- Author: Rob Bennaton, UCCE Bay Area Urban Agriculture Advisor
- Author: Julio Contreras, UCCE Urban Ag & Food Systems Program Community Education Specialist III
On August 25th, UCCE's Urban Ag & Food Systems Program tabled, paneled and supported the 8th Annual Food, Faith and Farms Conference in San Rafael, CA, hosted by Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative. The national Faithlands Conference, coordinated between Interfaith and the Agrarian Trust, which hosts the national Faithlands web page as a hub for sharing resources, followed on August 26-27. Rob Bennaton, Urban Ag and Food Systems Advisor, was panel moderator for the Successful Farms and Gardens on Faith Community Owned Lands panel. Julia Van Soelen Kim, North Bay Food Systems Advisor led a workshop focused on Making the Most of Commercial Kitchens, and Vince Trotter, Sustainable Ag Coordinator & Agricultural Ombudsman with UCCE Marin County, led a different workshop on Halal and Kosher: Exploring Relationships with Local Small Livestock Producers. Julio Contreras, UCCE Community Education Specialist III with the UCCE Urban Ag & Food Systems Program, shared urban farming information, supported and facilitated throughout the conference.
The discussion was on one of the most challenging hurdles for beginning and immigrant farmers: securing land to grow food. Meanwhile, religious institutions own lands throughout the United States that are often suitable for agriculture. These plots of land may vary in size from a 1,000 square foot community garden to over 100 acres. Partnerships can allow faith groups to simultaneously save resources, advance food security, connect traditional faith-based stories to land and agriculture, and help small farmers overcome economic and structural barriers. The presenters described innovative projects, including a farmer leasing from a Seventh Day Adventist middle school that successfully transferred ownership 3 times in Sonoma County, CA. There was also a farmer who leased land from her church while developing a farm project, allowing for her to scale to the point she qualified for a USDA loan for a piece of land that has a home and infrastructure. Finally, partnerships were highlighted in which a perennial food forest and seed bank on the grounds of a 4-acre Episcopal Church site were established.
The Faithlands movement is growing nationally to connect and inspire faith communities to use their land in new ways that promote ecological and human health, support local food and farming, enact reparative justice, and strengthen communities. On the Agrarian Trust's Faithlands web page, download the free FAITHLANDS TOOLKIT A Guide to Transformative Land Use. Interfaith is a regional and national organization which supports congregations of all faiths, denominations and backgrounds by connecting them with farmers and supporting farm stand initiation, farmers markets, and CSAs.
The idea is innovative and yet traditional, since so many faith-based groups are doing community-based food systems work, such as emergency food distribution, operating commercial-scale kitchens, or stewarding lands that could be cultivated by local farmers.
In particular, lands stewarded by faith-based groups in urban areas present a huge opportunity for cultivation by urban farmers, given high costs of land values in cities. Land for Good is another great organization that supports land transfers for farming and the development of land use agreements. Their amazing ToolBox web page has significant resources for building and negotiating leases for- and with- farmers and landowners.
The conference had a great turnout with powerful speakers and groups doing inspiring work around the nation. Speaker Rabbi Justin Goldstein from Yesod Farm+Kitchen in Fairview, North Carolina, opened the conference, sharing key points on building relationships for indigenous lands stewardship, and the process of returning this unceded land. Food justice and sustainability leaders representing 47 different religious communities were in attendance. While most came from the North Bay and East Bay, there were also participants from elsewhere in California and eight other states.
As described on the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative website, “For the first time the conference included tours of farms and gardens at 7 different faith-community sites. Diverse speakers included 8 farmers growing food on lands owned by religious institutions. Ammar Ahmed of Islamic Circle of North America in Washington, D.C. spoke about the response of Muslim communities in the U.S. to hunger during theCOVID Pandemic. He called on attendees to help with the national effort by Muslim and Jewish groups to urge USDA to make kosher and halal meat available to observant Jews and Muslims through an emergency food program. Advocates are concerned about protein options available to observant individuals who utilize TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (A letter signed by some 47 members of Congress went toUSDA last week; we will keep the Interfaith Food network apprised of how to help with this work.)” - Steve Schwartz, Executive Director, Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative.
In the Bay Area, South Berkeley, East and West Oakland, and South Hayward congregations have established small farms and gardens with their congregations. UCCE's Urban Ag & Food Systems Program with Alameda County RCD and Interfaith is providing technical support to a new East Alameda Gurdwara farming initiative managed by the Sikh community there. If you know of a faith-based group interested in this work, please reach out to Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative. Our Urban Ag collaborative team is also ready to work with you.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
A summer of smoke and ash in many parts of California has raised questions about the safety of produce growing on farms and in the garden, eggs laid by chickens who peck around in ash-laden areas, and remediation needed to safely and effectively grow food in the future.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brought together experts who have researched the effects of previous fires' fallout and studied soil contaminants to share their insight in a two-hour webinar now available on YouTube.
“The No. 1 health concern during a fire is smoke inhalation, and it's been well documented that wildfire smoke can negatively impact both the heart and the lungs,” said Claire O'Brien, a pharmacology and toxicology doctoral student at UC Davis. “However, the chemicals found in the smoke don't just stay in the air. They can deposit onto plants and into soil and water.”
Although every fire is unique, some generalizations can be drawn from research conducted following previous fires. UC Cooperative Extension food systems advisor Julia Van Soelen Kim detailed a study conducted following the October 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County and across the North Bay.
With the help of UC Master Gardener and community volunteers, the researchers collected over 200 samples of homegrown collard greens, lettuces, kale and chard that were exposed to wildfire smoke and ash. A subset of the samples were analyzed by a private laboratory.
“There was very low concern about chemicals on produce,” Van Soelen Kim said. “No samples had detectable levels of lead, arsenic, mercury or chromium. And that's a huge sigh of relief.” However, analytical results vary by site, site history and by fire event, and few have pre-fire baseline data to compare with.
Van Soelen Kim said basic food-safety practices should be followed when preparing to eat food grown in a home garden, regardless of ash or smoke contamination.
“You should always wash your hands before and after harvesting, and wash your produce in running water to mitigate any kind of potential risk,” she said.
Are backyard chicken eggs safe to eat?
Another study outlined at the webinar used a similar process to determine whether there might be contaminants in the eggs laid by backyard poultry that live and feed in areas exposed to wildfire ash and smoke.
Scientists know from previous research that chickens exposed to lead in their environment can produce eggs with high lead content and that heavy metal content of ash from urban wildfires is higher than from rural wildfire.
“We combined those two pieces of research with what we know that chickens do all day: they peck at the ground for hours on end,” said Todd Kelman, a veterinarian in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. “That makes for a pretty good hypothesis that urban wildfire could pose a risk for the production of eggs and poultry that contain heavy metals.”
Kelman and his team put out a call for eggs from backyard poultry and received samples from 344 premises in fire-affected and non-fire-affected areas of California.
Surprisingly, egg samples that contained higher lead levels came from parts of the state that were not directly impacted by ash and smoke.
“Did our data support our hypothesis that proximity to urban wildfire is a driving source for lead in eggs of backyard poultry? The answer is not so much,” Kelman said. “So, is it safe to eat eggs from your backyard poultry? We can't give you a definitive answer to that question. But we do suggest you assess your risk and reduce the risk of contamination.”
Practices that reduce the risk include keeping chickens off the ground, using a chicken feeder that prevents spillage onto the ground and making calcium readily available, for example in the form of oyster shells, because calcium can prevent the absorption of lead. Making sure that chickens are provided uncontaminated water is also an important part of risk reduction.
For confirmation on the safety backyard chickens and their eggs, lab tests for eggs are available for $60 from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis, or chickens may be submitted to CAHFS for necropsy.
Are soils safe for growing food after a fire?
Fire effects on soil is another consideration in burned areas, said UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture advisor Rob Bennaton.
“Fires heat topsoil layers. They reduce the amount of living micro-organisms at the site of the burn, and also affect organic matter and nutrients. Ash deposits over time may make soils more alkaline,” he said. “As a result of these combined factors, there are temporary changes in nutrient levels and the capacity for soils to exchange nutrients for optimal plant growth and nutrition.”
With proper land care and management, soils can be remediated over time.
“It won't happen overnight. Soils were developed over millions of years,” he said.
Some ways to improve safety when gardening in fire-affected areas including keeping the soil covered with wood chips or other landscape mulch to reduce airborne soil dust. Use drip irrigation to prevent up splash onto the undersides of growing vegetables. Promote good drainage, especially at the bottom of slopes to prevent the concentration of contaminants.
Lab tests are often needed to determine the soils' post-fire characteristics. “Don't guess, but test,” Bennaton said.
The UC Master Gardener Program can provide technical assistance to help home gardeners find resources for home soil testing, he said.
Additional resources and information shared during the webinar include:
Post-fire soil resources and soil testing information
- UCCE publication on Soils in Urban Agriculture with soil testing & sampling information
- The UC ANR Healthy Soils Website, which has many resources worth reviewing.
- Tips for Interpreting Soil Analysis
- UC Master Gardener of Sonoma County 2018 workshop video “Effects of fire on soil”
Post-fire food safety
- Research on produce safety and backyard chicken egg safety after the 2017 wildfires in California is available on this web page. To view a past webinar recording with these research findings, click this link.
- Poultry wildfire resources from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:
- Best Practices for Produce Safety After Fire
- Understanding Risk: A community guide for assessing the potential health impacts of locally grown produce exposed to urban wildfire smoke
Firewise and sustainable home landscaping design in the defensible space zone
- Visit the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County firewise landscaping web page.
- For a recent firewise & sustainable design and maintenance video by the Resilient Landscapes Coalition.
Impact of smoke & ash on plants
Urban Agriculture Soil Information
- Author: Rachel A. Surls
Note: This post is first of a series in which we will recap our UC ANR Urban Agriculture Workshops. We'll share key points, as well as links to videos and handouts. Even if you couldn't make it in person, you can still access the content.
Finding land is one of the key challenges for aspiring urban farmers. Identifying an appropriate site, working out an agreement with the landowner, and signing a lease are huge milestones. But once the land is secured, how should the new farm be set up?
Design of urban farms and community gardens was the topic of Dr. David de la Peña's workshop conducted for urban farmers in Sacramento. De la Peña, an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design at UC Davis, specializes in sustainable architecture and community-based design.
Some of his key points:
Think about the physical elements you want on your farm. Will you have raised beds, structures such as a greenhouse, fruit trees, a meeting area? These are just a few of the elements to consider for your plan.
Will the community be involved in the urban farm? If so, engage the community in planning and design.
Site design should match the purpose of the project. For example, an urban farm focused exclusively on production for market may look very different than a farm designed primarily as a community gathering place.
Use renewable and recycled materials when possible.
Don't forget aesthetics. It's important for urban farm sites to be attractive. For example, consider including handmade art in the form of signs and mosaics.
Make a site map. It can begin as a simple sketch. Ultimately, you want your map to be to scale. De la Peña offers a design exercise to get you started.
De la Peña's talk was part of a day-long workshop on production in urban agriculture. To see the other presentations, which covered pest management, soil management, and more, visit our workshop site. Additional resources on site design can be found on UC ANR's Urban Agriculture website.