Regenerative agriculture and medicine as tools to heal the connection between people and the earth through an urban-rural corridor.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
This place is the historic territory of Ohlone people. It is the place where our research partner and my wife Rupa Marya, MD was born and where our children were born. We see how the ways of industrial farming and urban development have degraded the soils and the nutrient pumps that were so vital here with the tule elk, beaver, salmon and grizzly are now totally disrupted through the extermination of these creatures, elimination of the original stewards of the ecosystem, and the pollution of the soil, the air and the water. We believe if we farm differently, using ecological regenerative practices and if we farm in partnership with groups that have been wounded by these systems that separate us, we can simultaneously heal the planet, the ecosystems and the people.
We have been working over the past 7 years on creating islands of urban regenerative organic farming, on rooftops of new buildings and around buildings, re-wilding the urban landscape building up soil fertility and offering a place for habitat for native insects and birds. We see how dense urban settings are often void of healthy soil and access to healthy food and how those who are trying to grow food in the urban setting often lack to understanding of farming in a way that can produce food at a scale needed to feed our population. I have been an organic farmer in the rural settings of the Greater SF Bay Area and the Central Californian coast for over 20 years. I bring knowledge gained in rural systems into the urban environment to develop highly functional urban farming systems.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the 'local food' movement for California and it also has a diverse and dense city populations with more than 90% of the food being consumed coming from rural locations outside the city. The climate is temperate with an average annual rain fall of 22 inches, with average temperatures increasing with climate change. Asian, European, Black American, Latin American and Indigenous cultures are strongly represented with their food cultures. In the past 15 years, the area has become a place of increasing wealth disparity with sprawling homeless encampments and more billionaires per square mile than any other place on earth. This is a place where a student from UC Berkeley who goes hungry with not enough money to pay both rent and groceries can be walking down the street next to a billionaire who just spent $75 on a cup of coffee. There is a lot of potential to shift the food system through innovative interracial and interclass partnerships and novel rural-urban agricultural cooperations that would create access to organic, healthy food to those who traditionally have not had this in an urban setting.
With the surge in new building developments, the people in the Bay area are actively imagining solutions to simultaneously address climate change, food security as well as social and health disparities to create more resiliency. While urban gardens currently provide beauty and habitat, produce generated cannot compete with prices from rural farms to support urban agriculture as a livelihood. Urban gardens currently do not work on strong production models of farming and are nowhere near creating enough food to supply even a tiny percentage of our urban population with regular produce.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Currently our challenges in the urban setting are a built environment that does not allow for soil to be vital and healthy, a food system that does not prioritize soil health through overabundance of dietary chemicals and agricultural chemicals that damage the soil microbiome, the gut microbiome of US urban dwellers is currently the least biodiverse on plant earth, the lack of biodiversity in the gut means we have diminished capacity to mitigate the impacts of inflammation which is the hallmark of all leading causes of death and illness in industrialized society, our socioeconomic system drives profit interest over public health and competition over cooperation. Another challenge is that the divisions between urban life and rural life means critical knowledge about ecosystems health is not shared, creating two vastly different worlds in which food is created and food is consumed. Our challenges also include racial and wealth disparities that create real food access disparity and health disparities. With the increasing frequency of wildfires, we are seeing how fragile our food system is with the rural supply becoming trapped when a geographic region is impacted by fire. By 2050, the challenges around rising temperatures will be more intense, with potential crop failure and challenges in infrastructure. By preparing now with increasing our urban food resiliency and bioregional adaptation of seeds in both rural and urban settings, we can be more prepared.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is to create a well-worn network of urban regenerative farms on buildings and in small open spaces to grow food where people live, working in cooperation not competition with a rural farm 30 miles outside San Francisco. The rural farm is where we would train farmers in regenerative principles at nature's scale in order to adopt production level techniques that would increase the resiliency of our urban setting with rich biodiversity of plants and soil microbes. The rural farm would be a large land project, held in the Sogorea Te Land Trust, with leadership returning back to the Ohlone people. This large acreage project would include a village and ceremonial site for indigenous people to gather and to heal their ancestral traumas through reconnecting to their lands and through remembering indigenous food ways, medicine ways and land management practices. It would also include a regenerative agriculture farm and training center where urban farmers working projects in San Francisco and Oakland could immerse themselves in a thriving environment, to understand nature's systems working at scale. The project would also include a clinic to decolonize medicine, with western medical practitioners working in collaboration with traditional medicine practitioners, centering food as medicine and immersion in balanced ecosystems as therapies. We will be setting into actual practice what we intuit and what we are currently researching in the urban environment--that bringing indigenous land sovereignty back, by entering the right relationship with indigenous people, by working with the land in ways to stimulate biology to be the engine of our food system, by offering healing from the inside of the body out, through the connections between our food and our bodies and through the invisible interactions between the microbes in the soil and in our gut, by working together to uplift historically oppressed people to support their own self-determinism around food and medicine, we can simultaneously heal the people, the planet and the power dynamics that have harmed us.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
When indigenous people have control and access to lands that were removed through acts of genocide, they begin to heal and remember. When homeless people have access to land to advance their own agenda for housing and food security, they begin to heal and . When young Black and Indigenous farmers have an opportunity to create food for food pharmacies in their communities, to offer healthy organic produce to people who would never have access, the begin to see their power as healers in their community. When doctors partner with farmers to advance an agenda of food as medicine, through principles where the soil and the body are treated with the same reverence and respect, we begin to heal as a society. When the built environment recreates ecosystem balance instead of destroying it, we stay healthy. When urban and rural farmers cooperate to transform the food system with regenerative agriculture, we steward the soil in an economically viable way for the health of all being.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Our vision seeks to heal what's been broken by creating an urban-rural network of regenerative farms based on principles of regenerative agriculture. In the urban environment, we see scaling up the presence of farms on and between buildings, growing food where people live and training farmers to practice agricultural techniques that enhance soil biodiversity and create regional biodiversity of plants and foods, rewilding our urban environment and creating local food system resiliency. We are working with soil scientist Dr Eoin Brodie to understand the overall impacts urban agriculture can have with regards to carbon dioxide offset, not only through the development of stable soil carbon but also through modeling the impact of urban island cooling effects and the elimination of need for fossil-fuel based transportation as we scale up growing food where people live. The impact of transforming food deserts with compromised soil into places with biodiverse soil creating diverse foods is also something we are investigating at the level of the gut and soil microbiomes, to see if having greater biodiversity where we live improves inflammation and improves diseases such as diabetes, obesity, depression and asthma.
Top Leaf Farms has developed innovative agricultural projects in the Bay Area which has positioned it as the leading designer of working urban agricultural spaces, on rooftops and on the ground. While other local efforts offer a farming landscape or garden, Top Leaf Farms is run by Benjamin Farher, an organic farmer with 20 years of field experience and a passion for soil fertility and regenerative practices that lower inputs and allow life to drive food production. Benjamin knows that one limitation of urban farm projects is that most urban people do not have knowledge of how nature works at scale. This is why the connection with the rural space is crucial for training, so that this knowledge can be experienced then translated back into the urban environment to continue to develop designs that enhance the local ecosystem to benefit human health and overall thriving.
With the recent fires in California, it has become clear that we must increasingly localize critical aspects of our food system. When farmers in rural spaces are running away from wildfire, they cannot transport food to the cities. More than community gardens, our urban farm projects are production farms, which aim to create as much high quality produce as possible, for the benefit of people working the farms and those living close by. By working closely with our community partners, we seek to inspire other community groups to create interracial, cross-disciplinary and cross-class partnerships to advance similar agendas, simultaneously addressing food access, health and social uplifting through healing traumas inflicted by colonial structures that still exist today.
As a husband and wife, farmer Benjamin Fahrer and physician Rupa Marya deeply understand how food is medicine. Working from our own home and extending out into the community where we live, we engage in community-led research that seeks to understand how farming in a way that heals the earth can heal our bodies and if done with concern for our indigenous friends, can heal historically wounded relationships. We seek to mobilize our privilege, our research funding, our connections and our skills to work at the service of Indigenous, Black, Brown and Poor people who suffer the worst health outcomes and have the most need in our local ecosystem. We believe that through our dynamic and innovative friendships and partnerships, we can create models that will awaken new and old ways of relating to each other, to the land and to our foods.
Our rural vision of the Ohlone land, regenerative agricultural training center and clinic for decolonizing food and medicine is the culmination of our work and partnerships, a place to put into practice what we are understanding through the connection between soil health, human health and social health. The rural project will also incubate a center for restoryation, where the arts and stories can be developed that describe how we got here as a species and how we ended up getting through. This vision is a place of thriving. So many people who have been historically wounded through land and food and medicine are continually living in response to trauma. We seek to offer a vision of reintegration, of thriving and of vitality, where people can experience what that feels like, what that tastes like. Often, when we do not know what healing looks like or feels like, it becomes hard to imagine the way forward. We see this rural space as one manifestation of truly holistic health, which offers a place for deep reintegration, with the earth, with each other and with our own bodies.
At this moment, California is advancing an agenda for single-payer healthcare, and an agenda to fund food pharmacies through Medical programs. These would make the clinical aspect of this work totally accessible. Instead of a farm clinic that is only available to wealthy participants, through the state push for single payer and the movement for Medicare for All on the national stage, this clinic could be fully accessible to all. There is also policy to directly support environmental farming and the Healthy Soils Initiative in California, which incentivize
By connecting the rural with the urban, through trainings, through clinical offerings, through retreat, we create a vital highway of knowledge and medicine that does not yet exist, one that is centered around food and how we create it. This vision offers us a solution to heal the wounds that created climate change--the wounds of colonialism. By deeply reintegrating what has been divided, we create a model for a way forward, through food as medicine.