From the Ground Up Farms in Chico
Where Community Grows
By Kayla Anderson
Photo by Ronda Alvey
It is a warm spring weekend day in Northern California, and in a quiet Chico neighborhood, one of From the Ground Up Farms’ biggest gardens is teeming with the activity of bustling volunteers.
“Our goal today is making a big mess,” says From the Ground Up Farms Board President Tami Donnelson. Despite what she says, though, the garden looks perfectly laid out on a quarter acre of land. It is organized with budding artichokes and fruit trees along the sides and back, tomatoes and other vegetables in the middle, leafy greens growing towards the front, a fire pit and sitting areas. Throughout the week, people in the neighborhood swing by and relax with a glass of wine or play Loteria.
“People who have lived out here for years didn’t know each other and now they hang out here together every night in the summer,” says From the Ground Up Farms Executive Director Jenny Lowrey.
What makes From the Ground Up Farms especially unique is that all of the fruits and vegetables that the garden grows are available to anyone and everyone, free of charge. “It’s encouraged to give what you can with a monetary donation or pulling a few weeds, and half the experience is walking the gardens and picking your own fruits and vegetables,” Lowrey adds.
Lowrey got back to her roots in a roundabout way, working in the corporate world when she was 15 and moving up the ladder. However, as she was making more money and obtaining more material possessions, her health started to suffer. It seemed as though she was living the American Dream, but she was also traveling all the time and eating quick, cheap and easy-to-fix meals.
Lowrey’s health plummeted due to her stressful lifestyle. At almost 300 pounds, she developed Type II diabetes and was constantly battling different cancers and diseases by taking up to 15 different medications a day. Lowrey knew there had to be a better way to live.
One day, Lowrey had enough and moved to Lake Concow Campground in Oroville. She took a year to reevaluate her life and fell into gardening.
“They had a garden, I took three hours to build and water it, and it cleared my mind,” she says in a way that demonstrates a true epiphany. “I found my health again.”
Along with growing her own food and cooking from scratch again, Lowrey slowly started improving her food regimen by substituting diet soda with water or healthy tea, going for a walk every day, and buying organic products.
“The weight just fell off. It’s amazing what happened when I just eliminated the stress and changed my nutrition,” she says. In less than two years, Lowrey lost 150 pounds and decided to help others improve their diets.
With the help of Todd Hall and Molly Stokes in the neighborhood off of Kentfield Drive in Chico, Lowrey launched its first community garden. In 2013, From the Ground Up Farms solidified into a nonprofit.
“We bought this property without caring exactly what it will be,” says Hall. “This was an ugly lot and we grabbed this opportunity without being concerned with what’s going to happen down the road.” They built the garden up with the income from selling produce, and it became a beloved part of the neighborhood. However, it was a lot of work and they were feeling burnt out when Lowrey came into their lives.
Using the “Keep It Simple Sunshine” (KISS) model, Northern California policymakers are starting to take notice and borrow From the Ground Up Farms’ simplistic, sustainable and ethical business structure. Not only is the nonprofit providing organic and nutritious food that’s accessible to everyone, but the act of gardening restores the body and mind, which can especially help people suffering from disability or mental illness.
“It’s nurturing, teaches proper socialization, responsibility, exercise… gardening does so many things,” Lowrey says. Soon after launching the Kentfield Garden, a Chico homeless shelter asked if it could help them build and manage its own garden – volunteers showed up with 18 beds full of food and started planting.
From the Ground Up tries to stick with staple foods that are easy to grow and low maintenance, and depend on donations, grant money or a property’s budget to provide the irrigation, soil, nutritional supplements and tools.
“We don’t leave when the (grant) money runs out. We figure it out,” she adds. “We throw seeds in the ground, grow food and give it away.”