Southern California’s dry heat was a familiar warmth to Aneika Solomon Garcia.
The weather reminded her of her grandparents’ land, a two-acre parcel about the size of two soccer fields, in Trinidad and Tobago where she grew up. They grew seasonal fruits and vegetables and owned chickens, which is common on the Caribbean island. What they did not grow or have, they would trade with a neighbor or go to the market.
Cal Poly Pomona, with its agricultural fields, and cows and horses grazing on grass across the street from her classes, revived her childhood memories.
“My grandparents cultivated their land, not because they wanted to run a business, but because it was self-sustaining and we had what we needed,” Garcia said. “I always had a love of the land and animals, and it got rekindled coming to Cal Poly Pomona.”
Garcia moved to Maryland at 11 and served 10 years in the Air Force after high school, which brought her across the country. She was last stationed in Nevada. She continued her education at community colleges, transferring to Cal Poly Pomona from Norco Community College in spring 2018.
The business administration senior connected with the university’s Veterans Resource Center, which introduced her to agricultural opportunities on campus during a fair promoting the industry. After her African American Studies professor, Analena Hope Hassberg, discussed food justice, a movement in which produce is grown and sold locally to provide healthy food to their own community, Garcia was motivated to join the newly formed Urban and Community Agriculture minor.
Aaron Fox, a plant science assistant professor, co-developed the minor, which is open to students in any major.
“There’s a lot of social and economic context that you have to navigate to be successful in urban agriculture, making the program multi-disciplinary,” Fox said. “Students receive hands-on opportunities, connect with their community on a local and government level, and students are excited to be involved.”
Typically, one of the main hands-on opportunities for urban agriculture summer interns is cultivating the student-run Horse Hill Microfarm, a half-acre vegetable, herb and tree fruit plot located next to The Collins College of Hospitality Management. This summer during the pandemic, the responsibilities shifted to focus on the foundations of business to sustain an agriculture organization, an opportunity that blended Garcia’s major and childhood experiences on the family land.
“The summer interns learned about the critical managerial components of urban agriculture, and those are almost more needed,” Fox said. “When I talk to farmers, they’re not asking me for advice on how to grow a carrot. What they struggle with is how to get that carrot to market and find customers.”
Garcia was one of three summer interns who worked on a variety of projects. She did market research for the microfarm and called local restaurants to determine interest and price points. The interns also collaborated with Pomona-based Growing Roots, a community-based urban farm organization whose founder and board members are all Cal Poly Pomona alumni. The interns developed a database of potential grants and created a newsletter for the organization. Garcia also took the initiative to complete and submit a grant for the Horse Hill Microfarm.
“Dr. Fox showed us how to work alongside other organizations to genuinely help them,” Garcia said. “It’s not just about our farm but putting to use what we’re learning and sharing it with those in the community. Those organizations that are growing successfully have been there for years and are feeding their residents but could use assistance with their foundation to ensure their sustainability.”
Fox says that was the intention behind the minor – to prepare students with the range of skills needed for the industry, which varies from a community garden to an indoor, high-technology growing operation, and adopting an entrepreneurial mindset while understanding the importance of connecting with local residents and organizations.
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of having local farms provide for their communities to ensure food resources are available at any time to those who may need it the most.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, grocery store shelves were empty, people didn’t have a backup option, and this is why we ended up with all this anxiety because we don’t have a resilient agriculture and food system,” Fox said. “Urban agriculture is critically important during events like this because it allows you to adapt to the situation. If another emergency happens, we don’t have to panic that the grocery story shelves are empty – we can go down the block where the urban farm or community garden is.”
Urban and community agriculture can take many forms, from a balcony garden to a mid-sized farm on the edge of a city. The summer interns learned about urban farming at all scales. They collaborated with faculty to gather the necessary paperwork and detailed information to submit an organic farm re-certification for a nine-acre section of Cal Poly Pomona’s Spadra Farm. The students gained valuable skills in how to navigate the rules and laws required for certification.
“We would love to have that hands-on directly on the farms, but we’re also getting that hands-on experience on what goes into executing a business model,” Garcia said. “COVID-19 has allowed us to really focus on building the proper foundation that allows us to be sustainable and successful.”
For Garcia, she stayed true to her roots. Equipped with her experience at Cal Poly Pomona, she plans to own land in Trinidad and Tobago to grow cacao and coffee beans and ensure that it is a sustainable business that serves her community. For now, she is growing pepper plants she bought from the Cal Poly Pomona Nursery on her patio.
“Coming to California put me in the mindset of home and unfolded the process for me, and I got connected to some root things that I enjoyed,” Garcia said. “I feel like Cal Poly Pomona encapsulated my childhood and my studies in one, and it was perfect timing to come here.”
For students interested in being involved with the urban and community agriculture minor, including opportunities to connect with and help urban farms and urban agriculture organizations or on campus student clubs, reach out to Professor Aaron Fox at email@example.com for opportunities and meeting information.
To discover ways how you can contribute and enhance the urban agriculture program contact Melissa Watkins, executive director of major gifts, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 909-869-2863.