In the midst of these difficult and uncertain times, an interest in growing one’s own food is seeing a renewed fervor. Many home gardeners are posting pictures of their freshly planted vegetable gardens with the caption #victorygarden as an homage to another time of food shortages during World War II. Some are reminded of a time in the not as distant past when the 2008 Great Recession turned many towards growing their own food at home. One of those who was inspired to start growing their own food in 2008 was Chanowk Yisrael, a software engineer turned urban farmer living and working in Sacramento.
The Yisrael family, Chanowk, Judith, and their children, have been growing food and serving their local Oak Park neighborhood and the greater Sacramento area for a little over a decade now. According to the USDA, Oak Park is considered a “food desert”. This term means “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food” (Oxford Languages). The Yisrael Family Farm helps combat that by growing food, educating eager gardeners, and nurturing their community. Or as their slogan says by “Transforming the Hood for G.O.O.D.”
The Yisraels have received recognition for their sustainable agriculture and social justice work over the decades. They have helped pass local laws to make selling food from home gardens and urban farms more accessible to more would-be farmers. They also have shared their story at popular conferences including the annual EcoFarm Conference in Monterey. They have impacted not only their local community but have made a name for themselves in the greater organic farming community.
Visiting the Farm
Back in February before most events were cancelled, my mom, boyfriend, and I took the opportunity to attend one of the Yisraels’ gardening workshops. The class we attended was called Planning Your Spring Garden. My mom found the registration for the class online and invited Josh and I. We were planning to start our own backyard garden soon, and we were intrigued by the idea of visiting the Yisrael Family Farm and having the privilege to learn from the legendary owner/operators.
The workshop began in a classroom at an elementary school across the street from the Yisraels’ home. The Yisraels use of one of the classrooms as a community education center. They also tend to the school’s garden space. Opening the classroom door, guests were greeted by the aroma of essential oils and the purr of a kettle full of boiling water. Judith Yisrael was checking in guests as Chanowk set up a PowerPoint presentation.
As we settled into our seats, we marveled at the beautiful stacks of handmade bars of soap lining one of the counter tops. Before the presentation began, Judith invited everyone to peruse the bath and body products and make purchases. My mom bought a couple bars of soap scented from herbs grown on their farm. After that, we were all asked to introduce ourselves. There was a group of about twenty people from their early twenties to late fifties and sixties. Many had attended Yisrael Farm workshops previously or had been recipients of a garden built through Chanowk’s garden consulting service. Others, like us, were new to the farm and its programs and were eager to soak up all of the knowledge.
After an awesome presentation on the ins-and-outs of gardening, we were led on a tour of their incredible farm. Their front yard was hedged in by medicinal and culinary herbs and brightly colored edible flowers. As we followed them around the side of the house, we came upon a large wooden bin underneath a shade tree. Chanowk opened the lid to show us the rich compost inside. It was full of worms and other little critters. Adjacent to the worm bins was a fenced off fruit orchard which was home to a lively group of hens. The hens scratched at the dirt and pecked the soil round the base of the fruit trees. As Chanowk entered the pen the hens gathered around him expectantly. We were each allowed to scoop up a handful of feed from a bucket and hold it out to the waiting hens. The hungry birds picked and pecked at the food in our palms and squawked loudly to vie for our attention.
Behind the orchard were several rows of crops which lay low to the ground. Things like lettuce, chard, kale, and onions were growing there. There was also a large structure sealed in plastic near the back fence. Chanowk and Judith rolled up the sheet of plastic that sealed the greenhouse to reveal a warm, humid wonderland of seedlings and trays of potting soil. As we entered, the temperature went up by about ten degrees, and condensation dripped down the sides of the walls and from the ceiling.
Outside of the greenhouse was another set of row crops in the ground. Next to that was a tool shed and a large water tank. Potting benches and tools lay ready to be picked up again. The work on a farm is never done. Closer to the house was a fire pit surrounded by places to sit and a grill to cook. Here the Yisraels host their friends, their family, their community and bring them together with fire and food. It was a gift to be let into their sanctuary, even just briefly. I hope we can visit again soon!
How to Support the Farm
The Yisraels sell plant starts and food from their farm and farm stand. They also sell their body care products. Also, with even more urgency now that the pandemic has increased the number of people experiencing food insecurity, the Yisraels also help people in their community to establish vegetable gardens at their own homes.
Check out their website. Read their story in their own words. Visit their online shop, and follow them on social media! I can’t overstate how important their work is especially in these tumultuous times.