This post is part of an ongoing project by PAN Farmer Justice Fellows who are working to uplift the many different voices of farmers in California. The mission of this work is to broaden the narrative of what it means to be a farmer participating in the state's agricultural system by sharing the wide spectrum of relationships that growers have with land.
Feral Heart Farm is a diverse 3.2 acre farm in the Sunol Ag Park in Sunol, CA. Tending to this farm are Aaron Dinwoodie (he/him) & Mica (they/them), two farmers “committed to nurturing [their] relationships with land, food, & people.” PAN Farmer Justice Fellow Moretta Browne had an opportunity to work alongside Aaron and talk with him about Feral Heart Farm, his relationship to the land, & alternative models of farming in California.
What inspired you to start farming/develop a personal relationship with the land?
My dad has had gardens and orchards most of my life so fresh fruits and veggies played an important role in my development, although I didn't recognize it until I was in college. My mom, who is Filipina and Chinese, grew up on a small farm in Hawai'i. Her dad grew principally Filipino fruits and vegetables and raised pigs and chickens. This was important because my mom has a legacy of preparing those vegetables and my dad has been influenced to grow and eat many of them (he's Euro American). While I was in high school I got a job in the produce section of a small, locally owned grocery store. I was exposed to even more variety of fruits and veggies this way. Around this time I decided to become vegetarian, which ultimately proved very formative in my decision to farm many years later since vegetarianism led me to question where my food comes from and how it gets to our plates.
While volunteering for Food Not Bombs in Santa Cruz I started guerilla gardening with friends. I went to the EcoFarm conference with them with the intention of finding a farming internship. I answered Tunitas Creek Ranch's ad and…
I started at Tunitas Creek Ranch in Half Moon Bay in 2004 as an intern. We raised laying hens, ducks, milking goats, sheep and llamas. I built and cared for annual and perennial vegetable gardens. I also helped maintain about an acre of apple, pear, plum and peach trees. It was very much a homestead. Over the 11 years I lived and worked there we took veggies to the Half Moon Bay Farmers Market as well as a few restaurants in town. We also maintained a small goat milk herd share.
What was your motivation behind starting Feral Heart Farm? How would you explain the ideology behind Feral Heart?
I was excited to start a radical farming project with friends and grow in a hot summer climate like that of Sunol, as Half Moon Bay is characterized by a cool coastal climate.
Feral Heart Farm started out as an attempt to have land access for our radical anarchist community in the East Bay. We would share the harvest with our community and try to get as many of them involved as possible. The hope was that we could exist in some small way, i.e. some of our food production, outside the capitalist system, more like peasants.
Labor is always at the forefront of conversations about farming in California. Could you speak more to how Feral Heart is addressing this?
In my view, Feral Heart farm’s ideal labor situation is a worker-owned cooperative, which might be difficult to achieve since any farm's labor needs fluctuate greatly throughout the year. In many ways, a work trade of some kind would be beneficial.
Our current labor force is Mica and me, each working full-time. Once we start the farmers’ market we will bring on one or more harvest hands and market helpers. I would love to attend a workshop/training on how to form a worker owned cooperative.
Previously, you applied for the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) through the USDA. What was your experience like filling out that grant? What did you produce?
It was challenging as neither I nor my two friends, one a lawyer and all of us college graduates, had any grant writing experience. That said, we were offered help by the staff at the VAPG division and I qualified for a pool of money specifically set aside for farmers of color applicants. They were very helpful in making sure we at least wouldn't be disqualified for some minor technicality. It really helps to have someone who is at least not afraid of filling out paperwork.
I produced beets for a beet almond dip I sold at the farmers market and at some local health food stores.
What are key actions that can be taken to help the specific needs of farmers of color?
Definitely maintain specific funds dedicated to farmers of color like the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) had. Provide farm tax services. Create networks of chefs of color and farmers of color to support each other. Make available help from lawyers and accountants.