February 1, 2012
A Biblical garden story
Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz and his wife, Karen, are stumped. They’re trying to explain just how many varieties of lettuce they’ve been able to grow since an urban farming company called Farmscape installed an organic garden in their yard last year. It’s a Wednesday, and rather than roving the aisles at Ralphs or Trader Joe’s, they’re standing in their driveway, pulling a veritable cornucopia of vegetables from a narrow strip of land that once was grass.
According to Farmscape’s Rachel Bailin, the organization “started in Claremont three years ago ... as a group of college graduates who wanted to change the food system and bring equal access to good-quality fresh food across Los Angeles.” While most of the company’s original clients were in the Claremont area, they’ve expanded throughout Los Angeles in the last couple of years, with clients as far away as Redondo Beach and Thousand Oaks.
Many of Farmscape’s clients, like the Kupetzes, are brand new to gardening, but that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm. “We didn’t grow anything before this, no green thumb whatsoever, no idea how to do any of this. Had it not been for Farmscape, there’s just no way,” said Karen of her family’s journey into farming. It began when the City of Claremont started offering residents $3 per square foot of land if they’d get rid of their water-hogging grass. At around the same time, Jonathan, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, was invited with Karen to a congregant’s house. The congregant had put in a beautiful garden with the help of Farmscape, and the Kupetzes were impressed.
With the promise of more climate-friendly landscaping and a chance to teach their kids about gardening, it didn’t hurt that they would also be saving money in the long run. “It takes a tremendous amount of water in the hot climate here to keep the kind of grass we had growing,” Jonathan said. “And not only is water a really scarce resource, but out here especially, it’s tremendously expensive. It was by far our biggest bill.”
Bailin, who grew up Jewish in Iowa, said that, despite Farmscape’s not being a specifically Jewish organization, a majority of its clients are Jewish. It’s a fact she’s proud of, even though she didn’t set out for it to be that way. “It was very ingrained in me (growing up) that you are connected to the earth,” she said. So when the Kupetzes asked for a garden with a biblical touch, Farmscape was more than happy to oblige. Besides biblical classics such as figs, pomegranates, grapes, onions and apples, the Kupetzes grow everything from watermelons to mustard greens.
Jonathan was particularly taken with the idea of using their garden for a greater good. “The Torah teaches that we’re to guard and to till the earth and also that we have dominion over the earth, but with dominion comes a sense of responsibility,” he said. To that extent, the Kupetzes hope to donate much of their crop once their 18 fruit trees mature. “Inland Valley Hope Partners, which is our regional food bank, has a program now where college students ... once you’ve picked what you want, come up to your fruit trees and pick the stuff and hand it out to families who need it,” Jonathan said.
Karen said their three children have also responded to their parents’ new obsession with farming: “They’re more willing to try things when they know that it’s been grown here.” “We eat better,” Jonathan said. “So much better,” Karen added, emphatically. “We didn’t use our yard the way we use it now; we didn’t appreciate it.”
Once upon a time, the Kupetzes were intimidated by the idea of gardening. One of the reasons they chose to work with Farmscape was the promise of having a full-time farmer come out every week to help grow their crops, a service Farmscape provides for $60 per week. “The idea was all we had to do was watch it grow,” Karen said. But soon, she found herself slipping outside to learn from their farmer, Todd Lininger, and becoming something of a farmer herself. “My learning curve in the last year has been incredibly steep, and it’s been an amazing challenge and an incredible experience,” she said.
The average Farmscape garden, which includes two large vegetable beds, special soil, plants and a drip irrigation system, runs around $2,700, Bailin said, though some people choose to go larger or smaller. “We have clients who sign up with us for a year, they come out, they learn how to exactly tend an organic garden, and then they’ll do it themselves.”
With Tu B’Shevat around the corner, the Kupetzes are also mindful of how their garden has helped deepen their religious lives as well. “We’ve certainly never experienced Tu B’Shevat in the way we’re experiencing it this year,” Karen said, looking around at her semi-dormant winter garden. “Tu B’Shevat doesn’t come at a time when things are colorful ... it’s sort of the promise of spring.
“We do a lot of hosting, especially around Sukkot time. So that’s a wonderful time to have people here, because the summer crop is still going,” she added.
Karen said she’s still amazed every time someone comes over and is shocked by how clueless they were about the origin of the food they eat. “Adults have no clue that kiwis grow on a vine, or that blueberries grow on a bush, or that onions grow in the ground. We’re just so disconnected with where our food comes from,” she lamented.
The Kupetzes take solace in the fact that their example has already helped to make a change in their community. “There are at least a half-a-dozen people who have started doing some kind of garden stuff because of our garden,” Jonathan said. “You can’t experience the garden by looking at it. You have to get dirty; you have to taste it; you have to feel it. It’s a very sensory experience,” Karen said. “We hope, as things continue to grow and bloom, that we can integrate it more into not only our Jewish lives, but the community’s Jewish lives as well.”