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How to Sustainably Farm in the City

Idzai Mubaiwa turns community garden plots and a neighbor’s backyard into an urban farm

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Lauren Di Matteo
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September 21, 2020
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Lauren di Matteo

Idzai Mubaiwa is a mother first and a farmer second. In 2002, she relocated from Zimbabwe to the US with her four daughters seeking a better life. Her priorities early on were to find a good school for the girls and a bit of earth to grow her own food. Eighteen years later, she is now a proud US citizen and has put her daughters through college. In part, from the income earned by selling produce at farmers’ markets from her urban garden plots located throughout San Diego County.

Everyone had a small farm, in her native Zimbabwe, where they would grow enough food to sustain a family while selling the surplus in order to cover the cost of planting again. “If we didn’t grow something,” Mubaiwa explains, “we would have to put money into buying what someone else grows, and that just doesn’t make any sense.” She shakes her head at the absurdity of it, leaving me a bit bewildered because I’ve never given a second thought to going to the grocery store and purchasing vegetables someone else grows. I hadn’t considered that nonsensical, nor did I think myself particularly capable of growing it instead, but her logic makes sense.



In addition to Mubaiwa’s plots in community gardens, she’s transformed a regular neighborhood backyard into a small-scale farm. Since she sells her pesticide-free produce at local farmers’ markets, she needed more land to keep up with the demand of patrons, which is what led to the eventual conversion of a friend’s backyard. What would normally be a useless bit of dirt or grass and a few bushes has been transformed into an edible oasis. 

At New Roots Community Farm in City Heights, I watch Mubaiwa carefully harvest and rinse the vegetables for tomorrow’s market, throwing aside any leaf of kale or chard that does not meet her stringent expectations. After having spent hours with her as she labored in the bright sun, I attempt to curb her over-selectiveness, which impacts her earnings, defending some of the cast-offs as good enough to sell. Her patient reply is that she only provides her customers with the very best because that is what she would want to buy.



I ask what she wishes patrons understood about her work and she replies, “When they go to the store, they don’t ask for a bargain, but when they come to me, they just want a bargain—after all the time and effort I put into raising the plants. It takes a lot of time, we put in a lot of hours here. At times I wish they could just, you know, help us too because it is hard work.” She goes on to detail the refreshing exceptions: those customers that encourage her to raise her prices because they understand the work that goes into organic practices and recognize the quality of her healthy, vibrant produce. There are even those who overpay her, offering the amount they believe she deserves rather than the advertised price.

While shopping at farmers’ markets, we often fail to truly see the farmers, even when they are standing before us. We don’t perceive their tired, aching bodies. We aren’t there for the early mornings, laborious days, and late evenings. We never hear about the unexpected heat that scorches a crop, or the caterpillars that show up overnight eating their way through much of that week’s income. All of the trial and error involved in getting the watering just right to avoid watery strawberries or not-too-tiny beets—most of us are ignorant of it all. 


There are countless advantages to buying from farmers’ markets, foremost for some being that our dollars go much further there than they do elsewhere. We are directly supporting hardworking farmers and purveyors who labor to sustain our families and offer us the opportunity for reciprocity in supporting theirs. They are passionate people who do the work not because it will make them rich, but because it will make them happy and strengthen their communities.

We are investing in fresh, wholesome products with a higher nutrient-density, which contributes to healthier, more productive lives now and lower medical bills in the future. What is more, we are fostering the expansion of a local food system that is better, more sustainable for everyone involved, and far less harmful to the environment. Considering these short and long-term benefits, I’d venture to say we should actually be paying more for these products, not less.


In her garden, I notice Mubaiwa’s eyes squinting from pain every now and then. As her body forces her to move a little slower than she’d like, she reiterates that the garden is her therapy, she’s convinced of that. “I have arthritis,” she says, “when I’m home, I hurt. When I come here, I don’t feel any pain. I love this, I’m always the last to leave the garden.” 


Wrapping up for the day she bends down near her plants to do just one more thing, and I overhear her say, “Okay babies, I’ll see you very soon.” 


Mubaiwa currently sells at the Hillcrest Farmers Market with her sister and you can find them under the banner African Sisters Produce.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Nicole Bravo
Nicole Bravo is a San Diego based food and travel writer with a penchant for digging into foreign cultures and stories off the beaten path. In her...
more about this contributor
Lauren Di Matteo
Lauren di Matteo is a photographer based in North County San Diego, who captures the magnificent and mundane to express the worth of every moment.
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