How to Start an Urban Farm
A story of love and perseverance with Yisrael Family Farm
Judith and Chanowk run Yisrael Family Farm, a half acre urban farm nestled in the heart of Sacramento. Their farm is a sustainable community resource, a story of love, perseverance, and reverence for the earth’s rhythm. Just as any solution, it started with a big problem.
Judith and Chanowk Yisrael were raised with limited access to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, nor a formal nutrition education for that matter.
“Growing up, we ate a lot of fried foods. We fried so often, we were instructed to recycle used oil multiple times as a way to keep costs down,” explains Judith. “I have had several family members who have suffered from food-related conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. We knew we had to make some changes.”
Chanowk had a similar upbringing. He watched his family face the reality of poor diets and low access or education. By the early 2000’s, they both sought to turn to plants for solutions for themselves and their loved ones.
Judith had a child and quickly leaned in; she tried her hands at herbs – an interest of her mothers – and watched them quickly shrivel in the windowsill. Chanowk similarly had a family to feed, working in IT right before the 2008 crash. He turned to the garden as a means to an end in a hot July summer – again, shriveled crops.
With failure comes resilience. In 2009, the two met in joint interest and fell in love. They began gardening an urban plot in Sacramento, with little experience and no one to turn to for advice. Their goal? Become self-sufficient on the land; grow enough food to feed themselves, and provide the leftovers for the community.
After some trial and error, their confidence and expertise blossomed and in 2011 they founded the farm they run today: Yisrael Family Farms, providing consumer goods, garden and nutrition education, and youth programs to the community. They ran into a few bumps in the road – an arduous fight for a chicken ordinance, residential zoning barriers, and varying growing pains. As they stayed steady, Sacramento soon grew with them – the city passed an Urban Ag Ordinance, adding to the growing recognition of urban gardening and was recognized as a Farm-to-Fork city. They were on the grid.
The Yisraels leaned into the soil for more answers. They took initial lead tests and sought ways to increase organic soil matter within principles of a closed-loop system. In just two years they’ve increased organic soil matter from one percent to between three and four percent.
Chanowk explains, “We aim to get all the fertility we need on the land through worm composting, rotational grazing of the chickens, cover crops, and minimal soil profile mixing…” They do everything by hand without pesticides or herbicides and employ a large city-scale worm compost. They use permanently raised beds to avoid tilling the soil, and every 6th year they take the beds out of rotation and let them lay fallow for the 7th year. When you lay the groundwork, “You can just let things do what they do,” says Chanowk.
“Our biggest barrier to success in the beginning was not having anyone to turn to. That’s changed now” - Chanowk Yisreal
Chanowk credits Kiss the Ground’s Farmland Program with useful connections and resources. He’s visited the nearby Be Love Farm in Sacramento, owned and operated by the Engelhart family, which “blew his mind,” as well as PT Ranch.
“Our biggest barrier to success in the beginning was not having anyone to turn to. That’s changed now” – Chanowk Yisreal
When the Yisrael’s started their urban farm; there was no one like Kiss the Ground – no one to turn to and little resources to seek guidance. As they’ve grown, information sharing, resources, and exposure have saved the Yisrael’s thousands of dollars in mistakes that they avoided by seeking guidance from others in the movement.
The Yisrael farm is a true family run organization, with local support and interest. They see themselves as a catalyst for change rather than a food growing operation. They utilize their space to educate newcomers and inspire decentralized growers – at home gardens that convert more acreage for the environment.
When you explore far enough throughout the property, you’ll see rows of some 40 fruit trees adjacent to row crops, a hoop house, and a new food forestry project. If it hasn’t been done, the Yisrael Family Farm is probably working on it.
To date, they’ve installed over 50 gardens in the community. Over the last few years, Yisrael Family Farm has diversified their operations. They offer, herbalism and nutrition classes, gardening classes and consulting, homemade body products such as soap and body butter, tinctures, and of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. They attend several farmers markets and craft markets per week.
Their endless offerings are likely due to a hybrid business model, explains Chanowk. The farm is for-profit (selling crops and other wares that they produce), but they earn additional income by contracting with other organizations to provide programs and services. They just completed a five-year contract with Sacramento Building Healthy Communities, funded by the California Endowment. Through this relationship, they were able to offer educational gardening classes to 12-17 year olds in the community, teaching hands-on gardening and nutrition, and ways to participate in community civics.
Today, success for the Yisraels is a return to the land for their family, their community, and for people of color across the nation. Chanowk likens land ownership to a healthy soil microbiome: families of bacteria that are not disturbed over hundreds of years continue to thrive and feed the organisms in their network.
“That’s what makes land so important – to hold history and culture,” says Chanowk.
African American families whose land was taken away from them (or who abandoned their land to seek higher paying industrial jobs in the north) lost that supportive network and familial legacy that lives in the soil. Chanowk wants to lay a foundation. When he passes, he wants to be composted into his land so that his grandchildren and great grandchildren know that he’s there, with them, and that he planted the oak tree on the property 150 years ago.
What’s Next for Yisrael Family Farms
Chanowk and Judith purchased property in Amador County, CA, in July 2021 – not far from Sacramento. The rural land is certainly a different endeavor – much of the property is forest and the cropland includes both flat land and rolling hills. One of the first lessons will be fire mitigation; some of the largest wildfires in recent years have been within a ten mile radius of the farm. The Yisraels plan to implement rotational grazing and apply compost across the rangeland to reduce burn risk.
While they build infrastructure on the new property, they aim to get as many young people involved in the land – Chanowk and Judith’s hope is by maintaining supportive, mutually beneficial relationships like theirs with Kiss the Ground, and growing their exposure, the community youth will get excited to return to their rich heritage and cultural legacy through the food they grow, eat and enjoy.