Exploring that which sustains us
#RealFood with Kayla Rutland and Shane Lovell of City Farm SLO
A visit to a magical little place — and a peek at the future of farming
I’d never have found City Farm in San Luis Obispo (“SLO”) California, without knowing where to look.
It’s a hidden gem, nestled out of sight amongst a Target, a Home Depot, and other “big box” stores.
But once I found it, this past summer, I became completely captivated: by the setting, by the people, and by their enthusiasm for the farm and its special mission.
And I had some “aha” moments, too:
For the first time, I finally understood what “regenerative” farming and “permaculture” are about — which, up until then, were just buzzwords to me.
Shortly thereafter, Kayla and Shane were very kind to sit down and tell me more about City Farm SLO — and I fell in love with the place, all over again.
Tell me about the land we’re on.
How did it become this unique place that’s City Farm?
We’re in the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Reserve, which was designated in the city’s master plan in the ’90s. And that was a really special upswell of community willpower to make that happen.
A lot of folks who really care about this area and the fertility of this agriculturally-important piece of land wanted to see it preserved in ag use, as the land around us was becoming developed in commercial use. So they put a lot of effort into seeing that happen, and I think it speaks really well about the community we live in.
In 2013, our organization was formed, and signed a lease with the city of San Luis Obispo for 19 acres of the reserve. And first and foremost, what we do is manage this land for its agricultural use.
So what would you say is the overall mission of City Farm? Is it to grow food, per se, or is it to teach people?
We’re focused on education. And to me that means the whole life cycle of a farmer.
So primarily our education programs are focused on youth.
We have partnerships with local schools where we offer field trips. We have a farms class where high schoolers visit twice a week. We have a youth empowerment program which serves students in the summer. And we have a therapeutic horticultural program that serves students with disabilities. So the meat of our organization lies in our youth education programs.
But then outside of that, we have tenant farming programs on the other acreage, and we’re looking to expand those, and offer farmer training programs. We also have a really robust internship program that Shane runs where he’s teaching Cal Poly interns who are aspiring farmers, or folks who are studying agriculture. And then we’re helping educate any interested community member who’s here for a volunteer opportunity or who’s here for a farm tour.
So our mission is to spread sustainable and regenerative farming practices, through our education programs.
And then the other massive part of our mission is to keep this 19 acres in productive and sustainable agriculture as well. The point of the ag reserve itself is to tend the land.
And as our infrastructure and organization grows, we’re able to offer more and more supportive services to the farmers that are here.
And what does City Farm grow here?
We used to grow a little bit of as many crops as possible, so you could see all of it.
But now we’re limiting the number of crops to those that do really well that we can sell effectively. And even though it is a nonprofit farm, and really small-scale, we’re trying to make it as similar to a productive, actual working farm as possible.
So lettuce and tomatoes would be our top two. And then zucchinis. And brassica — so broccoli, kale, cabbage. And then this time of year, there’s cantaloupe, but we’ve also grown all sorts of different kinds of exotic melons. And we have a wide range of sweet peppers.
And then we have apples, nectarines, peaches, plums, apricots, all sorts of different fruit trees.
The way I look at it is: we’re trying to show the most efficient crops for each different growing style.
And we grow a large number of flowering plants. So annual and perennial flowers, in order to encourage beneficial insects.
Is what you’re doing here organic?
Yes. We use all 100% organic practices. Part of the agreement with the city is that this all needs to be under organic agricultural management.
And though we don’t have to be certified organic, we’ve been considering that. There’s a little bit more paperwork and documentation, but it’ll probably be worthwhile overall to go ahead, to encourage more people to do it.
And does that mean that there’s nothing here that’s GMO?
Organic excludes GMOs.
Yeah. All non-GMO.
Do you use chemicals like herbicides or pesticides?
We don’t use any herbicides — zero of those. But if we do have a pest issue, there are certain organic options that we’ll look into and dabble with.
We try to do it as minimally as possible because pretty much any type of pesticide will attack what you’re going after, but then also other things like beneficial insects that we don’t want to kill.
So we’ll try physical methods of actually removing the leaves with pests on it. And then if that doesn’t work, we might try a soapy water mixture. So we’ll get a Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, and spray a soapy water mixture so that ideally that would only go after mites and it won’t hurt actual insects.
And if that doesn’t work, there are other organic options we can look at. But we try to avoid them as much as possible. If we do anything, we make sure everything’s OMRI-certified.
You also have some animals here. Tell me about that.
Yeah, we have four sheep, and soon we may have some lambs around.
And then we have a chicken tractor, which is a mobile chicken coop with an open floor. And that has 30 chickens in it right now.
And that moves every day, so they always have a fresh plot of soil to scratch around on, and then they fertilize it with their droppings.
And if you move them every day and just get a little bit of chicken poop, it’s good for the soil, but if they poop in the same place over and over again, then it basically burns and damages the soil.
So moving them often is good for the soil and it’s enjoyable for them anyway, because chickens want to scratch around on the ground and eat little grubs and worms and stuff. And so we try to maximize that type of behavior that they want to be doing, in a system that improves the land over time.
And if we want to take that land eventually and transition it into row crop veggie production, we can do that more easily, the better and better the soil health gets.
And so, what’s the goal with the animals? Is it for food? Is it to improve the soil? Is it educational?
Mostly educational at our scale.
It’s exciting for a lot of the students, and especially the elementary school age, for them to see sheep and be able to pet them. We have one sheep that’s really kind of like a dog, so he likes being scratched, and so kids can go and pet him, and play with the chickens. It’s a really engaging activity for a lot of kids.
But then the benefits the animals can have on the land when managed in the right way is also helpful. Like the sheep eat a lot of our weeds. So it’s less weed-whacking, and they can eat all the weeds down.
And again, we’re modeling this practice to hopefully be used at scale. So if we can inspire farmers to take that practice and use it on their farms, where on a scale that would make more sense and really have impact, then that’s what we hope to do.
We do have egg-laying chickens, and they just started making eggs a few days ago, so it’s pretty exciting. It’s fun.
Kayla mentioned regenerative farming, and that’s becoming a buzzword now. How would you describe that?
We’re trying to be as regenerative as possible.
The way I look at it is, instead of just being sustainable, where you can keep doing the same practices over and over again and the farmland quality will remain viable … regenerative would mean you’re doing everything you can to make the land get better and better every year.
So we don’t till the soil.
We’ll use a broad fork just to break up really heavy clay to allow moisture and air to get deeper in the soil, but we never really flip or crush up the soil.
And the main reason we do that is to protect the soil structure.
There’s networks and communities of different organisms in the soil. And if you break them up, then they have to spend all their time rebuilding instead of spending their time trading nutrients with plants, in the way it naturally works in a untouched ecosystem.
So “no till” is a big one for regenerative.
Then we’re also doing a rotational grazing setup in our grazing range land. We have a couple acres set aside for sheep grazing at the moment.
And we’re rotating them really quickly so they can never overgraze. So they’ll be on one small temporary pen for up to about three or four days, and then we’ll move them to another small pen. And so they’re just there long enough to eat the tips of the grass, but not overgraze it. So it actually improves the health of the soil and the grass that’s there.
And so, year after year, it should increase organic matter.
One of the big benefits is the idea of carbon farming, where you’re trying to get carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in the soil, so as much healthy life as you can have underground, that’s just more and more CO2 to be pulled out of the atmosphere.
What’s the difference between regenerative and permaculture?
“Regenerative” is a really broad umbrella of ideas.
One is permaculture — which is short for “permanent agriculture” — and that’s where you’re setting up a permanent ecosystem that becomes self-sustaining and self-supportive over time. It’s more of a perennial forest-based agriculture that’s built around food-producing crops. Then there’s no-till growing. There’s biodynamic farming, which is getting really popular with vineyards. And there’s rotational grazing, which is part of holistic land management.
So regenerative is the overall umbrella, and permaculture is one of its specific slivers.
And how did conventional agriculture come to be different from that?
Well, there’s the invention of the tractor, which was a massive improvement in the ability to quickly cultivate land to a clean slate. And then you can till the whole big chunk of land and get rid of as many outside variables as possible.
So you have a fresh clean slate to put your plants in, and all you have to do is kill the weeds as they come up around your plants.
And then fertilizers and herbicides, which is the other big advancement, I think. And then GMOs as well, because once you scale up into that system, you’re going to get new issues that weren’t around before.
But basically, with the combination of tractors, fertilizers and herbicides, you’re able to scale up pretty dramatically.
It’s not a sterile environment, but it’s an environment where the natural ecosystem is removed as much as possible. And so what ends up happening, in essence, is pushing nature out — and then only bringing in the elements you think you need.
And you replace it with a mono-crop kind of production.
That’s very different from more regenerative kinds of practices, where you’re cultivating and nurturing what’s there.
Yes. And inviting nature to re-enter into your farm.
There are difficulties with that, though, because with any natural system there are ebbs and flows and there’s a lot more variables at play. So you have to be tuned into different challenges that maybe a conventional farmer today wouldn’t be used to dealing with.
So it’s a tricky problem to solve.
The way I look at it is that conventional agriculture is good for farming, but bad for plants and for ecosystems. It’s effectively been a massive experiment in how to produce food, over just the last 75 years or so.
But there’s enough support material, like with fertilizers and GMOs, that you can kind of get it all to work, and you can get it to work really effectively at scale.
Right now, conventional agriculture is feeding the world, but it’s also creating a lot of negative externalities. So we need to figure out how to keep the good, and do it more responsibly and more ecologically.
It is it possible for regenerative agriculture to create as much food per unit of land as conventional agriculture?
Yes. Theoretically it should be able to produce more food per acre.
It’s the labor.
Yeah, it’s the labor that’s tricky.
For me, personally, I just love this kind of work: being out on the ground — not on a tractor, but with my hands in the dirt, planting. Really more intimately connected with the crops than a large-scale farm would be.
So perhaps it’s more people getting interested in it, or maybe it’s robots and automation or other innovations that take the labor off of people’s shoulders and onto more of a mechanized system within a regenerative mindset. Or it’s going to be a combination of different solutions, I think.
But yeah, right now, labor is the tricky hurdle.
For comparison, thinking about a large non-organic conventional farm — one guy on a tractor can farm many acres. He’s using a tractor and fertilizers and pesticides. But then here — you’re farming with the support of seven interns, plus volunteers, and we grow on one quarter-acre. We grow a lot of food but it takes a lot of labor.
So then, over the past century, does that answer the question of: How do you keep producing food when there’s fewer and fewer people farming — the answer is what became “conventional” agriculture?
Actually, I think a big reason fewer and fewer people are farming is because farms are less and less enjoyable to be on.
I don’t know if you’ve driven up the 5 freeway [in California’s central valley], but any of the farms out there — you stand in the middle of it for 20 minutes, and you’re going to get real bummed out. It sucks out there.
It’s just a sea of one specific species, and there’s not many birds or animals. It just kind of becomes a desert with one specific food crop.
It’s a monoculture.
Yes. It’s an ecological desert with, say, 100 acres of soybeans. Where you have a large amount of production, but it’s not an inviting place to be.
So you grow up in a farming family and your parents have been farming your whole life. And there are three kids — and none of them want to farm, because you’re sitting in a combine, and running off GPS, trying to get 1,000 acres of corn harvested in a week and a half or whatever.
And so, none of it is enjoyable or fun. I think you could probably farm corn without ever really putting your hands in the dirt. It’s all automated from the inside of a cockpit.
So it’s just optimized for mass production.
Yes. And the human perspective of a place that you’d actually want to be in has been diminished as well.
There’s also a trend towards packing plants as closely together as possible, to maximize yield. How does that relate to nutrient density and the food?
I think the science is just coming out now. But as far as I’ve read and heard, if you grow crops in an organic no-till system, and you prioritize healthy soils with a high diversity of soil organic life — then there’s a network set up between the soil and the plants to where the plant can ask the soil biology for the new minerals that it needs, or water.
And then there’s basically a handshake deal where they agree to it and then they trade nutrients.
So the main function of that is plants pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, and taking CO2 and turning that into sugars, and then sending those sugars down out of the root system as exudates, and feeding the soil life.
And most of the soil life can’t photosynthesize themselves. So they take those sugars from the plants, in exchange for calcium or molybdenum or whatever kind of trace minerals they find in the soil that the plant needs.
And so in that system the plants should be more mineral-dense than in a conventional organic or industrial non-organic farm, because having healthy soils should allow the plant to get everything that it needs.
So if you plant plants really close together, does it affect the mineral density? I don’t think that matters all that much, as long as you have healthy soil and each plant has enough sunlight for what it needs.
Is there anywhere in particular you get your seeds from? And are they heirloom seeds?
Part of our transition from student garden into micro-farm is upping our production, and a lot of that is by using F1 hybrid seeds. They’re first-generation hybridized seeds that have a lot more vigor than, say, an heirloom.
So if you have an heirloom seed, it’s not going to be as productive and high-yielding as a hybrid seed. We use mostly hybrid seeds and we get them mostly from Johnny’s Seeds. They have all sorts of variety and they have a lot of support too, and they can help with any questions, so we use them a lot.
If you were to grow with heritage or heirloom seeds, then you could save seed and have that educational opportunity, which we’ve done in the past. But it’s not really efficient to farm both for food and for making your own seed. It’s usually one or the other. And so we’ve chosen to prioritize high production over being able to save seed.
I’ve heard that if a plant is actually healthy, that bugs either won’t or would be less inclined to go after it. Is that true?
Yes. From what I understand, the healthier the plant is, the more enzymes they’re able to make that will upset the digestive system of most insects. So in order for an insect to be able to digest it, it has to be somewhat of an unhealthy plant.
So, say you have a big row of kale. And some insects show up and they want to eat something, so they’re going to go first to the weakest plants, and if all the plants are super-strong, they might need to go to your neighbor’s or somewhere else to find plants they can actually digest.
So it’s as if nature has its own reclamation process. Sort of survival of the fittest, to get rid of the unhealthy plants and recycle those materials. Can you look at it that way?
Yes, that’s my understanding of the mechanism. They’re making room for the healthy plants.
The more photosynthesis you have, the healthier the soil and ecosystem ends up being. And so if there are plants in the way that are taking up sunlight, but they aren’t photosynthesizing optimally, the system has a tendency to get rid of it.
There’s a sort of poetic justice to it.
Yes, it’s interesting how things naturally just evolve towards efficiency over time.
So when you get, say, three billion years of research and development, things get really efficient.
To the point where we don’t even understand it.
Not even close.
And here, we try to go with natural systems as much as possible, because the further you get from nature in your farming systems, the more work you’re going to have to do.
Speaking of natural systems, there’s a notion that raising animals for food may be bad for the environment. What do you think of that?
In large-scale industrial feedlots, I’d think that would be the case.
But if you’re trying to mimic what works well for natural ecosystems … there isn’t a natural ecosystem that doesn’t have animals as part of making the whole system work.
And so if you go back to as natural as possible with, say, a herd of buffalo: They’ll spend six months migrating somewhere, and they’re always constantly moving, so they mow down the grass a little bit and then they move on, and they fertilize it and they improve the health of the soil. And then they let it rest. It doesn’t keep getting grazed over and over again. And so there’s no excess manure build-up.
The issue is when you start packing animals really tight in feedlots, and feeding them corn, and doing things that are mostly market-driven, but still not great for the environment.
But my understanding is there are ways to do it that are good for the environment.
I think it’s totally analogous to industrial farming and mono-cropping. It could be done well, like regenerative farming. The equivalent — regenerative animal production.
Yes, because in the other system, the high-production meat-producing system, you again remove the natural ecosystem …
It’s like mono-cropping cows.
Right. You remove everything about the productive ecosystem, and just pack in cows and feed them corn and give them antibiotics when they need it. And it works for the short term. But the negative costs, the outside costs of that, are piling up.
In terms of being cost-effective, how do conventional and regenerative compare?
It depends on what you consider to be costs. Shane talks about external costs, and who’s paying the true cost of our food system.
Yeah, fun fact:
Forty years ago, on average, Americans spent roughly 14% of their income on food and 7% on health care.
And today, we spend 14% of our income on health care and 7% on our food. So we swapped them.
So it seems we’re getting sicker. Why do you think that’d be?
When you farm a mono-crop at scale, the mineral density is going to be lower because the plants are artificially fertilized by nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium — but they’re not going to have all the different micronutrients they need to really thrive.
So there’s that — the nutrient diversity has gone down.
Our modern agriculture isn’t prioritizing nutrition or flavor. It’s prioritizing things that are easily-produced en masse and shippable, so you can ship it across the country.
We’re just eager to save money by scaling up, and we forget about all the benefits we’re losing as we do that. So that’s one of the negative externalities of a conventional agricultural system.
And it’s prioritizing production of food which isn’t really even technically food: Like most of our crops throughout the country, there’s a lot of corn and most of it’s not even edible corn, and it goes into corn syrup or gets fed to cows, or we make fuel out of it. It’s not really food.
I think the leading cause of death is obesity-related illness.
And corn and corn syrup is basically in everything.
And our current farming system prioritizes processed foods, and processed food leads to obesity.
And then a lot of the costs of conventional agriculture aren’t the burden of the farmer.
So, say, nutrient spill-off — like excess nitrogen flows into the creek and does ecological damage. The farmer’s not paying for that. The entire community is. And so if you calculate in the negative externalities of a conventional system, I think it would probably be higher than the costs of a regenerative system.
It’s just that by contrast, all the costs of a regenerative system are on the shoulders of the farmer, instead of on the community.
But can regenerative farming scale to feed millions or billions of people?
Yes. And my guess is that it’s going to be a hybridized model that takes everything we’ve learned from conventional ag, but then mixes in the idea of maximizing soil health.
So it’s already starting to happen with a lot of mono-crops — they’re not tilling the soil, they’re not disrupting the soil ecosystem underground, and they’re still doing a mono-crop. And the soil is helping support the plants, instead of just feeding the plants directly with [commercial] fertilizers.
But yeah, my guess is it’s going to be a hybridized model and then it’ll slowly transition more and more to regenerative and sustainable. Fingers crossed.
As we realize the importance of taking care of our farmland and our ecosystem in general, because if we keep just beating the heck out of it, it’s not going to keep supporting us forever.
For City Farm, what times of year are you able to farm here? Is it year-round?
All year! We’re really lucky with our climate here in SLO. Some of the crops don’t really like being in some of the buffer season, but we try to grow everything as seasonally as possible. But there’s really no time of the year that we aren’t farming in heavy production.
And is there anything new coming up?
One of our big efforts right now is a therapeutic horticulture program for students with disabilities.
So we’re building a “garden for all.” Which is a fully universally-accessible ADA-compliant garden which will have a decomposed granite pad that wheelchairs can easily access, and any folks with mobility issues can move around on very easily.
And it will have raised beds at varying heights. Also, raised beds that wheelchairs can roll under, and we’ll have sensory gardens, shade structures, mobile classroom. So that’s something we are working on funding right now, and there’s more information on our website.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about City Farm, or agriculture in general?
I think something that people can learn quickly by being here is that agriculture can be a really fulfilling and fun way to spend your time, whether it’s just doing it sometimes as a volunteer or really going full into it as a career.
So I always urge people to get out there. Even just starting a garden in your backyard, it might be pretty surprising how fulfilling it can be. It’s really fun. And the whole process of interacting with nature — it’s inspirational sometimes.
And there’s a lot of different ways to be involved here. There’s volunteer opportunities, internship opportunities. We’re really driven by community support. So if anyone’s feeling really inspired, there are a lot of ways to support what we’re doing.
It’s been wonderful to see it all first-hand. Thank you both very much!
Earlier this year, City Farm SLO extended its lease with the city by another 40 years.
Recommended resources from Shane and Kayla:
- Michael Pollan (journalist, author):
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Botany of Desire
- Joel Salatin (farmer, author, speaker):
Folks, This Ain’t Normal; Salad Bar Beef; Beyond Labels
Very special thanks to Kayla, Shane and City Farm SLO for their generosity and inspiration. :)
Opinions expressed are those of the participants.
Interview took place in August, 2022, and was edited for length and clarity.
Interview and Ron’s original City Farm photos are made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Credit: “Courtesy of RonDiamond.net”.
Additional City Farm photos courtesy of and © City Farm SLO. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Stock photos © Can Stock Photo. All rights reserved.