By Gina Potthoff, Noozhawk.com
A visit to Fairview Gardens in Goleta isn’t complete without a taste of something growing in the rows of the urban farm — a proud staple of any Mark Tollefson-guided tour.
As the nonprofit farm’s executive director used a pitchfork to churn soil loose, digging up earth-covered orange vegetables, stone silence fell across the group of otherwise chatty local elementary students on a field trip to the storied, 12-acre North Fairview Avenue property.
Tollefson looked up to see all eyes fixed on him. Stunned expressions made the passionate, multigenerational farmer feel like he suddenly had sprouted an extra head. A small voice broke through the quiet.
“Why are those carrots in the dirt?” a boy asked earnestly.
Tollefson remembers tears reaching his cheeks, coupled with the realization that these kids had become so disconnected from their food sources that they didn’t know carrots grew in the ground.
The story’s end was far less heartbreaking. That same boy’s mother volunteered at Fairview Gardens a short time later. When asked why she was so set on helping the once-struggling farm operation, the mother recounted her son’s epiphany — complete with his pleas that the family buy more carrots from the grocery store. The ones with green, leafy tops, and not precut in a bag.
Tollefson retells the tale as the essence of Fairview Gardens’ mission: to educate children, to reconnect people of all ages to their food sources and to create a resilient, self-sustaining community.
But just as humans lost sight of food sources, so did Fairview Gardens drift from of its original purpose. The farm founded prior to the 1900s abandoned its educational roots entirely just a few years ago in the face of mounting bills, neighborly scrutiny and other troubles.
It wasn’t until recently that Fairview Gardens re-emerged as a guiding force in urban agriculture — the hard-fought product of an admitted identity crisis. Years of planning and soil plotting later, the farm has once again begun to feel the embrace of the Goleta community it so desperately strives to serve.
Tollefson didn’t know the magnitude of mess he was getting himself into four years ago.
The native Canadian agreed to lead the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, the nonprofit organization created when the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, the county Board of Supervisors and a collective of individuals and foundations purchased the property at 598 N. Fairview Ave. The parties bought the site for a song in 1997 from Cornelia and Roger Chapman because an agricultural easement was placed on the farm. To keep the land in trust, the deal stipulated that 88 percent of land be used for agricultural production, with farm support, employee housing and educational uses allowed on the rest.
Tollefson was aware the organization had fallen on hard times, but to what extent was soon discouragingly clear.
Lack of long-standing leadership seemed at the heart problems. Fairview Gardens hadn’t had a stable supervisor since Michael Ableman, a farmer who managed the land from 1981 until the late 2000s. Ableman was the charismatic and knowledgeable founder who formed the original nonprofit that helped place the farm in trust. He had managed the farm under the previous owners, and subsequently spearheaded the educational component that had been a part of the land since the 1970s.
In 2001, however, Ableman left the Central Coast to farm in British Columbia. While he managed Fairview Gardens from afar, the operation fell from its path.
“Without Michael here, Fairview had a chance to drift away from its original mission,” Tollefson said. “It got more focused on production agriculture and a lot less about what does that actually mean?”
Fairview Gardens wasn’t making enough money, and community members who once enjoyed its educational benefits became annoyed by its noisy poultry operations and live-in farm hands — 26 of them at its peak. The farm needed to redefine its role within the Goleta community, and quickly.
In many ways, Fairview Gardens experienced the same challenges of any other small nonprofit organization.
With limited resources, the farm needed to create a new survival plan to figure out what urban farming should look like, who would be in charge and which former financial supporters might be called on to help. Tollefson hired Geoff Green, executive director of The Fund for Santa Barbara, as a consultant to craft realistic and tangible goals.
One thing setting Fairview Gardens ahead of other woeful organizations was actually owning its greatest asset: centrally located farmland.
“If it weren’t for that, I don’t know that they would’ve made it,” Green said. “Most nonprofits don’t own resources. So often people get into these cycles where they’re building debt. They were just trying to figure out how to best return that into a reinvented Fairview Gardens. The idea of urban agriculture and what that meant in the 1990s is really different now.”
Beyond rebuilding staff, Fairview Gardens had to remedy a number of zoning and permitting issues. In 2009, it was forced to close its vegetable and fruit stand — the face of its operations along Fairview Avenue — because of encroachment land issues with Southern California Edison and the City of Goleta.
Tollefson said much of 2012 was spent treading water and trying to reopen the stand, where the farm earns much of its revenue. Seeing the public benefit of Fairview Gardens, the Goleta has forgiven more than $56,000 in outstanding parks development and processing fees over the years, according to Jennifer Carman, the city’s planning and environmental review director. In June 2012, the Goleta City Council voted to also pay $5,000 so the farm could obtain a permit to reopen its farm stand.
The farm gained a great partner in city staff, which continues to work with the organization to ensure residents can visit a true model of sustainable living.
“I think we’re blessed,” Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett said. “Mark has turned that farm around. He’s incredibly motivated. They’re having some real success.”
Green credits Tollefson’s energetic and charming character for furthering Fairview Gardens’ resurrection. His knack for storytelling —especially anecdotes involving the farm’s fascinating history — helped re-attract donors and continues to hook people of all ages on agriculture.
“You have to love it, and he does,” Green said. “Fairview Gardens is the epitome of local sustainable organic food systems. It’s a great teaching tool, and at a time and place when fewer and fewer people have connection to food.”
The Fairview Gardens farm stand reopened in September 2013, more than four years after it was shuttered.
Daily visitors have returned to the public face of Fairview Gardens for their fix of organic fruits and veggies. They enjoy the scenic setting reminiscent of rural backcountry, but can still be comforted by the faint hum of cars traveling on the nearby Highway 101 and close proximity to civilization.
More than 3,000 schoolchildren are once again touring the farm annually, along with 400 adults in education program, 400 children from summer camp programs and another 1,500 others on self-guided tours of grounds that include fields, fruit trees, chickens, goats, the original farmhouse and more.
Tollefson and his family are now the sole site residents. He and wife, Sharon, and two children live in the farmhouse, which is sometimes opened for curious visitors.
Fairview Gardens is generating revenue again, but still retains its focus of helping humans reclaim food sources.
What’s happening at the Goleta urban farm has caught the attention of others across the country who are looking for a healthy, sustainable food model.
Tollefson’s mentor, Dave Davis, the executive director of Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council, has also been working with the farm to piece together a sustainable food system plan for the Santa Barbara County region.
“It’s all a matter of community,” Davis said. “That term community development really means something. I think we’re blessed to have him (Tollefson) as a farm manager out there and in the community.”
The worst of times appear behind Fairview Gardens, but Tollefson said he isn’t taking any chances. He plans to build upon the educational model, and hopes the farm will one day become the community gathering place it has the potential to be.
Everyone has to eat, he said, and it might as well be locally grown food that treats bodies best.
“It changes kids’ lives,” Tollefson said. “What we have the chance to be able to do here is to reintegrate people back into our food systems. It’s not just about growing food. Lets grow really the best food we can and bring people out on the farm, and show them that this is what real food is like.”