Corn as high as an elephant’s eye? Unusual land use crops up in urban West Sac neighborhood

SARA BERNAL has plans for an unused city lot that used to have bad soil. She’s part of a project involving the City of West Sacramento and a Yolo County nonprofit that promotes agricultural education.   (News-Ledger photo)

SARA BERNAL has plans for an unused city lot that used to have bad soil. She’s part of a project involving the City of West Sacramento and a Yolo County nonprofit that promotes agricultural education.
(News-Ledger photo)


By Steve Marschke
News-Ledger Editor

There is sudden new activity on that old, city-owned vacant lot at the corner of 5th and C streets in West Sacramento’s old “Washington” neighborhood. New soil has been dropped off, and a tractor is leveling it out. People are bustling about onsite.

The lot is surrounded by elements of urban West Sacramento old and new:

Just west lies the popular new Broderick Roadhouse pub. A couple blocks east is the venerable old I Street Bridge. Across the street is a liquor store. Passersby include commuters, students, the residents of nearby homes, and various denizens of the city’s streets.

So what are they building on this two-thirds-acre piece of urban infill? Will it be new townhouses or apartments, like those going up elsewhere on the West Sac riverfront? A mixed-use building? A restaurant?

The answer is probably not your first guess. What they’re building is a farm.

Sara Bernal was on site yesterday, supervising the spreading of a new layer of topsoil. She will be the first farmer at the temporary “urban farm” at 427 C Street.

“My goal is to have the irrigation system built by next week,” said Bernal. “I hope to start planting in two weeks.”

What crops are going in?

“Lots of heirloom tomatoes, baby green mixes, cucumbers, melons, summer squash, onions, carrots and radishes, eggplants and peppers,” she started to list.

Bernal has small-farm experience, including producing for “subscribers” and for farmers markets. She hopes to sell her veggies at farmers markets – including West Sacramento’s – and at restaurants – including nearby “Broderick.”

“In 30 days, we will have baby lettuce and small radishes,” said Bernal.

This “urban farm” project is the first partnership between the city and the Center for Land-Based Learning, headquartered in Winters. The city hopes to make available various vacant sites for use as temporary, rotating small farms. The Center for Land-Based Learning, which supports training for farmers, has leased this city lot for $1 per year for five years.

Mayor Christopher Cabaldon says the neighborhood and the city get several different things out of the relationship.

“First, it’s the rejuvenation of a public-owned parcel that’s been almost thrown away for a full generation,” he told the News-Ledger. “(Vacant lots) continue to be safety issues. We want to have activity there.”

Then, there’s the opportunity to help train new farmers and get them a start in their profession. West Sacramento officials are seeking to make the city a “food hub,” central to food production and processing.

“For most of recorded history, you became a farmer because you grew up on a farm,” he said. “Today, there’s a whole new crop of young people who want to be a farmer, but their parents don’t own a farm. They don’t have the land to begin farming. So reason number two for this is to incubate farmers.”

“Third is that we want to create new options for local neighbors and kids, so they’re connected to farms and can buy more healthy food. (The fourth reason is) we really want to create a pipeline for local restaurants to locally-source specialty produce. You saw that with Dan Gannon’s farm in Southport, and the Eatery.”

The Eatery was a well-regarded Southport restaurant that often served local produce such as Gannon’s. The restaurant recently closed for financial reasons.

“One key feature is that this will be a temporary use,” said Cabaldon of the C Street farm. “Five years from now, it could be a mixed-use building with people living upstairs and a restaurant or book store down below. When that happens, we and others have plenty of other vacant properties in the city.”

Mary Kimball is executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning, which is leasing the vacant lot and has hired Bernal as the farm manager. She said this project is made possible primarily by Wells Fargo, with help from Community Business Bank and other sponsors. Soil on the lot was so poor that they trucked in 600 cubic yards of (slightly aromatic) composted topsoil.

“It’s kind of surprising how much even a half acre can produce,” said Kimball. “Two of our graduates are going to help (Bernal.) It’s all going to be vegetable produce – it will be for really different markets, like restaurants. ‘Broderick’ restaurant has put in an order for what to grow.”

The produce will also be sold at farmers’ markets and farmstands, and possibly through a “CSA” program (“community supported agriculture,” in which consumers sign up to receive a portion of the produce).

The urban farm fits with her organization’s mission.

“We have a beginning farmer training program called the California Farm Academy,” said Kimball. “Each year, we graduate about 20 farmers into the community.”

Sara Bernal hopes sales from the C Street farm help cover her own salary as farm manager for the plot.

Is she worried about people vandalizing the little farm, or walking off with the “fruits” of her labor?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” answered Bernal. “Unfortunately, we can’t afford to fence it off. We’re hoping people will see how much work we put in, and leave it alone. I’m sure it will happen, though.”

City officials are holding a groundbreaking for the urban farm at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 9,  at 427 C Street.

And in case you’re wondering, the West Sacramento Farmers Market is scheduled to open for the season on May 29; look for information on the Thursday-afternoon market on Facebook here.


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