, we want to pay them a decent wage and give them what they’re worth. We want to do good for the planet and we want to make a profit, but you can do that and still be a business that extracts from the community.

What presence does your business play in the community? For example, we work with youth. That’s a presence, because they know that they can come to us. When you start engaging with young people around nature, no telling what you may end up talking about. You might end up counseling because natural environment is great for that.

I can’t tell you how many people have called us up and say, “Hey, I don’t have any food today and I’m hungry. You’re a farm, is there anything…?”

“Come on over, bring as many bags as you can, and we’ll give you as much food as we can give you.” So, you’re a resource for the community. People get sick. They call up Judith, “I went to the doctor and they want to give me 17 pills, is there anything that you can help me with?”

“Sure. We’ve got nettles, we’ve got different things you can try.”

So, that’s presence, outside of your products that you sell, what does your presence do for the community?

JUDITH: Absolutely. Another example is a tragic situation that happened in Sacramento where a young man by the name of Stephon Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento police because he had a cell phone that they mistook for a weapon. When a community goes through something like that, there’s a lot of trauma that the community experiences. What we were able to do with that is hold a healing circle right on the farm. It was a space where the community could come together, have some time to voice concerns, but mostly spend time communing with each other and healing; that’s another example of presence. Presence doesn’t always look like a transaction that’s happening monetarily, it can just be about being there and being a resource.

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