For nearly 120 years, St. Patrick's Seminary has nurtured the bodies, minds and spirits of men who have chosen to devote their lives to the Roman Catholic Church priesthood.
Last year, the mission of nurturing body and soul took on an added dimension at the Menlo Park institution with the launch of a new program based on an old idea: a guild in which people with common interests work cooperatively in an environment of equality and shared profits.
That new enterprise has transformed a half-acre expanse of land on St. Patrick's grounds, near the seminary's Middlefield Road boundary, into a small farm, managed and worked by five parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in East Palo Alto. It's a pilot program -- the first in the country -- that focuses on growing and providing produce for local residents, in addition to installing backyard gardens for others in the Bay Area who want to put fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables on their family tables.
The transformation of that parcel of fertile soil, carefully designed through biointensive farming practices to maximize space, yields an abundance of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage; leafy greens such as kale, chard and lettuces; fruits such as strawberries and melons; root vegetables such as carrots, onions, beets and potatoes; and a range of other edibles that would make a nutritionist's heart sing.
Along with the rows of crops that take up much of the dedicated parcel, there's a raised bed for root vegetables, and a greenhouse where seedlings are cared for. A visitor to the site will also notice a large kettle sitting on a grate over rocks, in which banana peels are steeped in heated water -- a brew used to enrich soil in which certain potassium-loving plants, such as tomatoes, are grown.
It's a 15-month-old experiment with a curious name: NanoFarms USA. And it's being closely watched by the local priests who envisioned it, the partners who are making it possible, and the St. Francis church community -- watched with hope and prayers that it will blossom into an enterprise that will allow a greater number of unemployed or underemployed parishioners to "find work that is dignified, honorable, and profitable within their communities," according to a statement on the NanoFarms website.
A seed is planted
The project evolved from discussions among three friends -- priests from local religious communities -- who were concerned about the growing income disparity in the Silicon Valley that was forcing people to lose their homes, or to work multiple jobs that prevented them from devoting time to their families and their parish.
"The parish of St. Francis of Assisi is in a very poor community in a rich area," says Father Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit priest who grew up in Menlo Park. In 2013, he says, he received a letter from St. Francis pastor Father Lawrence Goode, who wanted to discuss ideas on how to ease the financial hardship of his parishioners.
Together with another friend, St. Patrick's Seminary professor Father George Schultze, they began brainstorming ideas. Because Fr. Fessio is editor of Ignatius Press, which he founded in 1979 to publish Catholic books with the intent of using the revenue to help the disadvantaged, he was able to offer potential funding for a project, if they could come up with a viable plan.
"We discussed ideas ... such as affordable housing, but not farming," Fr. Fessio recalls of the early talks. "That idea came in the middle of the night."
Along with work in the fields, the new enterprise would include training guild members to install custom gardens in people's backyards that could be as small as 4-by-4 feet, and considerably larger depending on a customer's needs. They would include soil amendments to enhance existing soil, organic vegetable seedlings of the customer's choosing, training in biointensive gardening methods and, if desired, regular maintenance by a guild member.
Fr. Fessio came up with the name NanoFarms based on the typical size of a backyard garden that would be installed by guild members. "Nano means a billionth," he notes -- roughly the proportion of land represented by a backyard garden calculated against the largest farm in the world.
But where would this seed of an idea be rooted? That remained to be determined. Then one day, driving on St. Patrick's grounds, Fr. Fessio says, "I noticed all the land, with weeds growing. I said, 'Wait a minute, let's see what we can grow here.'"
Tests showed that the loam and clay soil was "among the most fertile" in the area, he says. There was a well on the property. And with the blessing of St. Patrick's Seminary Rector Father Gladstone Stevens, the project was launched.
Ignatius Press and Lighthouse Catholic Media provided the seed money, which pays for salaries and training of guild members and NanoFarms USA project manager Brendon Ford.
Produce from the farm is sold at small farmers' markets after Sunday Mass at local Catholic churches, including three in Menlo Park: Church of the Nativity (first Sunday of the month); St. Denis (third Sunday); and St. Raymond's (fourth Sunday). Produce is also sold or donated to the seminary for daily meals.
NanoFarms is also launching a CSA -- Community Supported Agriculture -- program, called NanoFarms Box, in which subscribers can pick up fresh produce weekly, or have it delivered.
Growth of an idea
A banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- an image that inspires deep reverence among the Catholic faithful -- ripples in the breeze at the farm's entrance at St. Patrick's. A mature California pepper tree provides shade for those who work the land, and attracts bees to ensure pollination of the crops that are grown from seed -- mostly, and eventually all, heirloom seeds.
Three guild members are out in the field one particularly hot July morning -- garden manager Ernesto Jasso, his wife Norma, and their son Dario, residents of the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park. Ernesto and Norma work the farm full time, except for the two afternoons they travel to Salinas for training in farming practices.
Theirs is an unlikely journey from urban life to farm work -- about which they knew nothing, Ernesto and Norma admit with a laugh. When their parish pastor, Fr. Goode, spoke to them about possibly joining the new NanoFarms guild, "I said, 'Sorry, but we don't know anything about farming,'" Mr. Jasso recalls.
"But Fr. Goode said 'that's OK, here is the land,' and gave us a book ... and a video" explaining farming techniques, Mr. Jasso says. He adds that Fr. Goode and seminary officials "then said 'now, go ahead' -- and gave the blessing. All the time, they give the blessing."
Part of the farm is planted using biointensive methods that allow more crops to be planted. The remainder is planted using traditional organic and sustainable methods. Although the farm isn't certified as organic -- a long and costly process -- the guild farmers use only organic practices.
Edible crops grow alongside plants used for natural pest control, such as alfalfa. The farmers also use lime and garlic to ward off pests.
Compost crops are also part of the mix, used "so that nutrients are returned to the soil," says Mr. Ford, the project manager. "We're not just sucking the nutrients out -- we're taking care of our soil," he says.
In addition to the Jassos, Belle Haven resident Sofia Mendoza and her son, Edgar Valladares, also tend the farm as guild members. Ms. Mendoza experienced the farming life growing up in Mexico, Mr. Ford says. "She knew a lot about this stuff from growing up with it. She knows so much," he says.
Do the Jassos, who grew up in big cities in Mexico, enjoy doing work they had to learn from scratch when already in their 40s? "Oh yes," says Ms. Jasso, who worked as a university registrar in Mexico before moving to the Bay Area five years ago. "We learn (new things) every day, every day."
Ernesto Jasso, who worked in finance and sales in Mexico, and in sales after moving here, has also deeply embraced his new vocation. "It's one of the most honest jobs to work," he says.
"I sweat here every day. All the money I have, I have because I worked for it. Before that, I worked in sales. It was good work, but not so honest.
"Here, we don't have to use others to earn a living."
With a sweep of his arm to point out the crop-rich field, he adds: "It's amazing. I never thought about one small seed -- how it could turn into all of this. ... I understand more now the power of God."
'Dignified life through work'
Since the St. Patrick's-based project was launched, another NanoFarms guild was instituted by a Catholic community in the Chicago area, according to Mr. Ford.
In explaining the concepts on which the NanoFarms guild is based, Fr. Schultze, the seminary professor, cites Pope Francis' recent encyclical, "Laudato Si." The pope wrote the text after the guild's launch, "but the ideas are the blueprint of NanoFarms," Fr. Schultze says.
The pope's message includes the passage: "Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work."
Fr. Schultze says NanoFarms "is a place where we can hopefully help members with meaningful work and income to meet their needs and provide healthy food for others. It's a nascent attempt at supporting the participants' economic and work needs."
The guild, he says, "is a budding attempt at creating a worker-owned social enterprise. The significance of people working as owners is that they are hopefully going to have greater incentive for the enterprise's success and they will reap the rewards of their effort. ... People find intrinsic meaning in what they do, and I have to believe that farming and producing food for others provides intrinsic meaning; the work itself is food for the soul."
Click here for information about installation of sustainable backyard food gardens and for more information about NanoFarms projects.