Jumping Through Hoops
How a psychologist/activist built a farm
for the community on Contra Costa
County Sanitary District land
By Rachel Trachten
Carolyn Phinney was a master at overcoming obstacles even before Covid-19. Now the pandemic is yet another hurdle to navigate as she runs a thriving farm in Martinez, donating her produce to emergency food programs and families in need.
Phinney is quick to say that she knows nothing about farming. And yet, this research psychologist and political activist managed to transform barren land in an industrial area into a welcome source of sustainably grown produce. “I’m kind of like Colombo,” says Phinney, referring to the TV detective who acts confused but always solves the case. “I say I’m dumb, but I learn fast.”
Back in 2010 Phinney learned three things that inspired her to create a community farm. First, she learned that the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano couldn’t get nutrient-dense leafy greens and other perishable produce. Second, she was told that Mount Diablo High School couldn’t offer a daily salad bar because salad costs $1 per day while pizza costs only 35 cents. Third was a key piece of information from Michael McGill, board president of the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District (CCCSD). McGill told Phinney that the District was discharging 50–200 million gallons [currently 30–50 million gallons] of treated wastewater daily into Suisun Bay. This water could go through additional treatment to become agricultural grade. In addition, McGill said that the District owned about 150 acres of buffer land, adding that “nobody wants to live near a sanitary district.”
Salads for Schools
“Why not let me grow salads for schools and the food bank?” Phinney asked. With McGill’s support, she started the CoCo San Sustainable Farm. She got fiscal sponsorship from Earth Island Institute and later formed the nonprofit AgLantis. In July 2014, Phinney finalized a 10-year lease agreement with the CCCSD: For $1 per year, they would provide 15 acres of land and all the recycled water the farm could use. The water is high in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients; it’s certified for agriculture by the State of California and has been used for organic produce in Monterey for over a decade.
Even before Covid-19 hit, the obstacles facing this farm would have sent most people packing. It’s been a David and Goliath–type struggle involving an assortment of thorny political battles, many stemming from the donation of a one-sixth-acre solar light greenhouse valued at nearly $100,000 from the Pittsburg business AgraTech.
The gift of a greenhouse brought with it the need for a slew of permissions and permits from the county, the Department of Public Works, the fire department, and the nearby Buchanan Field Airport. Fire officials had fears about using recycled water, which Phinney eventually managed to overcome. Airport administrators had fears about an increase in the already-high population of birds on the land, although the bird population has decreased since farming started. Phinney says that the bureaucracy and time spent changing minds set her back two years. Once the greenhouse is built (another process requiring fundraising and many permissions), it will be a demonstration site for hydroponic growing.
Along with the bureaucratic hurdles, Phinney was required to get all 15 acres of land fenced and then figure out how to turn plain dirt into fertile soil. For this, she relied on farm cofounder Bethallyn Black, an associate professor of horticulture at Diablo Valley College. “She’s the brains; I’m the labor,” says Phinney. With Black’s guidance, Phinney turned her formidable energies toward a three-year process of transforming dirt into soil, which she and Black accomplished using donated compost, mulch, and horse manure. The farm uses organic practices and regenerative agriculture, with a focus on enriching the soil and planting cover crops to capture carbon.
Phinney herself works on the farm five or six days per week, and, until the pandemic, she got regular volunteer help from high school students, families with kids, individual adults, and Boy Scouts. The farm’s first batch of produce, grown on a quarter acre, was ready for delivery to the food bank in 2018. The next year, they grew 12,000 pounds of produce, donating 10,000 of those to local schools and hunger relief organizations. The rest went to volunteers and people who just showed up at the farm and asked if they could have some. The farm produced kale, tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, radishes, potatoes, eggplant, and zucchini. Larger harvests went to the food bank; smaller ones and more perishable items were given to the nonprofit White Pony Express, which distributes to soup kitchens and others in need. Pre-pandemic, the farm also offered classes related to STEM education and internships, which are currently happening online. Perhaps most important of all, the farm has served as a demonstration project that other sanitary districts can replicate.
Covid-19 initially led to a dramatic drop in volunteer help, although one bright spot was a donation of about 1,000 seedlings due to plant-sale cancellations. Phinney managed to plant the donated seedlings with the help of a few volunteers, and in May the group harvested broccoli, baby bok choi, cabbage, rosemary, dill, and assorted greens. Phinney brought the food to White Pony Express for distribution. By mid-summer, more volunteers have returned. They’re harvesting about 200 pounds per day, and donations to the food bank have resumed. In terms of Covid-19 safety, the farm has plenty of space for social distancing, and people are wearing masks as they plant and harvest. Summer promises an abundance of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, melon, and much more for the local community. ♦
Associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.