On August 25th, UCCE's Urban Ag & Food Systems Program tabled, paneled and supported the 8th Annual Food, Faith and Farms Conference in San Rafael, CA, hosted by Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative. The national Faithlands Conference, coordinated between Interfaith and the Agrarian Trust, which hosts the national Faithlands web page as a hub for sharing resources, followed on August 26-27. Rob Bennaton, Urban Ag and Food Systems Advisor, was panel moderator for the Successful Farms and Gardens on Faith Community Owned Lands panel. Julia Van Soelen Kim, North Bay Food Systems Advisor led a workshop focused on Making the Most of Commercial Kitchens, and Vince Trotter, Sustainable Ag Coordinator & Agricultural Ombudsman with UCCE Marin County, led a different workshop on Halal and Kosher: Exploring Relationships with Local Small Livestock Producers. Julio Contreras, UCCE Community Education Specialist III with the UCCE Urban Ag & Food Systems Program, shared urban farming information, supported and facilitated throughout the conference.
The discussion was on one of the most challenging hurdles for beginning and immigrant farmers: securing land to grow food. Meanwhile, religious institutions own lands throughout the United States that are often suitable for agriculture. These plots of land may vary in size from a 1,000 square foot community garden to over 100 acres. Partnerships can allow faith groups to simultaneously save resources, advance food security, connect traditional faith-based stories to land and agriculture, and help small farmers overcome economic and structural barriers. The presenters described innovative projects, including a farmer leasing from a Seventh Day Adventist middle school that successfully transferred ownership 3 times in Sonoma County, CA. There was also a farmer who leased land from her church while developing a farm project, allowing for her to scale to the point she qualified for a USDA loan for a piece of land that has a home and infrastructure. Finally, partnerships were highlighted in which a perennial food forest and seed bank on the grounds of a 4-acre Episcopal Church site were established.
The Faithlands movement is growing nationally to connect and inspire faith communities to use their land in new ways that promote ecological and human health, support local food and farming, enact reparative justice, and strengthen communities. On the Agrarian Trust's Faithlands web page, download the free FAITHLANDS TOOLKIT A Guide to Transformative Land Use. Interfaith is a regional and national organization which supports congregations of all faiths, denominations and backgrounds by connecting them with farmers and supporting farm stand initiation, farmers markets, and CSAs.
The idea is innovative and yet traditional, since so many faith-based groups are doing community-based food systems work, such as emergency food distribution, operating commercial-scale kitchens, or stewarding lands that could be cultivated by local farmers.
In particular, lands stewarded by faith-based groups in urban areas present a huge opportunity for cultivation by urban farmers, given high costs of land values in cities. Land for Good is another great organization that supports land transfers for farming and the development of land use agreements. Their amazing ToolBox web page has significant resources for building and negotiating leases for- and with- farmers and landowners.
The conference had a great turnout with powerful speakers and groups doing inspiring work around the nation. Speaker Rabbi Justin Goldstein from Yesod Farm+Kitchen in Fairview, North Carolina, opened the conference, sharing key points on building relationships for indigenous lands stewardship, and the process of returning this unceded land. Food justice and sustainability leaders representing 47 different religious communities were in attendance. While most came from the North Bay and East Bay, there were also participants from elsewhere in California and eight other states.
As described on the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative website, “For the first time the conference included tours of farms and gardens at 7 different faith-community sites. Diverse speakers included 8 farmers growing food on lands owned by religious institutions. Ammar Ahmed of Islamic Circle of North America in Washington, D.C. spoke about the response of Muslim communities in the U.S. to hunger during theCOVID Pandemic. He called on attendees to help with the national effort by Muslim and Jewish groups to urge USDA to make kosher and halal meat available to observant Jews and Muslims through an emergency food program. Advocates are concerned about protein options available to observant individuals who utilize TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (A letter signed by some 47 members of Congress went toUSDA last week; we will keep the Interfaith Food network apprised of how to help with this work.)” - Steve Schwartz, Executive Director, Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative.
In the Bay Area, South Berkeley, East and West Oakland, and South Hayward congregations have established small farms and gardens with their congregations. UCCE's Urban Ag & Food Systems Program with Alameda County RCD and Interfaith is providing technical support to a new East Alameda Gurdwara farming initiative managed by the Sikh community there. If you know of a faith-based group interested in this work, please reach out to Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative. Our Urban Ag collaborative team is also ready to work with you.
Author - Bay Area Urban Agriculture Advisor