A few years back I did a video tour of Rishi Kumar’s suburban home in southern California. I was seeking examples of ordinary people living in cookie cutter landscapes who were making their households more dynamic and resilient. Rishi’s goal was to transform his family home from a center of consumption to a place of production. I wanted to see what a bottom up, mom and pop, simple, inexpensive, low tech, distributed approach looked like.
I’ve heard plenty of criticism of this kind of thing. It falls in to two categories. The first is that such techniques are trashy and low class. Manicured lawns are a reflection of respectable middle class standards. Keeping livestock and growing vegetables in public view undermines property values and invites “the wrong element.” Hanging your clothes to dry in the sun is for trailer trash and hillbillies. Each precious subdivision is just an unkempt lawn away from anarchy. The other criticism is that even the most dedicated home gardener and conservationist can’t possibly make a meaningful difference in the Real World. These activities do nothing to address structural deficiencies and are therefore noble, but pointless.
Personally, I believe that large established institutions (both public and private) inevitably become brittle, opaque, and dysfunctional. They attempt to solve the problems of too much complexity and high costs by creating more complexity and higher costs. They can’t be reformed so they ultimately fail of their own dead weight. In the meantime new systems spring up in the cracks waiting to replace the old when the time comes. So I was excited to see the Kumar family’s latest expanded iteration of their principals at Sarvodaya Farms.
The Kumars worked together to buy a property dedicated to producing a meaningful amount of high quality organic food. The trick was to make the enterprise economically self sustaining. Land is insanely expensive in coastal California and it’s simply not possible to pay a mortgage and taxes producing agricultural goods. So a property was identified that had enough land to farm, but also had a rental home. In essence the “cash crop” is the house which pays the bills and liberates the land for agriculture. The house is modest and was therefore relatively affordable.
I was fortunate to meet with Rishi’s mom Manju when I visited the farm. She gave me a quick tour of the property. A broad range of plants are propagated in the nursery under shade.
Truckloads of wood chips and grass clippings are absorbed from local landscaping crews which continually build up the carbon content of the soil. The more organic material on the land the more water can be absorbed in the rainy season and stored passively in the long hot dry summer. Deep mulch prevents weeds from growing. Food wastes are composted in worm bins to build nitrogen rich amendments to feed the soil.
Chickens in mobile “tractors” and netted sections of the orchard produce eggs, help manage insect pests, and add fertility to the soil.
Bee hives are primarily for pollination, but produce honey and wax as a desirable byproduct.
Instead of cultivating a single monocrop the farm is highly diversified. The Kumars aren’t producing commodities. They’re producing food. Some of the things they plant aren’t even for humans, but are designed to attract beneficial insects that keep the land healthy and balanced without the need for chemicals. Chemicals are expensive and toxic. Ladybugs are free.
Instead of attempting to compete with industrial agribusiness and sell to national chain retailers the Kumars sell directly to individual households through a Community Supported Agriculture subscription plan.
Part of the mission of the farm is to incorporate educational programs and neighborhood involvement. People have lost their connection to where food comes from and no longer appreciate the importance of small scale local agriculture. By drawing in volunteers and offering classes the farm creates allies in the community.
The surrounding context is peculiar. It’s neither agricultural, suburban, nor urban. It’s a weird hodgepodge of all of the above that doesn’t quite hang together properly. The vacant land on each side of the farm is in the process of being developed with more low rise condo complexes. Manju calls them the Box People. They tend to keep to themselves inside their homes and it’s difficult to find an opportunity to interact with the neighbors when everyone is walled off and gated from each other. But they’re trying.
Engineers, city planners, economic development officials, elected representatives, home owners associations, banks, and private corporations of all kinds are all motivated to solve specific problems with particular tools. Certain things make sense within the confines of individual silos. But the collective results tend to be a world that is ever more leveraged and dependent on compound bureaucracies far from the people they’re theoretically meant to serve. I like the Kumar’s methods better.