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Kale and community: Local nonprofit helps small farms bring produce to Peninsula neighborhoods

Uploaded: Jan 4, 2021
Last spring break, Los Altos School District computer science teacher Sheena Vaidyanathan spent her vacation building a website for a new grassroots effort she had formed to support local farmers.

Ten months later, that homegrown project has become a volunteer-run nonprofit that delivers fresh, organic produce directly from Bay Area farms to more than a dozen cities throughout the Bay Area, as far south as Monterey and as far north as Oakland.

Through Tera Farm, local residents can pick up fresh, organic produce in their neighborhoods. Photo courtesy Tera Farm.

Vaidyanathan, a Los Altos resident, started Tera Farm after realizing how small, independent farmers were suffering due to the pandemic shutdown, with restaurants closed and the entire food supply chain disrupted. She reached out to a local farmer through Kitchen Table Advisors, a nonprofit that provides business advice to farmers, and asked if she could buy a box of kale from him directly. She shared the kale with friends and sent their pooled payment to the farmer. The next week, her friends asked what other produce she could get from the farmer. The model quickly took off, spreading through word of mouth.

Fostering that direct relationship between consumer and farmer — no wholesaler or grocery store in between — became the driving purpose of Tera Farm.

"The money was going directly to a farmer we knew and we could put a face to. It was actually going to where the food was coming from," Vaidyanathan. "This was something positive we were able to do during these months that were otherwise so difficult."

Tera Farm works primarily with Maria Ana Reyes of Narci Organic Farms and Bertha Magaña of Magana Farms, both immigrants who graduated from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas, an intensive training program that helps farm workers become farmers.

Maria Ana Reyes, back right, of Narci Organic Farms, packages fresh fruits and vegetables with her two daughters for delivery through Tera Farm. Photo courtesy Jacque Rupp/Tera Farm.

They let the nonprofit volunteers know what they're growing week, and the produce is posted to an online store that customers can shop from Monday through Wednesday. The entire proceeds go directly to the farmers that same week — before the produce is even harvested — and by Saturday, they drop off packaged orders at designated pickup sites. Tera Farm volunteers manage the pickup locations, including in Los Altos, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. (People who are interested in hosting a pickup site can email info@terafarm.org.)

The vegetables and fruits change every week, depending on what's available. A recent week included delicata squash, celery, broccoli, Dino kale, shallots, chard and parsley. This week there are also fuji apples, cilantro, mandarins and blackberries.

Unlike a CSA box or subscription service, customers can choose which items they want and don't have to commit to a certain number of weeks or months of ordering. There's no delivery fee but customers have to spend at least $25 to make it financially viable for the farmers. People can team up with friends or neighbors on orders if they can't meet the minimum on their own.

Prior to Tera Farm, the farmers only sold their produce wholesale. Through the nonprofit, they can set their own prices for the first time and connect directly with their customers. The farmers have diversified their crops in response to customer feedback, Vaidyanathan said, which also helps reduce their own financial risk. If the price of celery suddenly drops, for example, they have other vegetables they can turn to.

"Especially with the pandemic, many of these small farmers don't make enough money to just live off the farm. Their family members work other jobs," she said. "This really helped at that time when they lost all their off-farm income."

Tera Farm is not the only local farm-to-consumer project launched during the pandemic. A Palo Alto resident started Giving Fruits, a weekly pickup of fresh fruits and vegetables, though orders are placed in bulk and picked up from a single site in Palo Alto.

As a teacher, Vaidyanathan wants Tera Farm to have an educational impact. Before the most recent shutdown, she organized farm visits so families could meet the farmers and learn more about organic farming. The nonprofit has a food blog to share recipes customers make from the produce they receive. Vaidyanathan sends out a weekly newsletter focused on a relevant topic of interest, such as how last fall's wildfires impacted local farms.

Local residents visiting Narci Organic Farms in Salinas through Tera Farm. Photo courtesy Tera Farm.

Tera Farm has also nurtured unexpected connections between local residents and the people who grow their food, Vaidyanathan said. During the wildfires, a customer donated extra N95 masks to the farmers. Another person made face masks for them.

"We feel the connection to local food is important. Unless we understand how our food grows," Vaidyanathan said, "we won't appreciate it."

For more on Tera Farm, go to terafarm.org.
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