“I’ve learned that small-scale sustainable agriculture is only as sustainable as the community you build around it. Social capital is essential.” – Sarah Nolan
About Sarah Nolan: Nolan is a founding member of The Abundant Table, a unique faith-based farming and education enterprise. She has worked in both the sustainable agriculture and nonprofit sectors for almost 10 years and helped found two different small to mid-size farms in Southern California, including a worker-owner cooperative, the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative. In her capacity as director of programs and community partnerships at The Abundant Table, Nolan provides overall vision, leadership and management of the young adult and student programming and The Abundant Table’s small-scale diversified farm operations, including growing, packing, direct marketing, distribution, permits and finances.
In addition to her faith-rooted and farm-based activities, Nolan serves as co-chair for the Ventura County Farm to School Collaborative and sits on the steering committee for the California State Farm to School Network. In July 2014 she began a two-year Environmental Stewardship Fellowship through the National Episcopal Church for her sustainable agriculture and farm to faith work. Sarah earned a double bachelor’s of arts in philosophy and theology from Azusa Pacific University and recently completed a graduate degree in ministry, leadership and service at Claremont School of Theology.
About The Abundant Table: The Abundant Table is a faith-based, 501c3 nonprofit organization and farm rooted in the Episcopal/Lutheran Church. It is located in Ventura County, California. It was established as a progressive campus ministry in 2004 by St. Columba’s Episcopal Church (Camarillo) at California State University, Channel Islands. The Abundant Table has evolved into a community-based organization and four-acre farm. The organization’s mission is to change lives and food systems by creating sustainable relationships to the land and the local community.
Recently, the Abundant Table has relocated its operations from the University of California’s Hansen Agriculture and Research Extension Center (HAREC) to land that the organization is leasing from the McGrath family in Camarillo, at the site of the McGrath Family Farm.
In 2009, The Abundant Table created a yearlong Episcopal Service Corps internship program for young adults to work on a local, sustainable farm and to engage in social justice work at the community level. The organization quickly expanded its commitment to youth through the development of on-farm activities and nutrition education programs. The organization strives to empower individuals to be actively engaged in food system reform in their homes, schools and communities.
The Abundant Table provides a unique link in the local food system, connecting local food production, distribution and nutrition literacy through its farm-to-school, community- and faith-based initiatives.
Q: We’ve provided a bit of background about the history of The Abundant Table in the introduction to this Q&A. What else would you want our readers to know about this work?
Sarah: From a faith perspective, it’s that idea about how a community that is inspired by faith can serve as a catalyst and good neighbor within the wider community. What I’m really excited about is how The Abundant Table is continuing to grow in its relationship to the wider community and in being an advocate for beginning farmers, women and former farm workers to be part of the agricultural and good food movement. I’m also very excited that we’re linking our work with the farm-to-school collaborative in Ventura County. Other than our CSA, the majority of our work is focused on growing our relationship with more school districts and growing our educational component.
Q: What has proved the most moving thing about the work?
Sarah: Seeing the commitment of our team to making our farm work and the commitment to one another … it’s very hard work, no matter where you find yourself in the organization. There are lots of long days, it’s tough financially … but the team and wider community in Ventura County and the Episcopal Church have really shown up to support us. I’ve learned that small-scale sustainable agriculture is only as sustainable as the community you build around it. Social capital is essential.
Q: The Abundant Table is many projects in one: several agricultural enterprises, food enterprises, education, social justice, a faith-based experience, an intentional living community, etc. Does this confuse the public? Do the multiplicity of purposes make it difficult to focus organizational resources?
Sarah: Internally, our identity makes sense to us (most of the time). In the broader community, most people connect with us through one or two facets. The public holds multiple perspectives about who we are and what we do. How we see ourselves? We want to grow food but also to grow community in whatever aspects that takes. It’s a challenge to communicate and represent our multiple ways of being in the world. You could say we’re a little ecosystem with multiple layers and multiple kinds of pieces that feed the whole system and make it function. You don’t always see all of them up front.
Our Episcopal Service Corps project – the intern program – is currently on hiatus, but we’ll be starting that back up in 2016 and likely will be housing our interns in Oxnard.
Q: When you started out, you were an aspiring farmer. Now you’re a more experienced farmer. How has the experience changed you, Sarah?
Sarah: The Abundant Table has been around since 2009, and I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, so it’s not something new, although it still feels like it. I have learned a lot about perseverance and how to stick it out through uncertainty … our farm is on our third move, for example. I’m learning how to find support through community and through the larger vision when things are getting challenging. I’ve learned how hard it is to run a business, to be a young female farmer and to be a farmer in California. It’s a lot harder than I imagined it would have been when I first started. It has been humbling.
I grew up in New Mexico in a rural environment, with extended family who were in 4-H and growing alfalfa, but personally I was not immersed in agriculture in the ways I am now. I left college with a lot of ideas about the world, about agriculture … and I think over the last several years I’ve been absolutely very humbled and inspired by the commitment of folks – farmers and farm workers – the commitment that it takes and that people have to make these kinds of operations work. Lofty ideas only go so far in creating real long-term change. And being out working as a farmer is important to me … learning how to be flexible and do what needs to be done to keep things going. Sometimes I feel that I do more growing of paper work than I do of vegetables.
There are significant challenges (especially in California) for farmers when you don’t own property; to find a place where you can grow and have a long-term relationship … it’s hard … just by the nature of being a tenant.
Q: You’ve been selected for a prestigious Environmental Stewardship Fellowship by the national Episcopal Church. At the national church’s recent General Convention, you helped launch a national faith-based food initiative. Can you tell our readers about this?
Sarah: We launched the Episcopal Faith, Food and Farm Network. Basically, there are a group of us around the country working in agriculture, church gardens and other projects … anything and everything connected to the growing and sharing of food. The goal on one level is to simply connect people and share resources. The interest in this area is growing rapidly … people want to learn from one another … so we’re helping to create connections, networks and share resources.
In the long run, we aim to encourage the wider Episcopal Church and other faith communities to think about the resources they have and the networks they have … how are we using church properties in a way that is about the growing and sharing of food? Churches and dioceses often own lots of land that could be used for food production. It could be church members that run these operations, or faith-based organizations partnering with landless farmers or community-based groups to begin growing food
Our theology and our liturgy reflect a commitment to the stewardship of creation: to growing and agriculture. We hope to spark a conversation in the church about the power that growing and sharing food has. Quite a large number of postulants in our church [a postulant is a candidate for priesthood] have a desire to also be farmers. Many are discerning how they might combine being a farmer and being a priest.
Q: What’s the theological basis of The Abundant Table? How does the effort play into themes of social justice?
Sarah: The Abundant Table was born out of a recognition of the deep connection between our physical and spiritual needs. While we are rooted in a progressive Judeo-Christian tradition, our work welcomes people from all perspectives and backgrounds.
The Christian tradition, which the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations draw from, is rich with connections to the natural world and a call to social justice. Our core values of love, justice and compassion invite us to respond in new and meaningful ways. Our work encourages faith communities to begin asking questions about consumption. Where did this come from? How was it made? Who were the people involved in that process? Were those people treated fairly? Was the earth cared for carefully in the process?
More broadly speaking, there are stories in our sacred texts that invite us to care for the land. Stories about Sabbath, Jubilee Year – allowing land, animals and workers to rest, for example, and assuring that all have enough food.
When we were getting started, a big question was this: “How are we good neighbors in the context in which live?” In Ventura County, that context is agriculture. So we constantly examine how we are in relationship to farm workers, to plants, to animals, to children who go to school and are affected by food insecurity. That’s how we develop our programs. We wanted to support farm-to-school, we wanted to advocate for justice for farm workers, we wanted to engage in peer education in farm worker communities around healthy eating and good food, we wanted to invite the community to be a part of something that is life giving.
Q: Hunger is an acute experience. How do we go about addressing it?
Sarah: I think the food system is incredibly broken. One of the challenges is that we often look at the solution as simply being able to create more access to cheap food, which doesn’t actually support those who work on the land. And those who work on the land are also often impacted by issues of hunger. I’d want to change the conversation from how to create cheaper food to how do we create community food systems that support the farmer, the farm workers and families in the community?
At The Abundant Table we’ve been able to focus our farm-to-school work on Title I schools [schools where the majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunch]. There’s a potential that school meals could be the primary meal of the day for some students. We’ve focused on making sure there are fresh fruit and vegetables in their meals … and making sure that those who produce the food are paid a fair wage.
We try to develop relationships with those who are experiencing hunger to attempt to figure out how we can assist. Can we glean? Can we help develop more community gardens? Are there other strategies to improve access? We try to learn the needs, build relationship and collectively envision change.
Q: How is the drought impacting you?
Sarah: We’ve seen an increase in the cost of water. It’s a financial impact, but it’s important for us to be challenged to think wisely about what we grow and to make certain that we’re using as little water as possible to grow our crops. This includes making sure we have good soil that can utilize every drop of water, as well as choosing less water-thirsty crops. We’re going to be reaching out to Natural Resources Conservation Service to have them assess our operation to see if there are areas where we can reduce water use, or use more effective technology. We’re looking at dry farming some of our crops. I’m hearing about El Nino coming, thinking about every way that may impact us. For example, how will our planting plan change, assuming there is a lot of rain headed our way during the winter. We’re small, so our water usage is tiny compared to most.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Sarah: In the past, meeting payroll. Not as much the case right now, which is great. Just figuring out how to be financially sustainable and making sure everyone on our team is receiving a fair wage, feeling supported and growing professionally and personally.
Q: What is inspiring you?
Sarah: It’s really exciting to see the work we started doing six or seven years ago gain traction nationally. Other faith-based communities have started or are looking at starting farms and large-scale gardens. There is so much interest in how to use the resources we have to support a shifting food system. Faith-based organizations want to address food justice and environmental stewardship. And the development of this national network reflecting all of these things that are going is gratifying. We’re not starting anything new … we’re just capturing stories of what is going on around the country!
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?
Sarah: The change I would want to make would be for farm workers and everyone working across the food system to receive a living wage. That might mean that consumers would prioritize paying more for their food or paying the actual cost of what it takes to produce the food we eat.