For the Love of Land

February 24, 2005

Michael Ableman, farmer, author, and photographer, is a well-known and respected visionary in the sustainable agriculture movement. Michael is founder of the non-profit Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens – a twelve and-a-half acre farm and education center outside of Santa Barbara, surrounded by residential development. Fairview Gardens is a model for urban agriculture and preservation, and an astoundingly diverse farm that feeds the community in which it is based. At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, we are fortunate to be visited weekly during late winter and early spring by Fairview Gardens – which we know for white asparagus, delicious mandarins, and exotic cherimoyas. This Saturday, Michael Ableman will be at the market selling produce, and at 11:45 am, will participate in an interview and book signing in our education center. Michael’s love for Fairview Gardens and the support of a community, saved the farm from the threat of development – it is now preserved in perpetuity. The following excerpt from Michael Ableman’s book about the Fairview Gardens, On Good Land, is about the evolution of his relationship with farming.

For me, farming was like falling in love. Both are means of perpetuating the human species. My relationship with the land followed a classic course. Nature seduced me and I fell in love with the little farm on Fairview Avenue. I was in awe of the magic of emerging seeds, and enchanted by early morning harvests when beads of dew formed on taut squeaky cabbages reflecting the light of the world.  

At some point, like all lovers, I fell out of love in the purely romantic sense of the word. When that intoxicating, blinding draw faded, a deeper relationship began.  

I came to farming without training, academic credentials, books, or expectations. My grandparents had farmed but not my parents. I thought technique was important. I thought I should become masterful. Over time I discovered that is was more important to learn how to see.  

My best agricultural practice was to walk the fields and orchards, observing, taking notes, poking, digging, smelling, and inspecting. Everyday was different, sometimes dramatically so. Usually the changes were nearly imperceptible. But there were always changes. Some came directly from nature. A sudden heat spell made tiny green beans grow to harvest size in a matter of hours. In the waxing cycle of the moon, seeds germinated almost overnight; in the waning cycle, roots strengthened and took hold.  

Sometimes the changes resulted directly from my own actions. If I cultivated the lettuce or brassicas, they seemed to double in size within days. Fruit trees responded to compost or pruning. By trial and error, I learned and relearned until the technique I aspired to was internalized and forgotten, as technique should be. I also learned its limits, and how difficult it is to outsmart nature. Farmers are eternally optimistic in this respect, as we try to ripen pumpkins just in time for Halloween, have the first tomatoes at the farmers’ market, or grow tender salad greens among much stronger native weeds.

Within a few years of arriving at Fairview Gardens, I went from being a struggling peach farmer to a kind of ringmaster. When I decided to reduce the emphasis on peaches and turn Fairview Gardens into an all-purpose cornucopia, I couldn’t stop.

In fall of 2005, Michael’s new PBS film and companion book about his trip across North America visiting and hearing the stories of small farmers, will be released. To learn more about Fairview Gardens, visit