Member Spotlight: Mark Tollefson of Fairview Gardens

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This week in our Member Spotlight, we are heading south to Goleta, CA to meet Mark Tollefson, the Executive Director of Fairview Gardens. Fairview Gardens is a non-profit educational farm 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

Mark originates from Alberta, Canada and comes from many generations of farmers. He is a chef, owned his own restaurant, and has been a survival skills instructor. He is the past Executive Director of another non-profit – Wilderness Youth Project, and has traveled worldwide, including helping open an international high school in New Zealand, and building a sustainable agriculture organization in Belize.

Since the late 1800’s the land in and around Fairview Gardens has been used for agricultural purposes and rests on some of the richest topsoil in California. In 1997, the farm manager, Michael Ableman purchased the farm with a group of local activists, formed a non-profit and placed it in the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Today, the farm runs a robust CSA program, farm stand, hosts classes for adults and children, camps, and tours.

Read on as Mark talks about his views on wilderness, urban communities, and how places like farms can be the pillar of a community.


FarmsReach: Wow, that is a broad background! What inspired you to begin working for Fairview Gardens?

Mark Tollefson: Being a non-profit education farm, Fairview Gardens offered me the perfect foil to be able to blend my talents and passions into one place.

While I was working with youth and adults in wilderness settings, I realized that I could help them effect powerful transformation in a very short time. Then we would get back to our camp or vehicle and they would open a bag of Doritos potato chips.

I realized that not only do we have a huge disconnection between people and nature, we have an even bigger disconnection between people and food.

If we were lost in the wilderness, the first things we would do is find shelter, water, and then fire. These three things would need to be accomplished in the first 3 – 5 days. After that, 80% of our time would be spent gathering food.

One of my inspirations at Fairview Gardens is reconnecting people to nature through food. To be clear, I am not just talking about kids or the public that comes to Fairview Gardens. I am also talking about farmers. My uncle farmed the same land for 63 years. He knew every plant, every animal, every bird. His knowledge of his natural surroundings was one of the most complete I have ever seen. All this knowledge, however, came from long, slow, careful observation. He did things on his farm based on what nature and that field needed at that time, and never applied a cookie cutter approach.

I feel this level of intimacy and understanding of nature, and farming is paramount in understanding how to grow food in the coming years.

Mark Tollefson

Mark Tollefson

FR: Have you always felt that the “urban” community has been disconnected in this way from the earth and nature? Has this always been an issue you’ve been aware of and cared about?

MT: Our urban communities weren’t, historically, disconnected from the earth and nature. It shows whenever you look at a map of an indigenous village. They were designed to mimic the flow and space of nature. Very much like the branching of a tree, a river system, our lungs: villages had house clusters that represented family groups. The path from the family group led out to bigger paths, and to roads, etc.

Every time a path met another path or road there was a wide spot at the intersection. People recognized that we need a space to stop and talk with one another.

One of the results of urbanization is that we’ve forgotten the real meaning of what those gathering spots represented. Today when we meet someone, we shake hands and ask, “How are you?”, with no real desire to actually hear the answer.

Those gathering spots were a place that if we needed an hour to answer that question, we could take the time to listen. Imagine the difference in how we’d live if we gave each other the courtesy of that level of connection, and imagine how different our connection to nature and the earth would be.

This is an issue that has increasingly become more important to me as I have evolved my thinking and practice in life. At the risk of going totally esoteric, many “spiritual practices” focus on transcendence of the material world. I don’t believe that transcendence is what we are here for. We have this life to live. We need to dive deep into the soul of this world and our lives. Eat food with gusto surrounded by people we love, play music, make love, sleep deep and long, have long deep meaningful hugs with people you love, male and female. Own THIS life that we have.

Every indigenous spiritual tradition has its roots deep in a nature connection. That’s why farmers make the best priest and priestesses. How better to feed the holy, than to grow food to nourish and love a community of people!

FR: Fairview Gardens offers a wide range of youth and adult classes on everything from homesteading, to an after school program. Can you speak to why educational farming spaces in particular are important and what impact Fairview Gardens is having on your community?

MT: My uncle farmed and even at the later part of his life, he was in wonder, and awe of the unknown that he faced every day as a farmer. So, my point here, is that every farm is an education farm!!

Regardless if we have kids, adults and people on our farms, or it’s just the farmer and his staff, we grow and learn.

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Lettuce rows at Fairview Gardens

Educational farming spaces are important because we need relationships with the world we live in. Human beings were never designed to sit in offices or stare at small computer screens. Historically, each town or village was surrounded by small diverse family farms that provided the community with a rich opportunity to meet and greet all the food that the town’s people couldn’t grow in their own gardens.

I am fond of saying we are putting the culture back in Agriculture.

This year we will have almost 6,000 people come through Fairview Gardens, and when children come through on a tour, it is more common than not to have some of the kids be totally astounded that carrots come from the soil, or eggs don’t just show up in a carton.

There is a group of women here that have started a group called, “Mom’s for Farms”, and the stories they have shared about how Fairview Gardens has impacted them or their children’s lives are so beautiful they bring me to tears.

Fairview Gardens is 12.5 acres, and realistically, we could stop growing food tomorrow and no one is going to starve to death. However, the space we provide for children, families, and our community to find succor while being on our farm is nourishment beyond anything we grow.

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Aerial view of Fairview Gardens

FR: Fairview Gardens has a rich history and now exists in a pretty densely populated area of Southern California. How has this helped or hindered the survival of the farm?

MT: The permaculture movement is fond of saying that the problems are the solutions. In the past we have had some disagreements with our neighbors and local government. Like a problem with our farm, it’s an opportunity for us to learn more about the overall ecology of what we are doing. Ultimately, creating healthier soil for all of us to grow in.

Fairview Gardens was purchased with help from our community back in 1997. In all our eyes, it still is and always will remain a community farm. Our community is our biggest asset.

FR: Being that you’re an educational farm, what do you produce for sale to outside customers?

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Farm stand at Fairview Gardens

MT: Our #1 most popular product is our strawberries! Followed by tomatoes, kale, green beans, and avocados. We have a CSA program that has been running since the 1980’s, a full service farm stand, and we sell at three markets per week. We do a small amount of wholesale to local restaurants as a collaborative effort to market the farm and the restaurant.

FR: In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen on the farm that other educational farms might also be able to implement?

MT: My life changed when I read Tom Willey’s comment on November 6th, 2013 on FarmsReach when he said that “All tillage equipment is destined for the scrap heap.”

We are going to be piloting a no-till plot here at the farm and we are going to be piloting the planting of more dry land crops. One of our local CSA members, Scott O’Bar, just published a book called “Alternative Crops for Drylands”, and I am excited to dedicate some land to crops that will do well in our drought climate.

Also, we are always looking for more ways to get people on to our farm. More youth programs, more adult programs, more festivals, more love shared in the world!!

FR: Aside from the busy demands of being the ED, what do you like to do in your free time?

MT: I am the father of two amazing children, one 7 and one 4. I still love spending time in nature with them and my wife practicing survival skills, and deepening our nature connection and spiritual connection.

I play music whenever I can, and most of the time have a carboy of good beer brewing under my stairs!

FR: Anything else you’d like to share?

MT: I am extremely grateful for what FarmsReach and the Farmers Guild are doing.

As agriculturists, naturalists, chefs, fathers, mothers, musicians, teachers, kids, families, communities or however else we define ourselves, we, as a biological survival imperative, need to connect to each other.


Thank you Mark for sharing about your farm with the community! If you have questions for Mark about Fairview Gardens, get in touch: mark@fairviewgardens.org or visit their website.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about your farm or ranch, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

Do you know another farmer that would be interesting to profile? Get in touch. We love to hear from you! 

 

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