By Walter Orellana
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Community urban farms and gardens are helping in the battle against climate change caused by increased CO2 levels and methane emissions — or CH4 — created by humans and the agriculture industry that have greatly accelerated global warming since pre-industrial times.
Urban gardens and farms like SOW Collective can also reduce what is called the “Heat Island” effect, where buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and bodies of water. The temperatures on the farms and gardens can be cooler than those coming off asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks.
One good example is the Shift Our Ways (SOW) Collective, an urban farm in Arleta co-founded by Stephanie Gomez, Haley Feng and Madison Jaschke.
First formed in 2020, the SOW Collective has now grown beyond the Arleta community by actively engaging in social media, hosting events at the farm and giving out free harvested fruits, vegetables, almonds and various plants to residents throughout the San Fernando Valley. Through its community outreach last September, the crew helped build a green garden at Kennedy High School so teachers could use the space to teach students about healthier habits and agriculture.
In addition to providing health foods, SOW Collective accepts food waste from the public, and turns it into compost that provides nutrients for the soil and keeps the waste out of landfills so it doesn’t convert into methane gas.
Dreaming of a Farm
The farm began as a dream of a 12 year old. The vision became more clear to Gomez when she was in high school — a desire to help her neighbors in Arleta. Seeing them struggle with food insecurities, mental health and lack of educational opportunities, Gomez knew one day she wanted to make a difference.
In 2018, Gomez graduated from Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles with a degree in Sociology. Her academic success led her to jobs at various nonprofits throughout LA County, where she gained valuable hands-on experience in assisting underprivileged communities before deciding to comeback to her own beloved community and launch the SOW Collective.
“Coming together with Haley and Madison was very serendipitous; we all worked together in South LA at a nonprofit where I pitched my Arleta farm vision and immediately it connected us in a meaningful way to do something together,” Gomez said.
“After years of working at several nonprofits, we took the leap of faith to register SOW Collective as our first nonprofit with a focus on food security and environmental justice, which is a passion of mine.”
Turning the Dream Into Reality
On March 8, 2020, to celebrate International Women’s Month, the trio met for brunch to start planning SOW Collective on a vacant plot of land in Arleta leased for the purpose of cultivating and bringing into fruition the community farm.
It was a moment of excitement and empowerment. It was also worrisome because the COVID-19 virus had started to spread. The pandemic, however, would ultimately allow them the flexibility to focus on the urban farm because the working hours at their jobs were cut short.
By March 14, 2020, the all-women crew broke ground with the help of volunteers, family and friends.
“We started with no money; we were driving around town to pick up free stuff from people on OfferUp, and getting free soil from people who were donating it to the farm. It was very much community-made and continues to be,” Gomez said.
Farming Community Roots
For Jaschke, the urban farm makes her feel closer to home. She grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota; the outdoors and nature had a profound effect on her as a little girl.
Jaschke learned early what kind of environmental damage could be caused by industrial pollution and runoff chemical waste. On her family’s farm ran a river that carried polluted water. Her parents would warn her not to swim in the river due to the chemical waste that flowed through it.
But those warnings sparked interest and questions that led her to study environmental changes and agriculture in college. Since then, Jaschke has used her agricultural background and experience as an urban farmer to educate the public about safe farming practices at SOW Collective.
“What drew me to study environmental changes was that I grew up on a river that was polluted by agricultural runoff by the farms that were all over the river’s path,” Jaschke said.
“These farms were using a lot of synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, and the chemical runoff contaminated the river in my backyard and made the water unsafe to swim or drink.”
As a nonprofit, much of their income comes through donations made by neighbors and membership patrons. Recently, Feng launched Shop Shifted — a sustainability store within the farm that sells organic, locally made refillable shampoo, body wash oils and soaps as well as donated clothing to give it a second life.
“There is a lack of access to these kinds of organic refill stores in neighborhoods like Arleta; most are found in affluent neighborhoods like Silver Lake, West LA or Beach cities,” said Feng, the shop manager.
Inclusivity and giving back to the community is at the core of what SOW Collective stands for and represents. Through community ties, it is building on that foundation.