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Foodshed Cooperative Is Growing San Diego’s Small-Farm Economy

After half their farm’s crops were wiped out by a devastating heat wave in 2018, Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavazos, co-founders of Solidarity Farm, changed their practices with the explicit goal of adding more carbon to the soil, or “carbon farming.”

The farm grows seasonal fruits and vegetables on 10 acres in the semi-arid, unincorporated area of Pauma Valley in central San Diego County, on land it rents from the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians; they partnered with the Luiseño to create a “carbon sink demonstration farm.” Here, they educated other local farmers on how to farm with more regenerative practices such as cutting down on tillage, growing cover crops, and integrating compost.

Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavazos. (Photo courtesy of Foodshed Cooperative)

Like most of the small local farms in the area—more than 3,000 farms in San Diego County grow food on fewer than 10 acres—Solidarity Farms has been hit by a range of other of climate events since then. They’re at the whim of extreme seasonal changes that can ravage crops with bouts of extreme heat and heavy rainfall. Last year, heat waves in San Diego broke records in many parts of the county; in the first few months of 2023 alone, San Diego had more rainfall than it had in all of 2022. This instability has required small local farms to be ever more adaptable in order to survive.

After receiving a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Healthy Soils Program, Solidarity Farm hosted a carbon sink convergence event in 2019, at which a new idea—brought forth by the collective minds of participating local farmers—was born; a small farm distribution company called Foodshed Cooperative.

“We recognized that we needed to scale our distribution capacities, and it made more sense to do that, not just for ourselves, but it was more economically viable if we grew that capacity for lots of farms,” Igoe explained by phone recently.

Scaling up small farms often means more risk, which may not be practical for farmers who lease land. Growing businesses in cooperation, Igoe thought, could expand the reach of small farms—reducing costs associated with investing in things like trucks or market research while ensuring that food reaches the people who need it most.

“We recognized that we needed to scale our distribution capacities, and . . . it was more economically viable if we grew that capacity for lots of farms.”

In November 2019, Igoe applied for a climate justice grant to pilot the idea of a cooperative food distribution company. They were successful, launching their pilot on March 1st, 2020.

“The idea came before COVID and our whole argument [for the grant] was . . . if we have a climate event, all the fresh local food will go to the tech savvy highest bidders, and the small, BIPOC farmers will primarily be left out of that because they won’t have the capacity to respond quick enough,” said Igoe.

As a result, she explained, historically underserved communities would be dependent on whatever leftovers they could get from food banks.

Then, when the pandemic hit, much of that prediction came true. Big farms went online. “Their CSAs grew by the thousands and the little guys were getting left out. And so Foodshed was perfectly timed to swoop in and be like, ‘we got this,’” said Igoe.

Today, Foodshed purchases produce from 60 farms in San Diego County, prioritizing BIPOC-run and -owned farms, as well as farms using climate-smart farming practices. They have a collaborative crop plan with around 20 farms, that involves communicating with farmers three to six months in advance to tell them what to grow for the co-op in order to ensure a diverse mix of crops.

“They’ll [say], ‘Hey, are you able to fulfill this?’ or ‘Are you able to grow that?’ I think it’s quite holistic and quite a symbiotic relationship,” said Byron Nkhoma, co-owner of Hukama Farm, a 4-acre operation in the town of Ramona in central San Diego County.

In addition, the cooperative—which was founded by Igoe, Cavazos, and four farmers—has created a food resource hub that serves as a go-to place for farmers. It provides both new and experienced growers with everything from mentorship on transitioning to carbon farming practices to assistance with business development support and tools from a lending library.

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