On 4.5 acres in the southwestern section of Santa Ana sits the Gospel Swamp, a micro-farm with about 50 different varieties of fruits and vegetables that are tended by community volunteers.

Gospel Swamp is owned by the Orange County Heritage Museum and run by Moises Plascencia, who teaches anthropology at Long Beach City College and Santa Ana College. He is a big believer in connecting people to their roots through food and creating a community environment that emphasizes healthy living and cultural celebration.

He subscribes to the theory of “cultural plant memory,” which describes how a farm is more than just fruits and vegetables, its “layered with meaning and memory” and reminds people of their heritage.

Moises Plascencia checks compost made at the farm.
Moises Plascencia checks compost made at the farm. Credit: Kaitlin Washburn/Voice of OC

What’s happening at the Gospel Swamp can be seen as a model of what can be achieved through Santa Ana’s “wellness resolution,” a policy pushed for by community activists and adopted by the City Council in June 2015 aimed at preserving the city’s Latino identity and supporting community health.

But it is one of the few, if only, examples of a thriving micro-farm in the city. And though establishing micro-farms is a centerpiece of the wellness resolution, little has been done over the past year to make them a bigger part of Santa Ana’s landscape.

“I honestly do not know if city officials care or support our efforts because no one has reached out to us about the Gospel Swamp Farm. Our presence is known throughout the community through the different events and engagements we are at,” said Kevin Cabrera, the executive director of Heritage Museum.

“I find it interesting because [Santa Ana’s] 5-year strategic plan clearly states: ‘Community Health, Livability, Engagement, and Sustainability,’ which we do at the farm,” Cabrera added.

Though micro farms are in short supply in Santa Ana, officials have made progress in establishing city-owned community gardens.

Through the Santa Ana Community Garden Program, the city maintains three community gardens at Jerome, Madison and Salvador parks. The goal of the program is to promote healthy eating and foster community outreach, according to Gerardo Mouet, the director of Santa Ana’s Parks and Recreation Department. In the coming year, they plan to add two more gardens to the system.

But while community gardens are seen as positives on a variety of levels, they shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for a micro-farm because produce from community gardens isn’t sold. A primary reason for the micro-farm being a part of the wellness resolution is that it can be a source of income for residents.

While progress on the wellness resolution’s micro-farm has thus far been slow, the Building Healthy Communities coalition is currently holding a 12-week training workshop on farming in small spaces and plan to begin designing a micro-farm at the end of the session.

The resolution requires city staff to “identify and analyze real property locations for potential micro-farms.” It goes on to say that city staff must also help to establish a “long-term lease agreement with a non-profit” for a micro-farm site that is at least half an acre in size.

Jorge Garcia, a senior management assistant for Santa Ana’s city manager, said “city staff has had numerous meetings and provided information on properties” with those working on the wellness resolution.

However, this list city staff has provided only includes land parcels in Santa Ana that fall within the agriculture zones. But this list doesn’t specify which parcels would actually accommodate a micro-farm, as some of the properties are already developed.

Success in Seattle

If Santa Ana leaders are looking for an example of how to create a welcoming environment for micro-farms, they need to look nor farther than Seattle. Seattle leaders changed the city’s zoning codes so that nearly any piece of city land can be used for urban agriculture.

Sharon Lerman, a food policy advisor for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment, said the goal was to “remove all barriers that might exist for urban agriculture” as a way to encourage healthy eating and support local farms.

As a result, Seattle has become a more welcoming place for micro-farms, said Colin McCrate, the owner and founder of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, which builds and maintains micro-farms for various clients throughout Seattle. However, he said, private land for urban farming in Seattle is difficult to find due to rapidly rising property costs and a lack willingness from property owners to lease their land on a long-term basis.

He would like to see “small scale urban agriculture subsidized by local government,” just like how “all large scale agriculture is subsidized one way or the other by the federal government.”

Santa Ana zoning laws are far more strict when it comes to agriculture on city land. The city has identified 178 parcels as permitted for agricultural uses, which is a small sliver of the overall number of parcels in the city.

Back at the Gospel Swamp, Plascencia and his colleagues focus on both sustainable living and honoring Latino history and culture.

"Milpa" is the self-sustaining Mayan farming method where corn stalks, bean sprouts and squash plants grow together.
“Milpa” is the self-sustaining Mayan farming method where corn stalks, bean sprouts and squash plants grow together. Credit: Kaitlin Washburn/Voice of OC

One way that they do this is by using a traditional Mayan farming technique called “milpa,” or “three sisters.” Milpa is achieved when corn stalks, bean sprouts and squash plants grow together creating a self-sustainable farming system that doesn’t require fertilizers or pesticides.

But it is more than just a style of growing — it is also about bringing a community together and “connecting people through food and building a culture around healthy eating,” Plascencia said.

People need to “take back their food… access to healthy food should be simple.”

Kaitlin Washburn is a news intern from the University of Missouri. She can be reached at kaitlinewashburn@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @kwashy12. 

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