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Alma Backyard Farms Redefines Biodiversity in Compton and San Pedro

Some farms define themselves by terms like organic, sustainable or regenerative, but not Alma Backyard Farms, which community-minded co-founders Richard D. Garcia and Erika L. Cuellar started in 2013. The partners are “restorative justice and environmental stewardship” champions who have already made large impacts on the land and lives.

“We grow in the spirit of reciprocity and relationship,” Garcia says. “The plant growing is a living organism, and you have to treat it as such, so if you grow in relation to the plant, there will be reciprocity.” He adds, “I would also describe our farming practices as relational because it’s not only between the plants and the farmer; it’s between the plants and the people who eat it.”

Garcia questions the potential hypocrisy tied to certain marketing keywords. “I prefer local, organic, and regenerative,” he says, “but if you’re growing organic soy, and then you’re going to tear out fields of native plants in order to fulfill a need. Organic connotes a deep care for the earth. It could, but in some real cases, it could also just mean, your practice avoids using pesticides. We avoid using that in the first place because of our belief in providing what is best for the person who will receive and eat this food.” He also questions organic farms that don’t look out for farmer safety or pay them fair wages.

Alma Backyard Farm's Richard Garcia tends to his crops.

Philosophy plays a key role in farming, and Garcia and Cuellar’s holistic thinking behind Alma Backyard Farms also redefines terms like “biodiversity,” which frequently doesn’t delve deep enough for them. “I’m looking at a raised bed right now that’s 4 x 12, 48 square feet of cabbage. At the ends are some marigolds,” Garcia remarks. “From a small perspective, you’ll say, ‘Okay, there’s some diversity in this bed.’ Then you’re just looking at the top; you’re not looking at the bottom. You’re not even looking into the soil where there are billions of microbes. There’s diversity there, but the bed that’s next to it, just a few feet away is a row of tomatoes and then a few feet away is California lilac and lavender. You can have somebody look at what we’re doing with a small perspective, and you’ll only see a raised bed in and of itself, but the real relational biodiversity that I recommend recognizing is the urban farm in the setting of the greater space of this community. How does it impact the neighbor across the street who has now discovered how to interact in an outdoor space like he or she hasn’t before? Biodiversity also includes music we have at the farm where people are encouraged to listen to new sounds. We have chefs that visit. That’s creating a different sense of biodiversity.”

Garcia’s family farming history starts with dad’s father, Lolo Buena Ventura, who grew up in the Philippines and farmed sugar cane in Guam before relocating to California. “Along my dad’s side, Filipinos were imported labor for a good amount of time,” Garcia says. “My dad has three other brothers who were all farmhands, field workers throughout northern and central California, doing things like pruning grapes, harvesting lettuce, and picking fruit. The labor was to some degree migratory because they would go wherever there was a harvest,” which extended to Florida. “My mom’s side has a history of having owned mango farms in the Philippines.” Garcia’s mother is a retired nurse.

“My parents worked hard so their kids wouldn’t have to do all this hard labor,” Garcia says. “So it’s kind of a funny thing that I’ve engaged in labor that is considered maybe more physically strenuous and probably not the well-paying employment. The farming I’m engaged with is different insofar as it’s directed towards not just growing food, but growing community.”

Garcia studied at St. John’s Seminary College, completed an M.A. in Pastoral Theology at Loyola Marymount University, and has a background as a pastoral minister within juvenile halls and prisons. He combined a commitment to restorative justice with urban gardening; he’s also helped install raised farm beds for schools and restaurants.

Garcia was developing an after-school program at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights when he met Cuellar, a fellow Angeleno, educator and landscape designer. “Our paths crossed because of a more fundamental intention to work with youth,” Garcia says. “It probably had little to do with actual dirt and soil.” They stayed in touch and reunited at Homegirl Café, which is part of Homegirl Industries, an organization from Father Greg Boyle that trains and supports former gang participants and previously incarcerated. 

“The cafe had a few mini farms in its attempt to grow fresh ingredients,” Garcia says. “Working with women who were impacted with incarceration or having had a past like that, we noticed that in the space of the farm, a lot of moments of growth, healing, and openness to growing and healing. That informed our decision to test and utilize urban agriculture as a means to achieve more of these moments of healing and openness to healing.”

The view from above Alma Backyard Farm's Compton location.

Garcia and Cuellar started farming in backyards that people offered up to support their cause, inspiring the name. Their initial efforts were small-scale, limited to two raised beds in each backyard, which proved logistically prohibitive. “There were significant start-up costs and we were kind of spreading ourselves thin,” Garcia says. “We probably spent more time driving around from one place to another, as opposed to just planting ourselves in one space and working for an extended period with little interruption.”

Due to Garcia’s seminary connections, St. Albert the Great School provided Alma Backyard Farms with over 6,000 square feet to install and cultivate raised beds in 2017. Two years later, they expanded to more raised beds and in-ground rows, which now total ¾ acre. “Compton still has Richland Farms where there are cowboys and people have big backyards where they still have goats and pigs and stuff like that,” Garcia says. “Compton is historically agriculturally zoned. We’re in the west part of Compton – more asphalt than green space - and we’ve probably turned some of the land into its roots.” Alma Backyard Farms also runs a smaller San Pedro location with 99% raised beds.

Garcia and Cuellar initially grew vegetables for “smaller restaurants that could really honor what the land provides and work in small batches,” including Diep Tran from Good Girl Dinette, a now closed Highland Park restaurant that featured banh mi with Alma’s vegetables. They supplied collard greens to chef Roy Choi and his team at LocoL in Watts and Eatalian in Gardena. Now they grow vegetables for Steve Samson and Hans Luttmann at Rossoblu in DTLA and Compagnon Wine Bistro in San Pedro. Over time, Alma Backyard Farms has focused more on feeding people in need “that have more difficulty getting their hands on local, organic food.” For instance, they’ve worked with Curt’s Kitchen in San Pedro that serves meals to homeless people and ProjectQ that provides food to a LGBTQ food insecure community.

When it comes to what they plant, they grow for flavor and also consider feedback from Compton residents. To illustrate this point, Garcia shares a story about Linda, grandmother to a child who attends St. Albert The Great School, whose students participate in farm classes at Alma. “Her grandson learned how to make hummus,” Garcia recalls. “He goes back to Grandma and says, ‘Can you make this for me? There’s a farm near my school.’ She’s a parishioner here, and she didn’t realize there’s a farm here, so she visited and saw that we were growing red mustards. She informed us she was well aware of the community here, a lot of Black folks from Louisiana. There’s a particular mustard green that they like. She and her brother sent over seeds from New Orleans, and those are the mustards we grow.” Alma Backyard Farms also grows other crops that locals request. “They want a fresh tomato because it’s not like we get that readily at the store where it’s small-batch grown. We also grow bananas.”

Most of Alma’s produce is available at their Compton farmstand every other Sunday.Our paramount intention is to grow for the neighborhood,” Garcia says.

To staff Alma Backyard Farms, Garcia and Cuellar connect with previously incarcerated individuals through partner agencies like Homeboy Industries and the Antirecidivism Coalition, plus word of mouth. “There is a degree of a vetting process that has to take place,” Garcia says. “There are things that have to be in order before even a commitment to a job is totally secure. A lot of folks who are facing the challenge of reentry need to secure housing, need to establish a level of stability, prior to even having a long-term type commitment to work. With partner agencies, that is more likely to happen. You kind of need a village to help get someone back on their feet.” 

“Our team is not necessarily entirely interested in people who know how to do it, but who could do it,” Garcia says. “Passion, perseverance… if those elements could be encouraged and grown at the farm, that will go farther in regards to helping someone reenter and not slip back into prior behaviors.”

Trainees at Alma Backyard Farms initially volunteer, though some people receive stipends and move on to paid positions. As of November, between their two farms and two farmstands, Alma Backyard Farms employed three full-time, and six part-time.

Just some notable success stories include Mando, now a full-time laborer who Garcia says has demonstrated “a commitment to see things through.” He also singles out Loi, who helped tend to a small farm at a reentry home when Alma Backyard Farms was taking on landscape projects. “He recently visited with his wife,” Garcia says. “He saw the land and he saw Compton prior to its development. He made a comparison between the development of a fallow space, a desolate space, into a productive, communal, life-giving space. He said that the farm and his development paralleled his life, where it went from isolation to integration, where it went from confusion to clarity, where it went from fallow to productive.” Loi has moved on to do other things. It’s expected. “In the training we provide, there’s a commitment and an openness to learn to love what we do every day, no matter what it is,” Garcia says. “If we play a role in helping somebody fall in love with their own lives, there’s more likelihood they’ll succeed wherever they go.”