It started with a backyard garden. Now, with just a green thumb and a quarter acre of land, Lenny’s Lettuce is growing in more ways than one.
The vacant lot measured less than a tenth of an acre, and weedy looking wildflowers had staked their claim over every square inch of it. It was longer than it was wide, tucked like a crooked afterthought between houses on Santa Maria Avenue in the Sharp Park neighborhood of Pacifica, and — as Lenny Richards would find out after laboriously weeding a portion of it — the dirt below it was not quite dirt at all, but sand.
All that mattered to Richards, 30, was that it was his to garden in.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Richards was working as an electrician, but his backyard garden had always been his happy place. Some of his earliest memories are of his mother weeding in her garden in the backyard of his childhood home in Pacifica; as an adult, when work turned stressful, Richards would find himself desperately wishing he was back in his garden.
COVID-19 shut down California in mid-March of 2020, and Richards was subsequently sent home from work, unsure when or if he’d be asked back. From all angles, that spring was something of a perfect storm: the pandemic had created a kind of panicky demand for food, and Richards, essentially furloughed, had the time on his hands to grow it.
“Right away, I started talking to my wife about the possibility of starting an urban farm, and getting a piece of property to lease near home that I could grow more food on,” Richards said, recalling the early weeks of the lockdown.
He quickly realized that if he could grow crops at the right scale, there was a real chance he’d be able to turn a passion of his into a full-time job. (“I don’t ever think I’d call it that — a job,” Richards said.) As he finalized the lease on the Santa Maria plot, Richards was determined: Pacifica’s only urban farm— his urban farm—would take root.
One year later, his idea has fully blossomed.
Putting in the work (and dirt)
Richards was in good company. Americans’ interest in growing their own food spiked in the early months of the pandemic; the popularity of search terms like ‘vegetable garden’ and ‘how to grow your own food’ spiked through the spring of 2020, data from Google trends shows. Self-sufficiency became something of a trend: Instagram influencers were suddenly showing off their sourdough starters and posting pictures of scallions they were regrowing on their windowsills.
The concept of urban gardening is actually one with fairly deep roots in American history, according to Eileen M. Cullen, professor of urban and community agriculture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (CPP). The best known example is perhaps the ‘victory gardens’ Americans were encouraged to grow throughout the World Wars in order to free up commercial production capacity, Cullen said.
“People were producing food in their backyards, their front yards, at schools — it was widely done,” she said.
While today’s urban farmers aren’t necessarily working with such lofty goals in mind, modern day urban gardens and farms still “bring food production into nooks and crannies where it otherwise would not be,” Cullen said.
If Richards hadn’t leased his lot on Santa Maria, it’d perhaps still be sitting vacant. Instead, it’s a home for rows upon rows of ten different varieties of lettuce, mustard greens, baby kale and spinach. Richards has plans to expand out into other vegetables, too,
Pre-pandemic, it’d been his goal to grow enough produce to make a salad for his family each night; today, almost a year after Richards first leased the lot on Santa Maria, production is such that Richards harvests between 20 and 30 pounds of crops each week. Plus, Lenny’s Lettuce — named for the salad crops Richards likes to grow best — is growing in more ways than one: he recently leased and began gardening on another plot of land, this one slightly larger than the first, a few blocks away on Palmetto Avenue.
It took work to get to this point, Richards said: the sand he discovered during the initial weeding on the Santa Maria plot initially proved problematic. After research, he covered the entirety of the property with cardboard mulch and built out raised beds of soil, which he bolstered with compost. And he soon realized his garden bordered the home of Don Potter, who’d taught Richards math in middle school some two decades prior. He approached Potter and asked if he could utilize water from Potter’s property for the farm.
“He said he was interested in doing organic farming,” Potter said, recalling their reunion. “I said, okay, that sounds great… sure, you can use my water. But you need to take my son, Dane, too.”
Even before he’d ever heard of Lenny’s Lettuce, Potter’s son Dane, 15, was fascinated by the idea of sustainable farming. Like Richards, he’d begun leaning into gardening with the extra time the pandemic — and virtual school — had given him, growing a host of vegetables in his own backyard.
“He’s probably in the half of a percent of kids his age gardening,” Richards said.
Dane, a freshman water polo player at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, routinely spends three or four afternoons a week with Richards, and is “definitely” considering a career in community agriculture. (He makes regular appearances on the Lenny’s Lettuce Instagram.)
“Every day he calls me when he gets off school to say, ‘Hey, what are we doing today?’ He really wants to be involved, and he really loves gardening,” Richards said of Dane. “I’ve found that I really want to encourage him to do that, because I think we need more people gardening…. Anybody who has yard space or even a sunny windowsill can grow something.”
Getting the greens
Urban farming over the last decade has garnered increasing attention, especially from younger Americans, according to CPP’s Cullen, who founded the school’s community and urban agriculture minor. In 2015, California acknowledged the growing number of the state’s urban farmers and passed Assembly Bill 1990, according to Cullen. The bill created regulatory guidance for urban farms, and allowed urban farmers — “community food producers,” as the bill calls them — to sell their produce directly to the public.
Still, the process of launching an urban farm is a complicated one. Richards, with the help of other market gardeners online, has devised what he says is an efficient method of processing the crops he harvests: with Dane’s help, he “bubbles” the greens in a tub, then spins them dry in a converted washing machine. (The spin cycle gets off most of the water, Richards says.) Then he places the greens under fans on drying racks for a few minutes before bagging them. His greens stay fresh for two weeks in the fridge, he said.
Richards hand delivers his lettuce to his customer list — sign-ups have been word-of-mouth only — on the weekends, according to Dane, whose family receives two to three bags of lettuce a week.
“There’s one plant he has that tastes like wasabi, called wasabina — it’s such a cool flavor,” Dane said. “There’re different flavors you wouldn’t find in a supermarket.”
Now that Richards’s second plot on Palmetto is up and running, though, his business model is shifting a little: he recently locked down fridge space at Table Wine, a neighborhood wine store that also serves as a pick-up point for many CSA (community sustained agriculture) farm boxes. On Wednesdays, more than 25 clients of a local fisherman come to pick up their seafood for the week; Thursdays are for vegetable box pickups, according to owner Katie Brookshire.
“We’re in this small community, where we don’t have a Rainbow Grocery or a farmer’s market every day of the week,” Brookshire said, referencing a well-known grocery co-op in San Francisco’s Mission District. “When I heard Lenny was doing that, I was like — of course. Pacifica has to have an urban farm.”
As far as Richards knows, he’s the only urban farmer in town. Already, Lenny’s Lettuce “fits in perfectly” alongside the other producers Table Wine has come to host over the years, Brookshire said.
“He literally rides by the store on his bike two or three times a day, and he’ll beep (as he passes),” Brookshire said. “Then he goes on to deliver someone their bag of lettuce. It’s everything that is awesome and hippie about Pacifica wrapped up in one lettuce delivery guy.”
Details — exactly how much lettuce Richards will stock each week and for how much each bag will sell — have yet to be worked out, Brookshire added.
As Lenny’s Lettuce grows, Richards is assessing other sales channels: he’d like to partner with a local restaurant, he said, and perhaps start a farm stand of his own. He’s still pulling shifts as an electrician here and there, but these days most of his working hours are spent in his gardens. He hopes, too, to serve as an example for Pacifica and beyond, showing people “it is possible” to grow their own food on the space they have available to them.
“People deserve to be able to eat produce that’s grown near where they live, in the soil that they live on,” Richards said. “It’s important for things to be locally sourced, and that’s true for the world. It would be really cool to see more urban farms in every town, in every city — everywhere.”
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