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Roseland’s Bayer Park: Community gathers over farming and food

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Bayer Farm, an urban farm in the heart of Roseland, has grown into a multicultural and multigenerational oasis that nurtures healing hope, dreams and community along with squash, corn and beans.

“Wild turkeys come there, musicians come there, and community festivals happen there,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, a conservation nonprofit. “It’s like a field of dreams. If you build it, they will come. ... and they do.”

Launched more than 10 years ago by LandPaths in partnership with the City of Santa Rosa, the urban farm not only provides open space and organic produce to local families but over time, has grown into a social hub for residents who want to gather together, recharge and reconnect with each other, whether rolling masa into balls or digging holes.

“Kids are our favorite people,” said Jonathan Bravo, a former math teacher who works for LandPaths as the Bayer Farm garden coordinator. “More than growing tomatoes, we are interested in raising the community and bringing people together to have an interaction with open spaces.”

Every Friday evening, the residents of Roseland and beyond gather at the farm for a potluck by the red barn. There may be eight people or 80, but there is always a global array of aromas rising from the picnic tables under the walnut tree.

“The short lady from China comes with her big bowl, and the Vietnamese come with their soup, and the Eritrean people with their bread, and the Mexican ladies make their tortillas,” Bravo said. “We have many diverse communities in the garden. There are 14 ethnicities, including Congolese, Eritrean, Indian, Peruvian, Chilean and Brazilian.”

The farm encompasses a wide range of learning opportunities based around a small demonstration vineyard, a native plant garden, a UC Master Gardeners plot, a chicken coop and an extensive orchard that has started bearing fruit. There also will be goats to adopt in the near future.

“We are an organic garden, and all our practices are with permaculture,” Bravo said. “We are teaching people how to improve their garden practices in order to have clean, organic food. ... We are also teaching people how to grow food all year round.”

This year, LandPaths received Measure O funding to support all of the farm’s youth programming, including in-school, after-school and summer programs. There are three schools adjacent to the farm, and two more within a few blocks.

A bookmobile provides fodder for iREAD Outside, an early childhood literacy project that is part of the county’s iREAD campaign. LandPaths has launched a nature book drive to help the reading needs of kids this summer.

Bayer has been so well-received that it’s serving as a model for another upcoming park: the soon-to-open Andy’s Unity Park, a collaboration between Sonoma County Regional Parks and Roseland residents. The new park, still under construction, is located at 3399 Moorland Ave.

Although Andy’s Unity Park community will have its own identity to reflect the Moorland neighborhood, it may be able to replicate some of Bayer Farms’ successes, said Bethany Facendini, community engagement manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

“For example, bilingual programs focused on integrating health, environment and culture will be developed based on community input,” Facendini said. “Together with LandPaths, Regional Parks anticipates leading both place-based programs at Andy’s Unity Park and outdoor adventures at other parks.”

The community garden at Andy’s Unity Park will be only an eighth of an acre, and 16 families have already signed up. The 21 plots there are smaller than at Bayer Farm, but the garden could expand if there is more demand.

“Andy’s Unity Park could be a really wonderful, healing spot,” Anderson said. “That’s what land used to be.”

Bravo agrees, noting that the Moorland neighborhood’s isolation makes the park even more necessary for residents than Bayer Farm.

“At least Roseland has stores, schools and churches,” he said. “Moorland has nothing. ... The park will be a center. We are doing outreach right now for volunteers.”

Adjacent to Bayer Farm, the Bayer Neighborhood Park & Gardens opened a year ago on 4 acres of the original 6-acre property at 1550 West Ave. The parcel was sold to the city in 2007 by Edmund and Lillian Bayer, farmers who had raised cows, sheep and pigs on the land for some 60 years.

Back in 2006, in an effort to make LandPaths more inclusive, Anderson came up with the vision of launching an urban farm in Santa Rosa. Mark Richardson, who was Santa Rosa’s assistant city manager at the time, shared his vision and, together, they started looking at land.

“As soon as I saw the Bayer property, I became really excited,” Anderson recalled. “It had a farmhouse and an old barn and deserted pasture. ... I thought the place was perfect.”

After the City of Santa Rosa bought the land with Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District dollars, LandPaths cut a hole in the fence and put in a “starter garden” on a hot, August day in 2007.

“We planted radishes, broccoli, kale and marigolds,” Anderson recalled. “By the end of October, we had our first open park fiesta there, serving people kale and broccoli quesadillas ... and we had 250 people come to the park.”

Now, a dozen years later, the once deserted piece of land has become a thriving hive of activity, hosting a mind-boggling array of some two dozen programs, including health classes and school programs organized by LandPaths, workshops on composting and spring planting, a school field trip educational program and a Summer Lunch Program in partnership with the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

“It’s far surpassed my wildest dreams,” Anderson said. “I spent time dreaming it up and getting initial funding, but it’s been built by our volunteers, our donors and the gardeners themselves.”

When LandPaths launched the garden project a decade ago, there were about six families involved, Bravo said. The next year, it grew to 20, and then 40 and then 60 families. Now, there are 64 families who farm personal plots that measure roughly 15 feet by 10 feet. The garden currently has waiting list of more than 200 families who want to join the agricultural effort.

“When a family adopts a plot, the deal is to have each family give 50 hours of community service a year,” Bravo said. “Some of them give 300 hours. From their heart, they come and offer their time, especially the retired people, the high school and Sonoma State University students.”

Public workdays are held every third Saturday at the farm, and regular community volunteer hours are held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Fridays, when the public can also come and purchase fresh, organic food grown at the farm by donation.

“Last year, we started to get fruit from the trees,” Bravo said. “People enjoyed having fresh figs, plums and apples.”

Ines Barba Hernandez of Santa Rosa, a heath educator for St. Joseph Health, teaches a healthy eating class each Friday as part of the “Farming for Health” class (see separate story.) In the class, she encourages her fellow Latinos to try new kinds of produce and to better understand healthy choices.

“Bayer Farm is a place that brings us back to our roots and especially, to the way we used to eat, with fresh fruits and vegetables from our own back yard,” she said. “It’s something we grew up with in Mexico.”

Another way the farm impacts the community is by strengthening family ties, said Anderson. He discovered this through a conversation with David Rosas, a former candidate for City Council.

“I told him it was an opportunity for people to gather over farming and food,” Anderson recalled. “He said ‘It’s more ... at home in Mexico, people would develop and sustain their relationships by farming on their ranch ... you are going to help my community re-establish multigenerational relationships.”

Chad Hunt, a teacher at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School, takes his third-graders to the farm on a regular basis to work and learn about nature.

“We try to do meaningful work, whatever the farm needs at the time,” he said. “We also create curriculum ... one year we released ladybugs into the garden, to teach them about the life cycle of the ladybug and beneficial insects.”

The park is also a place for kids of all ages to relax and get away from their computer screens.

“A big part of the culture of Roseland is to come, sit down and relax,” Hunt said. “Kids of any age need to get their hands dirty ... that’s totally different from reading about nature in a book.”

Built and sustained by an army of volunteers — from the gardener whose diabetes has improved through healthy eating to the couple who run the potlucks — Bayer Farm belongs to everyone.

“This is not mine, this is ours,” Bravo said. “Sometimes Roseland is considered the poorest neighborhood, but for me, it is a rich neighborhood in culture, generosity and service. All that dynamic energy is amazing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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