Urban Farms Stretched Thin as Demand for Locally Sourced Spikes in LB

Jun. 23, 2016 / By and

Story By Gabriela Mungarro and Michael Lozano. Photo by Sasha Kanno, Farm Lot 59 Instagram.

For foodies, the term “locally sourced” usually means food made from ingredients produced no more than 100 miles away. But for many Long Beach residents even that might be too far.

Demand for locally sourced food is, in fact, so strong that a growing number of urban farms in the city are now struggling to meet supply needs.

Dana Robertson is the owner of Restauration, which offers an audacious menu featuring locally sourced and seasonal items. She says her customers see eating local as a return to the way food is supposed to be eaten.

But when it comes to urban farms the choices are limited. “I wish we had more,” says Robertson.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast, hyper-local sourcing is among the top 20 culinary trends this year. Nationally, the local foods industry generated about $11.7 billion in sales in 2014. That number is expected to roughly double by 2019.

Long Beach Fresh, which works to promote community health through the local food economy, lists about 25 “locavore restaurants” that offer sustainably grown and locally sourced menus.

Jonas Velasco, 21, grabbed lunch at Restauration recently and says it’s worth the extra cost knowing your food comes from nearby. A salad at the fourth street eatery harvested from the non-profit urban grower Farm Lot 59 runs about $14.

“It’s better to eat at places where food is sourced from more sustainable resources,” he said, adding, “If it tastes good, that’s what matters.”

Supply and demand

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Farmers tending the soil at The Growing Experience (TGE) urban farm in North Long Beach. Courtesy of TGE website.

Jimmy Ng is the former program director for The Growing Experience Urban Farm Stand, a 7-acre farm situated in a public housing development in North Long Beach. In addition to offering courses on agricultural sustainability and conservation, The Growing Experience also provides produce to local eateries in the city, including Primal Alchemy, Panxa Cocina, and Rainbow Juices.

Ng, who still consults the farm, has noticed that its resources are being stretched thin.

“We can’t meet the demand,” he notes, explaining that a lack of land and startup capital pose challenges for his and similar urban farms in the city.

Sasha Kanno, founder, farmer and president of Farm Lot 59, adds that there are too few skilled workers in Long Beach’s urban environment who are “passionate about growing beautiful products.”

Others say that isn’t true.

“We have plenty of skilled farmers, we just don’t have people educating them on all the guidelines” around selling their produce, says Laura Som, founder of the MAYE Center, which focuses on self-healing practices including yoga, meditation, and urban farming. The center maintains a plot of land tended by local community members, many of them immigrants with limited English ability.

Som says the center’s Cambodia town neighborhood has more than 80 skilled gardeners, mostly Cambodian, but some Latinos, too, who grow veggies ranging from herbs to Cambodian water spinach in their backyards. Many have farmed their entire lives.

But, she says, language barriers make it hard for them to understand complex regulations, such as dealing with government inspections.

“It’s difficult for us to understand city regulations [on how] to grow produce and sell to restaurants,” says Som, who came to Long Beach from Cambodia as a refugee at the age of 10.

In 2014, California passed AB 1990, which allows home gardeners to sell their produce to restaurants and other businesses. AB 234 further simplified the process by requiring only a business license for would-be retailers.

But Tony Damico, co-coordinator for Long Beach Fresh, an organization advocating for healthy local food access, says costs for license fees can be prohibitive, totaling anywhere from $300 to $4,000.

“Farmers find that fees keep getting added on and on as they look at the project,” Damico says, adding many decided to drop their plans as a result.

He hopes the city will consider lowering costs for healthy food growers along with streamlined online services to better educate residents on policies.

Financial Incentives

Some of the produce grown in Long Beach farms.

Some of the produce available from The Growing Experience’s CSA box.

Long Beach isn’t short on land that could potentially be converted into farm space. But, say restaurateurs and city officials, there is little incentive for property owners to sell to would-be farmers.

“Lack of real estate and the ability of these types of [urban farming] organizations to acquire real estate because of the costs” is a key challenge, explains Seyed Jalali with Long Beach’s Economic Development Office.

Enter AB 551. Passed in 2013, the California bill allows cities and counties to pass regulations that would create Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones, where owners of vacant lands can receive reductions in property taxes if they allow the land to be used as commercial or non-commercial agricultural areas for at least five years.

Cities such as San Diego and San Francisco have implemented AB 551 measures. In Long Beach, council members voted May 10 to study the feasibility of Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones in the city, results for which are due in July.

Over 1,000 vacant parcels across Long Beach may be eligible for these agriculture zones, based on county data analyzed by Long Beach Fresh. Over 400 of these parcels are in District 7.

“It’s a community health issue, leaving these vacant lots out there. You can create more income for residents,” Som said. “We have vacant lots sitting there doing nothing.”

Damico says the study is “a step in the right direction.” Asked about the possibility such zones might actually be created, he sounded a note of optimism, saying, “We have a very positive culture and climate to get to a final decision.”

Damico also says with each new urban farm might come more jobs. A small urban farm might employ up to three people, Damico said, with the help of grants.

For small farms hoping to get maximum profit, Damico recommends researching Small Plot INtensive (SPIN) farming to increase land use efficiency.

“It’s tricky but it’s really where the future of our health lies,” Damico said.

Regulations you to know to start your urban farm:

Related multimedia from VoiceWaves:

An earlier version of this story originally appeared on Dig, CSULB’s student-run magazine.

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Michael Lozano

Michael is an editor and multimedia journalist born to Mexican parents who started their own Domestic Violence counseling center in Southeast Los Angeles. His mentorship has provided youth opportunities to share their stories online on NPR, KCET, the Long Beach Post, and other national websites. His articles have been syndicated and translated into multiple languages via New America Media and ImpreMedia, the nation’s largest Spanish-language news publisher. He was a fellow with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies, and has recently been a Votebeat Reporter for CalMatters and the Long Beach Post. Michael graduated from CSULB in 2011 with research honors in Sociology and a Journalism minor. Follow his work @chicanochico on Twitter and @thechicanochicoreport on Instagram.

CSULB Enterprise Reporters

VoiceWaves partners with the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) each semester to mentor students' community reporting. The Journalism 495 Enterprise Reporting in Diverse Communities course challenges students to build on their journalism skills covering various neighborhoods throughout Long Beach, including North Long Beach, Central Long Beach, Downtown, and the Westside.