Meet Abel Ruiz, Urban Farmer and Community Builder in Santa Ana
On a 1/3 acre plot at a church in Santa Ana, you will find the CRECE urban farming cooperative. Although this Southern California urban farm may be small, it is having a large impact in the community. CRECE does more than just grow food, according to lead farmer Abel Ruiz, who helped start CRECE in February 2016.
“Our farm is not just a farm,” says Abel. “It is a gathering space for community members, an educational center, and an organizing space for farmer justice. Since its inception, CRECE’s primary goal has been to end food apartheid in Santa Ana and communities of color throughout Orange County and beyond. We remain committed to building solidarity and capacity within our communities to determine how we grow our food, who grows it, and the way it is grown.”
CRECE Urban Farms is a five-member, cooperatively-run project committed to bringing food sovereignty and cooperative economy to Orange County, as well as knowledge sharing within the community. CRECE’s 1/3 acre market garden grows mixed vegetables year round, which are distributed through a CSA program. “We make life-giving food accessible to low income Mexican immigrant families in Santa Ana,” he adds. “CRECE’s CSA program offers a sliding scale pricing system and work exchanges. We also grow culturally relevant crops for our target clientele.”
A long time Santa Ana resident, Abel migrated to the area when he was 12 years old. After graduating with a master’s degree in Native American and Indigenous Studies at U.C. Davis, he returned to his community and got involved at Jemore Community Garden. This led to a position at City of Irvine’s agricultural division, and later as program coordinator at a local non-profit’s community garden and compost program.
“I love Santa Ana because of its people,” explains this passionate urban farmer. “We are luchones and proud. Something that I have learned from my community is how to work hard and how to celebrate life. My work experiences laid the foundations for me to learn the power of collectivism and a newfound appreciation for urban farming – which presents its own challenges and opportunities.”
In 2016, an opportunity opened to take care of the local church plot, and the cooperative jumped at the chance to start California Urban Farm, CRECE Urban Farms. The opportunity allowed “the process of walking with one foot in community organizing and empowering our fellow neighbors to challenge oppressive systems,” he says. “And on the other foot, taking direct action towards meeting our needs from the bottom up.”
Food Sovereignty, Cooperative Economy and Knowledge Sharing
As Abel recalls, “Our project emerged from the vision of elders, residents, and youth in our community who were fed up with the health disparities in which we live in Santa Ana. We mobilized to demand our city leaders take a bold stand against food apartheid and shift towards holistic solutions to health by providing access to green spaces, good food grown with dignity, and recreational areas. As CRECE has evolved over the years, we continue to organize so our community voices are included at the table.”
Until the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, CRECE made the farm available to the community as a recreational and educational space where anyone could connect to the beautiful experience of growing fresh, nutrient-rich food.
A few months before the pandemic struck, AFT’s Farms for a New Generation program hosted a Community Scale Composting workshop with CRECE and CalRecycle. The community event featured a bokashi compost workshop presented by agronomist Veronica Ortiz and information about on-farm legal requirements for composting by Janaki Janannath of U.C. Davis School of Law and Association of Compost Producers. Maria Salinas also presented on CalRecycle’s Community-Scale Composting Program.
“Our bokashi workshop collaboration with AFT and Tierra Negra Consultora was great on many levels,” says Abel. “It brought much-needed knowledge to our farmer members, not only in the form of technical skills. It also gave knowledge about a community composting grant that CalRecycle was developing, which eventually we applied for and received.
On another level, it helped create relationships with other local urban farmers, some of which we continue to hold and maintain. We also started a relationship with Veronica, who presented the bokashi workshop. Our relationship with their project has grown into multiple collaborations and knowledge exchanges over the years.”
A Brighter Future
Moving forward, CRECE is considering new ways to engage with the community, particularly during the pandemic. Recently, CRECE was awarded a $5,000 Brighter Futures Microgrant, as part of a collaboration between AFT and Tillamook. CRECE was one of more than 100 farmers nationwide to receive a Brighter Futures Microgrant. To ensure funds were distributed to a diverse range of farmers, a special allocation was reserved for underrepresented communities including Black, persons of color, indigenous, LGBTQIA+, female, and beginning farmers.
“This grant will allow CRECE to contract a website developer to build an online interface in Spanish and English,” Abel adds. “Our new website will feature a membership portal and online store to engage in more meaningful and safe exchanges with our current clientele, as well as increase access to new markets. By integrating a webpage, we expect to double our number of shares and decrease the amount of time we spend educating the public about our cooperative business.”
After working more than four years to build this urban farm-community sanctuary, CRECE is currently negotiating a five-year lease for their current location, which it hopes to secure before the end of the year. Meanwhile, these determined urban farmers will continue working to germinate seeds of food sovereignty, nutritious lifestyles, healing outdoor spaces, and peaceful coexistence for their neighbors.
“From #Blacklivesmatter to #StopAsianHate, we stand in solidarity with all oppressed struggles and communities of color,” says Abel. “We acknowledge that violence against one is violence against all of us.”
Learn more about food apartheid in underserved communities.
A young urban farmer speaks out in Sacramento.