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Local Highlights
by Karen Gridley

Ecology Action Headquarters

Luke and Amanda in front of their hoop house. Photo by Ree Slocum

Lucas Howerter began an internship at Ecology Action in the summer of 2011. This led to an apprenticeship through January 2013 when he officially became a Field Coordinator for the Golden Rule Mini-Farm. In October 2013 he decided with his partner Amanda Senseman to sign a lease with Brookside Elementary School in Willits CA to start an innovative market garden.

Editor: How did you and Amanda first connect with Brookside School?

The word went out to the farming community around July that the Willits Unified School District (WUSD) and North Coast Opportunities (NCO), a local non-profit, wanted to find farmers to lease Brookside School Farm from the School District to revitalize the space and kick-start getting fresh local food back into the cafeterias. We found out about the opportunity in August and through a lot of discussion decided to apply because it seemed like a project that focused on many of the things that we were both looking for. We were selected for the job in October and were able to start on the first of November

Editor: What's unique about this project? What are your current arrangements with the school?

Over the past decade or so there have been many farm-to-school or school educational garden projects that have been implemented across the country in the new push to reeducate children about where their food comes from. After looking at many different potential models, the WUSD, along with NCO, decided to pursue a new model that created a unique financial relationship with the management of the farm and these two organizations.

Due to the increasing challenge of sourcing grant funding and the lack of school funds to staff someone to run the farm, they decided to create a lease agreement at a subsidized amount through WUSD with a person or group of people to manage the farm. The subsidized lease amount gives the opportunity for young farmers with little start-up capital to gain the experience of managing a farm independently, a "young-farmer incubator" of sorts. In exchange, we must allot 15% of bed space to growing crops specifically for the school. I feel this is an exciting new model that integrates the educational and outreach of a standard school garden project with creating a self-sustaining economic farm.

Editor: How did the lack of rains in Willits for the first half of our average rainy season affect your project?

We signed the lease for the acre before there was talk of a 'water emergency' in Willits. So the timing was unfortunate. We had multiple conversations with the city about using water. Initially, the officials we spoke to said we would not be able to use any water for the project. Then they said they'd look into it. Then, we waited. We were in limbo for weeks, trying to figure out if we should move forward or hope we could pick up the project the following year. We didn't start any crops or cultivate the land, so we fell behind

Editor: When the rains came, what did the school and city decide?

The Superintendent of the school district told the principal of Brookside, Olga O'Neill, to "use her best judgment" in deciding how to move forward with the farm. The principal and staff were in full support of moving forward and seeing all the hard work come to fruition. She was confident in our awareness of the water issue. The reason we are so dependent on the school for water is because currently the only water source on the farm is city water through the school. Our lease agreement states "we can use water at our mindful discretion while practicing best water conservation principles."

Editor: How have you modified the project because of the drought?

The drought provides an opportunity for us and others to think seriously about methods of farming that can still function under severe conditions, such as drought. We have scaled down our production area to about half, and are planting crops, such as grains, that are less water-intensive. We are thinking about experimenting with different ways of using water efficiently such as ollas for sections of our garden. We also have a water catchment system in place with a 14,000-gal tank. We have not used any city water, thus far. Water conservation is a huge issue all around the world, and it's important to keep these issues in our consciousness, whether or not we have a Stage Five water emergency

Editor: What have you accomplished in the brief time since you signed the lease?

In a way, the drought has been a blessing in disguise. We've been able to do a lot of 'clean up' and brainstorming about how to make the space most functional and efficient; during the time we couldn't be planting. We have built a 20'x65' hoop house, expanded our covered area to incorporate a washing station, added an addition to our propagation greenhouse, cultivated the field, shaped beds in and out of the hoop house and planted/started greens, garlic, onions, leeks, and more. We are currently working on updating our irrigation system to be more efficient and manageable as well as continuing to build more beds

Editor: What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Right now our main focus is making the farm financially sustainable. This spring and summer we are focused on producing crops for direct market at the local farmers markets in order to build a support network and get our message out to others in the community. Next year, depending on rainfall, we plan to expand our growing space and add some small animals for educational as well as food purposes, such as chickens, ducks or bees. Our long-term goal is to focus more on the school itself. While hopefully increasing production for the cafeteria, we want to try and get fresh food to the kids in other ways, if possible. Our two main ideas are to move toward a CSA model that could be supported by the teachers and families of the school district and also potentially to build a farm stand at the school to engage the parents as they pick up their children. Our hope would be not only to provide local food to the schools and community, but also to offer bountiful educational opportunities.

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