PICTURED: The Abundant Table CSA and Farm Church community tour the King and King Ranch location (in Fillmore) with farmers Guadalupe Rojas (left, in cowboy hat), Reyna Ortega (right, waving, in baseball cap) and Allen King on Oct. 30, 2021. Photo by Lisa Devine

by Madeline Nathaus

The Abundant Table
P.O. Box 6295, Ventura

“I remember my first experience putting my hands in the soil and watching radishes come out of the soil,” said Erynn Smith, a resident of Ventura. “It began this lifelong love affair with soil and tending soil and the miracle of soil and the miracle of tending life.”

That love affair began with her involvement with The Abundant Table, a Latinx and women-led nonprofit workers collective focused on workers’ rights, justice, healthy eating and sustaining the land. 

“Farmers are the heart of the organization,” said Smith, now an Abundant Table board member. “Tending the land is the heart of the organization. What our community is asking is, how can we best support the farm and the farmers?”

The Fillmore-based certified organic farm was founded in 2009. Their mission is significant and sweeping: They seek to change the way consumers think about farming through social justice, farm education and creating a connection with the land. 

Re-connecting to the land

Several months ago, the farm relocated from the McGrath family farm property in Camarillo to a 3.6 acre plot of land on the King and King Ranch in Fillmore. 

The change has taken some getting used to, said Smith and Guadalupe Rojas, an Abundant Table farmer. Each new land they work with offers different soil conditions, microclimates and pests. Even a small alteration in the environment changes what kind of crops the land can naturally yield and also calls for alternative approaches to weeding and pest control.

Smith, who regularly helps out on the farm, and Rojas said that with the convenience of commercialized farming, consumers have grown disconnected from where their food comes from.

Rojas, whose native language is Spanish and was translated by Smith, said, “That’s always been our mission, bringing consciousness about our relationship to the land, each other and ourselves. It is growing food but it’s also deeper than growing food, it brings you into a relationship with other beings on the land.”

Part of how they’re achieving their goal is by bringing people onto the farm to work with the soil and see where exactly their food comes from. They hope that raising this awareness will gradually change the farm system as a whole and bring the farming industry and public back to the roots of natural food production. Their farm-based education program in particular allows students of all ages to visit the farm and interact with the farm’s ecosystem.

“Bringing kids out onto the farm and from an early age giving them really formative, shaping spaces to feel that connection with land and feel that connection with the work of tending land can really have an impact on their lives and the lives around that child,” Rojas said.

The Abundant Table also offers a community supported agriculture program, or CSA, through which members can get a weekly box of organic, seasonally grown local produce for $30.

Spiritual roots

The organization began as a campus ministry with a small group of students at the California State University, Channel Islands and a small plot of land in Port Hueneme. Between the collective efforts and resources of founders Sarah Nolan, Julie Morris and Paul DeBusschere, The Abundant Table was able to offer a space in which interns could live, work the land and explore faith-rooted land healing and farm worker justice.

Though the founding ministry was Christian based, the members of the Farm Church, an Abundant Table community, emphasize that their faith is nonsecular. All beliefs and backgrounds are welcome; the heart of their spirituality is the earth.

Jeannette Ban, a Farm Church member and former intern and farm coordinator, said, “It’s impossible to separate the mysteries and magic and the inherent spirituality of farming from the actual practice of it. Instead of dominating the land and changing it completely, we try to be in synergy with it and grow as partners.”

Abundant Table’s aim is to interfere with the land’s natural processes as little as possible. Farmers and other workers avoid using pesticides in favor of introducing beneficial insects to the environment and only grow produce that the land naturally grows itself. Typically, the most abundant crops are carrots and lettuce, but the harvest is regularly changing.

The Abundant Table Farm Church community gathers at King and King Ranch in Fillmore for a Día de los Muertos service on Oct. 30, 2021. Photo by Lisa Devine

“Folks often don’t have a sense of how hard it is to grow with the season,” Rojas said. “We don’t have actual teachers teaching us. The best teacher that we have had is Mother Earth herself. Mother Earth has taught us what we can grow in different places and what we can grow in different seasons.”

The farm works on a surprisingly small scale. At one point, the farm had upward of 20 employees between the board of directors and farmers. These days, they have about five people on the board and three farmers. The positions, however, are not stagnant; the farmers sit in on board meetings and the board members offer a hand in the field when they can. 

Collective action

About two years ago, a mini revolution took place when the farmers voiced their need to be more included in the decisions that were being made. Thus began the transition to a workers’ collective. Though the conversation is ongoing, the objective for the farm is to function democratically, with all staff having an equal say in the decisions being made.

“You can’t look at the food system, you can’t look at the farms, without looking at race-class dynamics,” Smith said. “I am glad to be in an organization that wants to really wrestle with that and actually center the voices of the farm team in decision making.”

Rojas said he views the shift to a workers collection as a natural progression of the values The Abundant Table upholds at its core.

“The crux of the issue was being able to have decision making authority and there was a lot of support for that,” Rojas said.

The Abundant Table also intends to help bridge the racial and class gap by offering subsidized CSA boxes, providing fair wages for its workers, maintaining awareness about how farmers are treated and remembering the Chumash who owned the land before.

“The Abundant Table community is largely white, middle-class folk and the farm field is mainly Latinx folk and there’s a lot of reckoning with the realities of that,” Ban admitted. “Racial justice is something that we as a culture are going to be wrestling with for the rest of our lives, and our children after us will continue to wrestle with that.”

The Abundant Table is fiscally supported by individual donations, grants from departments like the USDA and CDFA and most importantly by their CSA boxes. Demand for the boxes went from 75 a week to almost 300 a week after COVID-19 began last year, due to fear that consumers would not be able to purchase nonlocal food.

During the pandemic, the farm kept farmers safe by having regular conversations about mask mandates and social distancing. Staff wanted to ensure that their farmers felt safe and willing to continue their work.

Though events and volunteering opportunities have been reduced due to COVID, The Abundant Table hopes to make them regular occurrences again once everyone has fully settled into their new farm in Fillmore. People can also get involved with the community through the Farm Church group, which has regular outside gatherings and a Facebook group.

“This farm, in terms of its community, is growing around the farmer and that farmer’s relationships to the land,” Smith said. “The space here allows us to build really authentic and meaningful and, dare I say, transformational relationships. That is why you have people who have been really committed to this, to each other and to land for 12 years through all of the ups and downs.”