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A woman works in the Pleasant Hill Community Garden. (Courtrsy of Mark Westwind)

MARTINEZ -- In 1975, an urban revolution started with two acres of scrub land and five friends with big ideas huddled in a Martinez gymnasium. Planting seeds -- literally and ideologically -- for what has become a booming agricultural industry and a common cause in Contra Costa County, one group's garden begat a movement.

A recent daylong gathering hosted by Sustainable Contra Costa and six county garden educator and activist organizations turned their collective energy to urban gardening's future.

Introducing a morning session connecting the disparate points and people involved in county land use and gardening, facilitator Mark Westwind invited the 50-member audience to "tell their story in one breath."

Their snapshot bios demonstrated diversity -- a visiting farmer from France; master gardeners; expert to novice partnerships; fourth-generation farm owners; and representatives from K-12 schools, higher learning institutions and land trust organizations.

Dividing the subsequent formal presentations into four categories (community, school, adaptive and land use/urban food production), Westwind laid the groundwork with a whirlwind tour through county gardening history.

Not long after those Martinez gardeners began plotting and planning, a $79,000 employment grant to the Office of Economic Opportunity funded a five-month community garden project around the county. Thirteen gardens were started before the program was transferred to a 4-H educational funding stream and school gardens were initiated.


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In Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, farmers markets sprang up; in 1976, a Walnut Creek Unitarian church's property became Eco-House, an environmental living center out of which Project Glean was launched.

By harvesting fruits and vegetables from local backyards and delivering them to needy, food-deprived communities, Project Glean sparked a proliferation of beekeeping, agriculture training, garden-planting and food-securing activities.

"There are now over 40 community gardens, more than 60 school gardens, three large-scale cooperatives and farmer markets in almost every city in the county," Westwind noted. "With so much going on, it seemed a good time to bring (everyone) together."

Presentations ran the gamut, from the wild and wonderful enthusiasm of Larry Gains' Third Eye Coalition at the Brentwood Community Garden to the sophisticated savvy of Patrice Hanlon's therapeutic, all-organic programs at The Gardens at Heather Farm to James Kalin's income-centric Sustainable Commercial Urban Farm Incubator model.

In between, the sturdy, professional passions of garden and food activists -- many with more than 30 years "in the business" -- bolstered an early audience proposal to make Contra Costa County a certified wildlife habitat and food justice front-runner.

Parkmead Elementary School in Walnut Creek was the county's first school garden, Westwind said. Garden produce was donated to local senior centers and in the summer months, senior citizens often maintained county school's gardens.

Reciprocity characterized David Walters' The Garden Academy in Bay Point. By field-tripping to other school locations, more than 2,000 students access the program and a paid summer internship venture is open to Mt. Diablo Unified School District students age 14-18.

"Part of the program is job development," Waters said. "In addition to gardening and cooking, we teach what it means to be a good employee."

At Diablo Valley College, Karen Talbot said "the garden's essence is bringing people and plants together." Food and flowers from the garden are shared on campus and in the local community.

At Walnut Creek's The Gardens at Heather Farm, reaching out to disabled communities enlarges the gardening empire. High school students with Asperger's syndrome, seniors and their caregivers ("Really, anyone with a health issue," Hanlon said) benefit from her therapeutic garden's "healing, transformative journey."

Kathryn Lyddan's Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust has over 12,000 acres of prime irrigated farmland, a U-Pick tradition and a farming population that grew from 7,500 to 56,00 between 1990 and 2005.

"We have a remarkable potential to feed ourselves. We can build a local food system," she said, announcing that BALT is creating a Contra Costa Food System Alliance to bolster its central mission of protecting farmland from development.

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