The Fairmount Aqua Farm, a project of the International Rescue Committee, was developed on a quarter-acre asphalt lot on Fairmount Avenue in City Heights to train community members to grow food with less water and without soil.
The project provides a way of growing healthy produce in one San Diego’s densest and poorest neighborhoods, where green spaces and food budgets are limited. Five of the farmers sell produce from the aqua farm a block away at the City Heights Farmers Market.
Malaki Obado, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the farm, maximizes the space by using raised planting beds and techniques like aquaponics to grow hydroponic vegetables and tilapia. The farm uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming, Obado said.
As the only green area on the dense, commercial block near University Avenue, the aqua farm gets many onlookers who enjoy the flowers and fruits growing. Many people stop by to chat with the farmers and get advice for growing successful plants.
The aqua farm is open to the public the first Saturday of every month to encourage this dialogue between neighbors.
Sixty percent of this space that we are on is actually asphalt. It’s a typical city lot. And I believe there’s not too many green spaces. But there’s lot of, some people call them brown spots. There’s a lot of vacant lots. You can grow, but you need to use a different way of growing.
My name is Malaki Obado and back in Kenya I lived in my father’s homestead and it’s a farm. So I’ve been around crops and farm animals ever since I was a kid. I lived in the United States for five years now. I lived in City Heights for the last two and a half years.
Access to local food is tough in City Heights. It’s easy for someone to find the nearest store is a liquor store and they buy their food from a liquor store.
So this is a practical example of an urban area that was mainly asphalt that’s been converted to a garden. And there’s challenges to it because we got to use more raised beds and grow above the asphalt. Or use things like aquaponics, that are actually soilless ways of farming. Most urban lots are not large, so people need to think of how to maximize production. We need to think of more vertically like all the other buildings around us are doing.
Having plants growing is very welcoming. It’s a good conversation starter. People like to see plants, especially where there is a deficiency of plants. It kind of brings good in people. So besides just producing food in the city, it’s providing an opportunity for people to interact.
One of our farmers was really excited, saying “the farmers market has been really great! I’ve already made $100 this morning and I’m still selling!” So just the excitement of seeing in his face, within selling at the farmers market for not more than two months and making that amount of sales. Every week what we are producing for the farmers market is increasing. Ideally, it would be nice even to sell on site. So it’s still not ideal, but it can get better.
I’d like to see more people growing food within the city. It doesn’t need to be a whole farm. You can have two tomato plants, you can have as much as you can do. If they can’t grow it themselves, then at least know who grows it. Or know the story behind your food. And have control of what you’re eating.