With nearly half of Yolo County’s land reserved for agriculture, you’d think hunger would be far-removed issue. The truth, as unfortunate as it may be, is that it isn’t.
Nearly 18 percent of Yolo County’s residents are determined to be “food insecure,” according to data compiled by Feeding America’s recent Map The Meal Gap survey, which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal.
“That’s a frightening number for a county like ours,” said Woodland farmer Shane Tucker. “We have so much food growing around us. All the local city councils are interested in preserving and maintaining our agriculture, and yet, 18 percent of our people don’t have enough to eat.”
Thus, a new local project, Food Bank Farmers, is utilizing the surrounding communities’ large swaths of agricultural land as an answer to the problem. The approach is to take acreage donated by farmers and grow fruits and vegetables on it for those in need.
Tucker and his wife, Marsha, dreamed up the idea when they realized they would not be able to commercially farm a small, isolated tract of land they own. Instead of letting it go without purpose, they decided instead to farm it and give the produce to a local food bank.
“It just wasn’t smart to leave some of our best land fallow,” Tucker said. “We started talking about ways to use it as a benefit to the community. … (Yolo County Supervisor) Don Saylor got us in contact with people who could help us achieve that.”
By working in concert with the Food Bank of Yolo County (the recipient) and the Center for Land-Based Learning (the volunteers), Tucker developed a project where growers like himself would devote portions of their land for beginning farmers to plant and harvest produce — and transfer it to the Food Bank — for relatively small costs.
“I am so pleased to congratulate Shane and Marsha Tucker, and am so proud of their contribution to our community,” Saylor said. He added that the collaboration “will result in a better supply of healthy, nutritious fresh produce for the most vulnerable residents of our county.”
“When I formed Yolo Food Connect a few years ago, I believed that bringing people together would result in positive change, but I could not have imagined something as wonderful as Food Bank Farmers.”
The trial run of sorts for Food Bank Farmers is the Tuckers’ own farm, on which an expected 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables are being cultivated by a group of volunteers.
The 1.5-acre farm is an example of the small-scale operation that could be replicated for other farmers with unused parcels of land. After the crops are harvested, the Tuckers hope to have Food Bank Farmers expanded.
“This is something nice to do, and helpful,” Tucker said of his donated property, “but if we can figure out how to expand it, we can make it into something that maybe can make a dent in our county’s hunger problem.”
Another thing this preliminary test is establishing is what a benefit that an integrated and planned approach to food donations can be for a food bank.
The Tuckers selected the crops — a colorful array of carrots, heirloom tomatoes, beets, pumpkins and more — together with Food Bank officials. They have known since May what they would have for distribution this fall.
“For Shane and Marsha’s program to have such an emphasis on the Food Bank; we’re just in awe of their generosity,” said Kevin Sanchez, executive director of the Food Bank of Yolo County. “Hopefully, we can create a model to share with other food banks across the country.”
But to do it takes the help of volunteers, even on the Tuckers’ small parcel. Volunteers have to do the unglamorous work of planting, weeding and thinning these small gardens.
And as harvest approaches, there’s even more work to do. What’s grown must be washed, placed into bins, refrigerated and transferred to Food Bank facilities.
The volunteers’ farm activities are handled by Ashley Thomas, whom the Tuckers hired as a part-time farm manager. Thomas is a student at the Center for Land-Based Learning California Farm Academy.
“Farms are a lot of work, and usually that labor is pretty expensive,” Thomas said. “If we are going to expand, a lot of this is going to be community-supported. So far, it’s been a lot of friends coming out, which is great, but we’re going to need more helping hands for harvest.”
Anyone interested can contact Thomas through the project’s website (foodbankfarmers.org) or Facebook page (facebook.com/FoodBankFarms). Potential volunteers don’t have to be expert farmers, as it’s intended to be a learning experience.
An expressed desire of Food Bank Farmers in their partnership with the Center for Land-Based Learning is exactly that: to provide valuable experience to a number of individuals en route to a career in farming.
“I know a lot of college students have an interest in sustainable agriculture, and there’s no better way to learn about it than to get your hands dirty,” Thomas said. “There’s only so far you can get in a classroom.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett