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Throwback Farm Thrives in Suburbia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a standard suburb, scrubbed and tamed. Except for the farm. It bursts with raucous, unruly green, yields melons and chard and peaches that taste of heaven.

Michael Ableman manages this farm.

His most obvious triumph is that it’s here at all.

This is, after all, Santa Barbara County, where land is pricey and a field is worth more covered in asphalt than in apricots. Progress squeezes the farm severely: There’s a subdivision behind the strawberry patch. Freeway noise strums through the stand of corn.

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Yet the farm hangs on, defying the march of tract homes and Taco Bells.

Ableman’s second triumph is the farm’s bounty: more than 100 crops, all organic. It sprouts standard salad veggies like cucumbers and tomatoes, trendy white asparagus, baby artichokes and French beans, and exotic fruits like cherimoya.

But Ableman won’t be satisfied until he racks up a third triumph: using the unusual ethic he’s established at the farm, Fairview Gardens, as an inspiration for changing America’s relationship with agriculture.

The revolution he has in mind is not about shunning pesticides, though he does. It’s about pushing agriculture into cities and suburbs, about turning farms into social centers and open-air classrooms. Above all, it’s about making agriculture relevant to people who buy their potatoes at McDonald’s and their houseplants at Target.

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Because only by understanding and appreciating farms, Ableman believes, will we learn to value and protect the Earth.

“In our society, we’re basically refugees from the natural world,” he said over a bowl of oats and granola at the 12-acre farm. “This is a place where people can come to reconnect.”

Ableman is now testing the strength of those connections with a fund-raising drive dubbed “The Campaign to Save Fairview Gardens.”

Educational Outreach

The farm is not threatened by immediate development. But Ableman wants to ensure its future by raising $795,000 to buy it from its longtime owner and turn it over to the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture.

The deal would include a deed restriction stipulating that all future owners must work Fairview as an active organic farm--and must engage the community with educational outreach.

Similar deed restrictions, or “conservation easements,” have become an increasingly popular way to protect farmland from development.

But for every one acre saved by a conservation easement, 16 acres fall to development, according to the American Farmland Trust. The advocacy group estimates that 46 acres of the nation’s best farmland are plowed under every hour.

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In this climate, Fairview stands out, not only for keeping the land in agriculture but also for insisting on an educational mission. Very few conservation easements contain such a provision, said Chuck Matthei, president of Equity Trust Inc., a national nonprofit organization that promotes land conservation.

"[Fairview] is a remarkable project, both agriculturally and socially,” Matthei said.

“It’s a great example,” agreed Tom Haller, president of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers. “A whole different way of thinking about farming.”

The Fairview way of thinking starts with the premise that each community should be anchored by a farm--or at least, by a large urban garden. Consumers should know who grows their food. Farmers should talk to those they feed. And kids should learn that carrots don’t only come from Vons.

In modern America, Ableman laments, most people associate farming with the vast silent fields of commercial agriculture. He wants them instead to think of farms as intimate ventures that invigorate neighborhoods.

Farmers’ markets have helped a great deal, he said, but people need to see produce growing in the soil as well as piled up on stands. And they need to connect farms with fun: as places to stroll or play or swap recipes for fennel bulb salad.

Once those connections click, “we begin to see ourselves as farmers, and the whole planet as our farm to be nurtured and cared for,” Ableman wrote in his 1993 book “From the Good Earth.”

Ableman was not always so enthusiastic about the community part of community farming.

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National Praise

During his first years at Fairview, he growled a bit about his neighbors in this middle-class community of 70,000. They growled too: Their complaints about stinky compost, noisy tractors and loud animals prompted county officials to threaten Ableman with fines and even jail time for violating health and safety codes.

“It was truly a collision,” Ableman said, remembering his astonishment that people could live in peace with the buzz of highway traffic while raising hell about a rooster’s exuberant shrieks.

Pondering the tensions, Ableman decided his neighbors had slipped so far from their rural roots that they no longer knew how--or why--to value farms. So he appointed himself to teach them.

He managed to defuse the crises. And he’s won national praise for his outreach efforts.

More than 110 families have bought “shares” in Fairview under a program called “community-supported agriculture” that is increasingly popular across the country. For $690 a year, members get a weekly basket of fresh-from-the-field produce throughout the nine-month harvest season.

Fairview’s 17 employees have hosted city kids for overnight camp-outs at the farm, which sits just off U.S. 101 on Fairview Avenue, west of Santa Barbara. They also run regular school tours, trying to spark an appreciation of agriculture in teenagers whose first instinct on spotting a free-range chicken is to sing out, “Everybody needs a little KFC.”

The tours can’t touch everybody. Some students refuse to plunge their hands into the soil or even to sniff fresh garlic. But others clearly adore the farm--especially after they get a glimpse of the worm box, where red earthworms chew up discarded papers and excrete a rich waste used as compost.

As eighth-grader Don Lawton said after a recent tour: “It’s pretty cool that this place still exists, that it hasn’t been plowed under.”

The tours have been such a hit at Goleta Valley Junior High School, where every seventh-grader visits the farm during science class, that Principal David Cash has asked Fairview staff to help him start an organic garden on campus. Ableman has set up a similar garden at a Santa Barbara AIDS hospice. He has also supervised students in establishing a 10-acre farm at the Midlands boarding school in Los Olivos; to his joy, students who once scarfed Sloppy Joes in the cafeteria are now snacking on raw turnips in the field.

But perhaps Fairview’s most remarkable outreach initiative is its most simple: the absence of “Keep Out” signs. Thousands of people stroll through the farm each year--no appointment ever needed.

Kids come by after school to pet Chief the horse, or to giggle at the fat turkey Einstein (so named because he was the only one of his breed smart enough to avoid drowning in the pond).

Adults can follow a self-guided tour of the farm that starts outside the gracious 1895 farmhouse where Ableman lives with his partner, Jeanne-Marie Herman, and his 15-year-old son, Aaron. Signs along the route explain organic principles, such as mingling crops to confuse pests. Many are techniques Ableman picked up during his explorations of ancient farming cultures in China, Peru and Africa.

“Just pulling into this place and looking at the beauty of it gives me a thrill,” said Elizabeth Murray, who often shops at the Fairview produce stand. “You don’t get to see farms like this much anymore.”

While many other farmers give tours to students, liability concerns usually prevent them from letting the public wander freely through their fields. Ableman acknowledges the risk that someone could trip on a hoe and sue him. Still, he says he has the best insurance policy around: good relations with the community.

“I believe in goodwill,” he said.

Higher Purpose

That same idealism has guided Ableman, 43, since his college days, when he dropped a photography scholarship at the San Francisco Art Institute because he felt that “sitting in closed rooms talking about so-called works of art” was not helping the world any. Seeking a higher purpose, he hooked up with the Brotherhood of the Sun Commune in Santa Barbara.

The commune, which emphasized meditation and respect for the Earth, owned a 3,000-acre organic farm. Ableman liked managing the apple and pear orchards. But he was none too crazy about sleeping on a wooden pallet while the commune’s leader drove fancy cars and collected weapons. So he quit.

Soon after, he landed the manager’s job at Fairview, where he found some of his fellow farmers at least as laid back as his old commune buddies: They worked in the nude and cultivated a marijuana crop hidden by 8-foot-tall weeds, he recounts in “On Good Land,” a history of Fairview to be published next spring by Chronicle Books.

Both the birthday suits and the pot patch have long since been abandoned.

The farm’s owner, Cornelia Chapman, who hired Ableman and has supported him through the years, is 78 now and eager to find a way to protect Fairview forever.

She loves the land, which she calls a “little bit of heaven.” And she relishes the mission, which she describes as helping people “learn about life.” But she cannot afford to give the farm away. So she’s banking on selling it to the Center for Urban Agriculture.

So far, the center has raised nearly 80% of the necessary funds. But a significant chunk of that is a challenge grant from the Goleta Land Trust, which the center will get only if it raises another $100,000.

Also, the largest contribution--a $147,000 grant from Santa Barbara County--expires this year. So fund-raisers have set an Oct. 1 deadline to complete the purchase.

Ableman is confident they’ll make it.

And, typically, he’s already hoping that Fairview’s success will inspire others.

“If 12 1/2 acres in the middle of the most expensive real estate market anywhere can be preserved and protected,” he said, “we can provide the model to do it anywhere.”


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