CHRIS & RACHEL
PASTOR & NURSE
Urban Haven in San Diego, California
It was January when Urban Exodus visited Chris and Rachel Nafis’s Urban Haven tucked behind their 2-bedroom home in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, California. Although the bounty of warmer months had subsided, cold hardy greens and root vegetables were still popping up in their raised beds and eggs were still plentiful in their coop. The Nafis’s journey into urban homesteading has been a long and bumpy road. It all began when Rachel, an emergency room nurse, was motivated to learn how to grow her own healthy food after witnessing daily the detrimental effects that processed food had on the human body. With zero experience, they tore up their yard and just jumped in with both feet. Chris and Rachel fell in love with the process of growing food and decided to expand their garden to an abandoned city lot near their home. Chris was seeking a second vocation to support his calling as a Pastor in the inner city with very little salary and it felt like a small urban farm might be the answer. They started a CSA to supplement their income and gave excess produce to friends, family and people who needed it.
A year into their CSA they were offered a caretaker position at a 45-acre ranch in Jamul, a rural area outside of San Diego. The move gave them acreage to expand their growing operation to include goats, pigs, bees, ducks, turkeys and chickens, along with a much larger space to grow produce. While they loved living in the peaceful beauty of the countryside, the soil had major fertility problems, there was very limited access to water and there was an infestation of squirrels that pillaged their crops. With a new baby on the way, the couple knew they wouldn’t be able to support their family on their slim farm earnings so they packed up, said tearful goodbyes to their larger creatures and moved back to San Diego.
Strong believers in modest living, their light-filled, simply appointed home is heated in the winter by a wood stove and all of their electricity is drawn from solar panels on the roof. The Nafis family lives without excess, their minimal living approach makes their two-bedroom home feel open and expansive, even for this family of (almost) five. They have utilized their entire backyard growing space with chickens and ducks in one corner, bees on the roof, raised growing beds throughout, fruit trees along the perimeter, and berry bushes against their back alley fence. There is even still enough paved space for their boys to scooter around while they tend to their crops. While they unintentionally fell into farming, it quickly became a passion. Their urban homestead is a stepping stone towards their ultimate dream of creating a recovery farm and parish just outside of the city where people who are homeless or battling addiction can learn to grow food for those who do not have access to fresh produce. (Click here to jump to their interview)
Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?
We both grew up with landscaped yards in the suburbs, so this is only our ninth year growing food. Rachel started container gardening in 2009 just out of college, then graduated to growing in raised beds when we moved to San Diego. In 2011 we fed seven or so families a week from an overgrown abandoned lot in the city. Then in 2012, growing food led us to a 45-acre ranch where we worked as caretakers and raised pigs, goats, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. We have since moved back to the city where we’ve lived and gardened at this home for a record four years. We moved our top-bar bee hive to the roof and built a chicken coop before unpacking our boxes. The backyard was entirely decomposed granite when we moved here and by adding tons of organic matter we’ve transformed the lifeless clay to a garden oasis.
How much square footage of space are you growing on and about how much food are you able to grow yearly?
1800 sq. foot garden plus four raised beds. We don’t measure the amount of food that we grow, but we grow more than enough for our family and share our excess with friends, neighbors, and sell some boxes of vegetables in peak months. We grow most all of the vegetables we eat, typically don’t buy eggs (although we eat a lot of eggs), and Rachel cans, freezes, and finds creative spots to store vegetables when in their prime. Our large garden rests during the winter months, but roots and greens planted in our raised beds help curb our off-season farmer’s market bill.
What made you decide to build your Urban Farmstead?
We started a large garden with almost no experience when we first moved to San Diego in 2010, and found ourselves with so much food that we thought about trying to sell some of it at a farmers market down the block, especially as Chris was seeking a second vocation to support his calling as a Pastor in the inner city with very little salary. The following year, we ended up starting a small CSA on a borrowed empty lot in the city. We learned a lot that year and solidified our identity as growers. The next year, we were unexpectedly invited to move out to a 45-acre ranch in Jamul (a very rural town east of San Diego), where we hoped to expand our CSA. We struggled to grow successfully in Jamul for a variety of reasons (land that needed more amendment than we were able to give, rodents who ate a huge percentage of our crops, a very frustrating landlord, no rain, etc.) It was a good but challenging year, and our lives, jobs, and church were in San Diego (30 miles away), so we made the difficult decision to come back to the city with the plan to continue to grow food. We wanted to be in the urban core of San Diego, particularly in Southeast San Diego (a lower income portion of the city), near our church. We were strange clients for our realtor as we were more interested in the growing possibilities of backyards than we were in the actual houses he showed us, and we wanted to be sure to move to a neighborhood that wouldn’t be too upset about our chickens, ducks and bees (no HOA, for example). At that point in our journey, it wasn’t a question of if we would create a sort of urban farmstead but how we would do it. So… here we are.
How has your family/friends/community responded to your farmstead?
Everyone has been very supportive of us, and we feel like we have inspired many in our family and friend groups to grow food and stretch themselves toward living more rich and sustainable lives. Rachel’s parents and sister, especially, have since developed an interest in gardening and now plant large, productive backyard gardens.
What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding?
Time is probably the most difficult part of our life and journey so far. We have not chosen the easiest path in almost any aspect of our life, and while we love all of the things that we do, it can be exhausting.
Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more young people being interested in learning to grow food?
Yes and it bring us hope.
Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting an urban farm?
Stop thinking about it and jump in! It’s easier than it seems, and the best way to learn is by just doing it. Get some chickens, dig up your grass, plant some veggies, and be amazed at how much you can grow, even in a small space.
Second, feed your soil. We amend our soil in the winter months heavily with manure from our ducks and chickens, vermicompost from our worms, ash from our wood stove, and locally sourced compost (a little internet research can find you cheap or free organic material in most places). If you take the time and effort to prepare your soil, you will have a productive garden, guaranteed. We keep a no-till garden, and with the help of a heavy layer of wood chip mulch, we have healthy plants, use less water, and do practically no weeding.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
We are inspired from many directions. We are inspired by our taste buds and strongly prefer to eat delicious food that we have grown and cooked ourselves. We’re inspired by the work itself. There is something indescribably good about working hard in the soil and ending the day dirty, tired, and hungry. We are inspired by the social justice issues that surround the farming/food industry, including environmental issues, health and food access issues, government and corporate corruption and greed, and other things that drive us to be part of a more localized and sustainable food system. We are inspired by our faith with scriptures that are ripe with agricultural imagery, metaphors, and parables (growing our own food has helped us engage more deeply with our faith tradition). We are inspired by the fact that this is a common interest for us as partners in life – that we can work together toward a common goal and passion. It seems that every part of our life together has pointed us toward the garden in some way or another.
What hopes do you have for the future of food and farming in America?
We hope that more people will learn to grow their own food so that food systems will be more localized and safe. We’d like to see an increase in small family (diversified) farms and that people will continue to pay more attention to what is in their food. We also hope that we will find ways to get more healthy food to lower income communities. This would require an effort to overcome “food deserts” and also a way to make healthy, local food more affordable, especially in relation to the currently government subsidized sugar/corn based foods that people eat, often, because it’s cheap.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heroes that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
For a no-work gardening philosophy we will forever be shaped by the book One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. Rachel discovered the Encyclopedia Botanica podcasts this year and enjoys listening to them while she’s in the garden or doing housework. We love Wendell Berry and would highly recommend anything that Ellen Davis has written (especially about theology/Old Testament and agriculture).
What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel?
You don’t have to have a lot of land to produce a lot of food. You don’t have to know much to start. You don’t have to specialize in one crop (and you shouldn’t).
If you could plant roots anywhere in the world where would you go and why?
Honestly we are happy right where we are. We sometimes dream about having more land to raise animals again, and Rachel often misses having four seasons, but we feel lucky to be city-dwellers in beautiful San Diego. In four years, we become quite attached to this particular piece of land. Our two boys were both born in this house (home births), and barring the unexpected, our next one will be too. Our beloved dog is buried under the lemon tree we planted in the front yard, which is producing well for the first time this year. We have added solar panels to the roof, figured out how to run our wood stove with efficiency and joy, built a well-functioning chicken coop, worked hard to build good soil (that has improved each year), and come to love the neighborhood. This place is home.
What plans do you have for the coming year?
We hope to install a grey-water system by the time our garden is in the ground and requiring regular watering. Rachel is excited to expand her cut flower garden. Last year Rachel casually fed two families a week with our excess, but she is dreaming about having a stand at our local farmer’s market and even selling some flower bouquets. Our bees have been working hard through the summer and fall, so we’re hopeful about getting a good batch of honey in the near future (we’ve kept bees for a long time, but we’ve had trouble with swarming and haven’t had the honey we’ve hoped for in the past). We have another child on the way in April, so we’re expecting some new challenges with three under four years old, but we are hopeful that the garden will be a place that the whole family will continue to find peace, productive activity, and a source of learning and growth (both physically and otherwise).