Clovis organic garden helps cultivate community

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ryan Sweeney has transformed a bare patch of land into a one-man farmers market where it may be most needed -- a low-income urban neighborhood.

Sweeney, 31, grows fruits and vegetables on the once-vacant one-third-acre lot, turning it into a thriving organic farm that he hopes can serve nearby residents, many of whom don't drive and have to walk a mile to the nearest grocery store -- Food Maxx or Grocery Outlet -- for produce.

The neighborhood is along Jefferson Avenue, south of the Clovis Rodeo Grounds and bordered by industry, automotive businesses, low-rent apartments and more than 50-year-old housing tracts.

Studies have shown that poor neighborhoods lack access to fresh produce and have a high concentration of fast-food restaurants.

Rose Trejo, a neighbor of the farm, said she doesn't have a car during the day because her husband uses it for work, so the farm is helpful.

"It saves us the trouble of going to the store," said Trejo, who buys cucumbers and peppers from Sweeney. "It's organic and we know what we are getting. It's a lot fresher, too."

The land is the very definition of a family farm. Sweeney's in-laws, Neil and Kathryn Snodgrass, own the property.

In recent years, Sweeney, who farms hay and corn and has grown grapes and other crops commercially, has been discing the land to keep weeds down. This year, he suggested turning the dirt into a farm.

The original plan was for a summer salad or salsa farm. But three months ago, Sweeney installed drip irrigation and planted corn, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, squash and several varieties of peppers that are starting to dangle and ripen on their vines.

The neighborhood, which has struggled in recent years, has been a target area for improvements by the city. It has about 50% single-family home rentals compared with 19% citywide, said Tina Sumner, the city's community and economic development director.

The produce neighbors buy from his farm will be fresher and less expensive than the stores, Sweeney said.

"I wanted something that the community could be proud of, kind of like a community garden," he said. "You know where it's grown, you know where it came from and it's a good product at a fair price."

Jessica Suarez said the prices are much cheaper than the grocery store and she can attest to the taste.

"The flavor of it was great," she said. "The hotness of the peppers ... my husband loved it."

Sweeney also has developed a commercial market for his vegetables. Three Clovis restaurants have said they will buy his produce, he said.

"People want to buy fresh and local," he said. "When you put a piece of food in your mouth it's good to know where it comes from."

Sweeney's farm is different from other urban farms like the Hmong community garden on city land at Belmont and Dewitt avenues in Fresno. Since the land is owned by his family, Sweeney doesn't need any special permits and does not risk being ordered to leave.

The Hmong garden in Fresno still exists, but Fresno city officials want to build a new police station on the site. Hmong gardeners rejected the city's alternative near Shields and Fowler avenues. Fresno officials are working on a second alternate site near Peach and Butler avenues.

Fresno's parks department also is working on a community garden in Al Radka Park on Belmont Avenue, east of Clovis Avenue. The city is teaming with Fresno Metro Ministries to create 90 plots for gardeners. It will open by August, said Heather Heinks, a Fresno parks department spokeswoman.

Next year, Sweeney said, he may lease land that developers planned for homes but were unable to build on after the foreclosure crisis hit. Some of those developers left irrigation pipelines, which Sweeney said he could use to grow crops.

As the corn ripens in the coming weeks, Sweeney said he expects to be open each afternoon until the corn runs out. Then he will plant for the fall and winter.

"I want to build it up to where it's year-round fresh vegetables," he said. "I will be growing depending on the season and that way people can have a fresh, steady supply."

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6166.


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