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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

On Good Land: How One Small Farmer Survived the Onslaught of California Sprawl

Air Date: Week of June 26, 1998

According to the American Farmland Trust, about forty-six acres of farmland are lost every hour to non-agricultural uses, such as building new homes and businesses. And small farms are particularly vulnerable. But, farmer Michael Ableman has resisted the pressure of urban sprawl in one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets. For 17 years, Ableman has managed Fairview Gardens, a 12 acre organic farm in Goleta, California, a suburb of Santa Barbara. He’s written a book about his experience titled, "On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm". Michael Ableman joins Laura Knoy from Santa Barbara.

Transcript

KNOY: According to the American Farmland Trust, about forty-six acres of farmland are lost every hour to non-agricultural uses, such as building new homes and businesses. And small farms are particularly vulnerable. But, farmer Michael Ableman has resisted the pressure of urban sprawl in one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets. For 17 years, Ableman has managed Fairview Gardens, a 12 acre organic farm in Goleta, California, a suburb of Santa Barbara. He’s written a book about his experience. It's called, On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm. Michael Ableman joins us from K-T-Y-D in Santa Barbara. Michael, welcome.

ABLEMAN: Well it's very nice to be with you Laura.

KNOY: You came to Fairview Gardens seventeen years ago, what was the area like then?

ABLEMAN: At that time, Goleta was still very undeveloped. Driving up Fairview Avenue and in to the farm, was still like being in the remnants of a rural community. And I say remnants, it was beginning to be developed. And Fairview Gardens itself was caught somewhere between a back-to-the-land commune and the beginnings of the market gardens that were just beginning to change the American food scene.

KNOY: You have some amazing photos, Michael, from 1954, of Fairview Gardens from an aerial view, and 1998. Describe those photos to us, they are right at the beginning of your book.

ABLEMAN: Yeah, it's pretty striking. In 1954 which is actually the year that I was born, when you look at Fairview Gardens from the air, you see an entire expanse of agricultural farms, orchards, row crops, and when you jump to the next page in 1998, it's been described to me as if you were looking at a computer chip board. It's completely developed not a square inch of open land remaining except for the farm.

KNOY: There's a paragraph I'd like you to read about the last farm, besides yours, going under when your neighbor Helmut finally sold his land. Could you read that for us please?

ABLEMAN: Certainly, I'd be glad to.
"We all hear stories of the greed that undermines our global environment. But until the bulldozers are idling at your back door, it is an intellectual concept. The pain for us was real. For fifty-eight days an army of three hundred horsepower caterpillars, carry-alls and dump trucks moved and buried and leveled and graded hundreds of tons of topsoil.
With each day the farm was becoming more like an island. All around us, the once fertile and agrarian valley had become a sea of tract homes and shopping centers. The sense of complete isolation was the hardest to take. With this last development, the farm would be surrounded by suburbia. We were now completely out of context. "

KNOY: You go on to describe some of the struggles that you had with your new suburban neighbors. There was the former football player who didn't like your compost pile. And there were the rooster riots. What were the rooster riots?

ABLEMAN: Well, you know, we had just gotten over the year before being threatened with jail time over our compost piles. And then suddenly we were faced with a series of complaints from our new neighbors over the crow of our roosters. We were now in a suburban environment where the only natural sounds were the crow of the roosters. (Laughs.) We were told by the county that we would have to remove the roosters, or cut their vocal cords, and we refused. And eventually the District Attorney backed down, there was enormous community pressure in our favor. So, we still have roosters and they still crow at about four o'clock every morning.

KNOY: You had other conflicts Michael. It really seems like at one point it was endless. And you considered giving up, didn't you? Just retreating behind a big wall and isolating yourself from everybody.

ABLEMAN: I'm fairly stubborn. And at a certain point, I had two choices: One of them was essentially to kind of hole up on the farm as you described, and pretend like there was an alien force surrounding us. And the other choice was to begin to build bridges and to see this new population as an opportunity. And we chose the latter. And in fact that new suburban population essentially defined the change and the direction of the farm from just a producer of food, which was nourishing the community, to a producer of education and ideas which nourished the new community in new ways.

KNOY: Tell us about some of those early bridges.

ABLEMAN: Well the earliest bridges were through the children. The new developments were not designed to accommodate elements of nature. The developers and the designers did not take into consideration the needs of children to have some sense of place. And so kids were naturally drawn to the farm. It was a place where they could build their secret forts. It was a place where they could come and see food growing, visit animals, occasionally sneak a peach or a strawberry or a carrot. And it was just an incredible magnet for the neighborhood children. And I think that in a sense was the most dominating bridge between the farm and the community.

KNOY: So how are your relations now?

ABLEMAN: I think in general we are recognized as an important anchor in the community and as a very positive force and aside from the occasional flare up, I think that the relationship is going quite well. I mean, it went so well, that then we were faced with the possibility that the farm would be developed, within less than two years, through the Santa Barbara community we were able to raise three quarters of a million dollars to actually save the land and put it under a conservation easement. So I think when people are willing to put their money up, they must believe in it.

KNOY: Is this cooperation and education with the suburban community around you something that you see other small farmers doing?

ABLEMAN: Absolutely. One of the reasons that I wrote this book was not just to portray Fairview Gardens. But I see Fairview Gardens as a model and as an emblem for small farms everywhere. I think there's a whole new movement in agriculture, and it's a movement to return the honor ,and the pride, and the craft, and the art to farming. And I think it's being recognized by consumers because the quality of food is being appreciated that comes from these farms. The Farmer's Markets movement that have grown so rapidly throughout the country. One of the examples that we have tried to provide is a return to a form of social agriculture, if you will, that does not just require the one and a half percent of the population that is called farmers to be the food providers, but involves communities and shortens the link between the community and the source of their food.

KNOY: Well Michael, thanks for talking with us.

ABLEMAN: Well you're very welcome. Thank you Laura.

KNOY: Michael Ableman is an organic farmer in Goleta, California. His new book is On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm.

 

 

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