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New agreement spares Sacramento urban farm tended by immigrant residents

Nadiya Zakharchuk tends her garden plot in South Natomas on July 14. Residents of a Mutual Housing California complex have farmed an area surrounding power lines illegally for years. Zakharchuk said that she began tending the garden 10 years ago, a couple years after moving to Sacramento to flee religious persecution in her native Ukraine.
Nadiya Zakharchuk tends her garden plot in South Natomas on July 14. Residents of a Mutual Housing California complex have farmed an area surrounding power lines illegally for years. Zakharchuk said that she began tending the garden 10 years ago, a couple years after moving to Sacramento to flee religious persecution in her native Ukraine. mlear@sacbee.com

A highway of garden hoses snake unregulated at the River Gardens urban farm in Sacramento, revealing the genesis of one of the city’s oldest urban farms.

Initially planted by emigres from places such as the Ukraine and Mexico, it began as a small patchwork of squatter plots roughly two decades ago, irrigated by water hoses from kitchens in the adjacent River Gardens low-income apartment complex. Today, it is a lush 3-acre garden where farmers toil under the crackling sound of 230 kilowatts coursing through transmission lines that tower above.

The River Gardens urban farm has an unmistakable old-world feel just north of the American River near Northgate Boulevard. In one plot, headboards make up the fencing. In another, the rusted skeleton of a box spring defines a farmer’s plot edge.

Two years ago, transmission-line owner Western Area Power Administration and local utility SMUD sought to clear the gardens out of security and access concerns. Though the farm sits on city land, the utilities have easements and wanted a 30-foot perimeter around their towers, as well as a clear path to those structures.

Residents feared the loss of a food lifeline until the city, farmers and utilities recently reached an agreement that will spare most of the plots for now and eventually move all of them to a new community garden.

“It became apparent to the city and the utility that these were no ordinary squatter farmers – these were individuals farming in order to feed their families,” said Rachel Iskow, executive director of Mutual Housing California, a nonprofit that operates the River Gardens apartment complex.

The land currently houses 51 plots in a garden sanctioned by the city of Sacramento. Gone is the need to run water lines to kitchens; Mutual Housing has since installed spigots and paved walkways.

The food grown and the design of each plot often indicates the country of origin of each farmer. One longtime River Gardens resident and gardener is Valentina Kushnir, who emigrated from the Ukraine in 2001 and has farmed ever since she arrived.

She grows cucumber, sorrel and black currants on her plot. “I farm here the same way I farm in the Ukraine,” Kushnir said through an interpreter.

Kushnir said she spends at least five hours a day in her garden. The food she has grown has allowed her to feed eight of her 10 children. “We are very low income, and this garden helped us a lot,” she said.

Nearby was Ramon Flores, 76, who hails from Guanajuato, Mexico. Flores grows jicama, corn and flowers on his plot, where he spends almost all of his time whenever he leaves his apartment.

All but a third of the plots at River Gardens will remain for now under the agreement. The city plan is to move 17 gardeners to an empty field immediately north of the existing gardens. The long-range plan seeks to move all of the gardens to the new location, said Bill Maynard community garden coordinator for Sacramento.

The new garden – the 14th urban garden in Sacramento – will meet city guidelines, have raised beds and be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Maynard said.

The farm plots have been around for so long it is not known when the first one was put in, Iskow said, but they are believed to date back to the 1990s. Two years ago, Western Area Power Associates sent a letter to the city expressing its concerns.

“We need to access the towers in order to inspect and maintain the towers in order to safely deliver power to our customers,” said WAPA spokeswoman Lisa Meiman. The tower is part of a transmission corridor that runs from Tracy to Redding. SMUD had a similar view regarding its own tower nearby.

Meiman said the utility, which has had a perpetual easement there since the 1940s, has rarely encountered a squatters farm like River Gardens in any of the 15 states in which it operates. After several hearings where the farmers stated their case, the utility realized it was not a hobby garden.

“We think it’s important to be very good neighbors with the people we share the land,” she said.

The city approved the land as a community garden in 1997 when Mutual Housing bought the River Gardens apartment complex from the federal government.

Under the agreement, farmers will pay a modest monthly fee to garden; they garden for free now. The farmers will get access to city water and what is expected to be substantially increased water pressure. Delivery of water has always been a vexing turf issue at the gardens, said Iskow. The cutting of hoses between feuding farmers is not uncommon.

The city expects that the 17 relocated farmers will plant their spring crop in the new location, said Shannon Brown, operations manager for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

The garden will cost roughly $181,000, funded with Proposition 1C low-income housing funds, Shannon said.

In the world of urban gardening, River Gardens – and the agreement reached with the utilities – is a rarity, said Nina Claire Napawan, professor of environmental design at UC Berkeley. She said the agreement may set a precedent.

“It’s a wonderful model because the city gets the benefit of providing healthy food to the community that is right adjacent to it.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz

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