March 9, 2022 Ft. Bragg, CA
Farmer: Veronica Storms, Garden Manager
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Fort Bragg High School’s bell rang. Lively teens poured out as I spotted the sign “Noyo Food Forest”. It suggested I turn into the school and follow it to the brightly painted, floral-designed buildings in the back. As I entered the gate, I also noticed the artistic signs accentuating an acre lot hosting three green houses. That’s when I met Veronica. She was busy cleaning up at the sink. When I asked her for a tour, she graciously paused to show me around.
The more questions I asked, the more I sensed her energy and passion for her role as garden manager. She provides food and engages youth and adults in the process. A large, 50’ x 40’ translucent-roof, partially sided education pavilion was the obvious center of this educational farm. Comfortable donated couches and circling chairs easily accommodate two dozen visitors. A dozen pairs of boots and gloves were hanging on the walls. Chalkboards, posters and drawings help facilitate this “learning garden”.
History of Noyo Food Forest
Founded in 2006, the mission of The Noyo Food Forest is to cultivate a healthy local food system by creating opportunities for Mendocino Coast youth and community to learn about, grow, and access sustainably grown, garden-fresh foods. Produce from the garden is harvested and delivered to the local school nutrition services, food bank, senior center and our online farmstand orders. Noyo Food Forest has been able to lease the land from the school.
In 2005, Susan Lightfoot, a resident of Louisiana, experienced what it was like not to have access to fresh food. On August 23rd, Hurricane Katrina moved inland with a fury. That storm changed the trajectory of Susan’s life. Having moved to Fort Bragg, she knew she had to do something to help her community be more food-sovereign and self-sustainable. That’s when she came up with the idea to start a learning garden at the high school. Susan together with Katrina Aschenbrenner, Kimberly Morgan ( as the core founding members) and an extensive group of close friends, got together to brainstorm and create the Noyo Food Forest. This “Farm-to-School” nonprofit would supply fresh vegetables and fruit to the cafeteria. Growing food would be part of the curriculum. The community needed to provide the garden instructor. One of the first donors to the Noyo Food Forest was John Jeavons from Ecology Action. At a workshop at the Caspar Community Center that John was teaching, Susan and Kim approached him and mentioned the idea to start Noyo Food Forest. He did not hesitate to give the first cash donation to start the vision.
Food Forest serves as an Education Center
“The Learning garden is full of daily surprises!” Veronica exclaimed. Students from an alternative high school work here an hour a day. Two kids come with their teacher to get their hands dirty and learn about gardening with Nature. Veronica commented, “It is amazing how much we got done! Everything counts - every person, every task makes a difference. The kids keep coming back. I am so happy that they are ‘up’! It is such a different experience when they themselves pull a potato out of the ground!” The whole food forest is common community ground where neighbors and students alike work to produce as much food as possible. On weekends, Veronica joins with other adults to learn more about gardening and garden education. The bright-colored creative art work helps convey the life-force of this space. As a model of a healthy local food system, Noyo Food Forest offers after-school and summer programs as well as workshops and field trips. Students enjoy adopting a tree for the season and creating a garden around its base.
“We make gardening accessible to everyone.” Veronica explained that hand tools are used where possible to do simple tasks. The farm also practices organic methods. The community gets to participate by volunteering, by purchasing shares of the Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) program. 30 shares are sold each season for a once a week pick up. “We were able to sustain this through COVID”, Veronica affirmed. The CSA shares are intentionally made affordable at $15 or $30 / bag. Recently, Noyo leadership has decided to focus on their main goal to grow food for the school cafeteria and discontinue their CSA. They also sell seedlings to help defer the costs of the program. Strawberries are growing at the entrance to encourage U-Pick - strawberries. “Being in this garden is such a great experience; I wish I had had this opportunity growing up! I want that for everyone.” Veronica said.
Learning to Farm
“At first when I started as garden manager, I was overwhelmed. Yet I tried to recall everything I learned from my garden tutor, Sabina Bush. Gardening is nature building. For me it has been such a grounding and growing experience. I’ve learned how to be present in the moment. Don’t let your mind overthink it!” Veronica noted. “I also realized that my great grandfather in Costa Rica was a farmer. I have it in my blood!”
She was so proud to show me their blueberry beds and the ground cherries picked pale orange. “They are great for making jams!” she smiled. Last gardening session we planted potatoes. She showed me the buckwheat and fava bean cover crops she had planted in December with her students. We chop these and add them to our compost piles. She also shared how she is just finishing up her Permaculture Design Course. “I’m learning so much!”
Supplying Food to the High School
The fruits and vegetables produced are purchased by the school at the same price they would have paid to source the food. Noyo Food Forest has set their food production goal to supply 70% of the fresh produce needed by the cafeteria by 2023. They host a cooking
program where students can learn by doing things like using potatoes from the farm to make clam chowder.
Noyo Food Forest's motto is “Grow People, Grow Soil, Grow Food.” As we wrapped up the tour, Veronica remarked, “It’s been great to experience the community coming together here at the Noyo Food Forest. I have found a sisterhood of friends here. With our compost, we are regenerating the soil. Over these 16 years, we’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve gone through a number of different gardeners in the past few years. While it hasn’t been easy, I feel drawn to this garden. I can see the impact we are making. I am making spaces open for anyone who comes.”
Author: Farmer Karl