Book Review: On Good Land by Michael Ableman

The Autobiography of an Urban Farm
by Michael Ableman
Chronicle Books, 1998
San Francisco, CA
144 pages, $18.95 hardcover

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The story of sprawling suburbs is a story we have all seen played out anywhere we live and travel. But sometimes there's a hold out - the historic house surrounded by a sea of parking lots, or a wetland that is protected amidst a housing development. Most of those stories are never told, but one such hold out, a farm of 12 acres in southern California called Fairview Gardens, happens to be operated by a talented photographer and writer, Michael Ableman. His story of working the land as the suburbia of Santa Barbara County grows up on all sides is told in his new book, On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm. (A photograph from his book, showing the Fairview Gardens farm stand, graces the cover of this issue of YES!)

Ableman first arrived at Fairview Gardens to do some grafting in the orchard. The farm manager was considering taking a leave of absence - which later became permanent - and Ableman soon found himself stepping into the manager's shoes, raising avocados, citrus, vegetables, chickens, goats, and eventually more than 100 crops, all organic.

The land was rich, the growing season long, but farming land in the middle of one of the most expensive pieces of real estate anywhere became a major challenge. As surrounding farm land turned into housing developments, neighbors complained that his compost pile was smelly, his tractors too loud, and the roosters too noisy.

The roosters, especially, polarized the town. Supporters sporting rooster caps at city council meetings claimed the harbingers of the dawn were a reminder of the ancient co-existence of humans and animals - detractors said they were a loud nuisance.

Meanwhile, the owner of the land was considering how she might pass along an inheritance to her sons and thinking about the high price commanded by land in Santa Barbara County. At a certain point, Ableman realized he had a choice between trying to hold out alone against the tide, or reaching out to the surrounding community to draw them into his love for the soil, the trees, the farm animals, and the delicious foods.

He opened the farm gates to school groups, hosted tours and concerts, and invited neighbors to partake in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which they paid a set yearly fee to receive a weekly box of whatever produce was in season. The farm also began hosting a "Farm Days Jamboree," featuring bluegrass music, hay rides, apple bobbing, sack races, and, of course, lots of avocado sandwiches, fresh lemonade, and the world's largest organic salad.

Eventually, supporters of Fairview Gardens, with help from a local land trust and Santa Barbara County, were able to raise the money to buy the land from the owner and ensure that this rich farmland would remain a working organic farm. The land is now owned by the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens and has a protective conservation easement.

Although Ableman is deeply involved in this one small farm, his vision extends far beyond its borders. He reaches out to kids from the inner cities to spend time at Fairview Gardens, as well as those from the wealthier neighborhood schools. He begins his school tours with "grazing," setting the kids loose on rows of cherry tomatoes or strawberries and letting them eat their fill. For some, it is the first time they have eaten food they picked themselves. His goal? To help people experience the soul-satisfying reality of soil, sun, worms, and the taste of fresh-picked fruit.

Ableman's story is inspiring, and, like his previous book, From the Good Earth, the photography is outstanding. Both are books designed to be savored, a rich array of images of people and nature, food and farmers - not a nostalgic look to an idealized past, but a glimpse of a sustainable future.

Reviewed by Sarah van Gelder, executive editor of YES!

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