In South Oak Park, across from the recently closed Fruit Ridge Elementary School, beds of leafy vegetables grow among fruit trees. Orange trees and herbs like horseradish and aloe vera sit in front of the Yisrael family’s home, but the majority of their urban farm is in the backyard. Chanowk Yisrael and his wife, Judith, both 38, along with their eight children nurture the half-acre plot of land. For the Yisraels, farm-to-fork is more than just a fad.
“For us, (farm to fork) is something we do every day,” said Judith. “It’s a way of life.”
In pre-recession 2007, Chanowk worked in the computer field and heard rumors swirling about economic collapse. He wondered what sort of impact a national financial meltdown would have on his family, and how he might provide for them.
“I just designed the scenario if it did happen,” he said. “What if I was cut off from grocery stores? How would I support myself? How would I support my family? That’s when I became more self-sufficient.”
He began transforming his yard into a garden to grow food. He wasn’t successful initially, but Chanowk began studying urban farming. He realized Oak Park was considered a food desert with a shortage of grocery stores offering healthy foods.
A food desert is defined as an urban neighborhood without access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods in a one-mile radius or a rural town without access in a 10-mile radius. Along with Oak Park, the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies neighborhoods like Land Park and Florin and sections in Carmichael, Rancho Cordova, Rio Linda and Antelope as food deserts.
Chanowk, reinvigorated by this discovery, began again and this time, the Yisrael Family Farm started to bloom.
The farm has over 40 fruit trees producing fruits like Asian plums, persimmons and figs. Several beds produce vegetables such as kale, beets and collard greens. Cacti grow prickly pears while a pecan tree from next door overflows into the yard. Clucking free-range chickens roam in their own section and lay eggs. A nearby honeybee hive sits abandoned due to colony collapse disorder last year.
“Some people say they can’t believe they’re in Oak Park,” he said. “The stigma of Oak Park – people think someone might kill them if they come here.”
In the beginning, Chanowk woke up at 6 a.m. to work on the farm, take the kids to school, commute to Rocklin, work eight hours, drive back to Sacramento, pick his kids up, make dinner and then work on the farm. He eventually left his 9-to-5 job and became a full-time farmer. He and his family started a business making soaps, incense, preserves, jams and homemade beauty products from plants in their yard.
There isn’t a city ordinance allowing residents who grow food in their yards to sell produce. Chanowk and other local urban farmers in Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture are trying to change that. If such an ordinance was in place, Chanowk said he would likely hire staff. An ordinance would allow his farm to grow, and he could potentially sell foods at farmers markets and other events.
In September, the Yisrael Family Farm hosted a dinner as a part of its own urban farm-to-fork event. Around 50 community members arrived at the farm and, for $20, ate a five-course meal with edibles grown on the farm.
Since 45 percent of the family’s diet originates from the farm, Chanowk said the goal is to reach 100 percent by removing more grass from his yard to use the land for production. When crops are in season, they’re able to slash their grocery bill in half. The family tries to can food as well in preparation for the fall and winter seasons.
“My ultimate goal and dream is to can everything,” Judith said. “But when you get fifty pounds of onions at one time, it’s hard.” What they don’t can, they give away. Sometimes, when there’s a surplus of oranges, Chanowk gives boxes of oranges to local schools.
The farm is looking for interns and apprentices and welcomes volunteers on Tuesdays between 9:30 and 12:30 and every second Sunday. A soapmaking class will be held on Nov. 17. More information can be found on yisraelfamilyfarm.net.