For nearly 120 years, St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park has nurtured the bodies, minds and spirits of men who have chosen to devote their lives to the Roman Catholic Church priesthood. Last year, the seminary launched a new program based on an old idea: a guild in which people with common interests work cooperatively in an environment of equality and shared profits.
Dubbed NanoFarms USA, the project evolved from discussions among three friends: priests from local religious communities who were concerned about the growing income disparity in the Silicon Valley. Their conversation led to an enterprise that has transformed a half-acre expanse of land on the St. Patrick's grounds into a small farm managed and worked by five parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in East Palo Alto. It's a pilot program -- and the first of its kind in the country -- that focuses on growing and providing produce for local residents, in addition to installing backyard gardens for others in the Bay Area who want to put fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables on their family tables.
The transformation of that parcel of fertile soil, carefully designed through biointensive farming practices to maximize space, yields an abundance of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage; leafy greens such as kale, chard and lettuces; fruits including strawberries and melons; root vegetables such as carrots, onions, beets and potatoes; and a range of other edibles that would make a nutritionist's heart sing.
Along with the rows of crops that take up much of the dedicated parcel, there's a raised bed for root vegetables and a greenhouse where seedlings are cared for. A visitor to the site will also notice a large kettle sitting on a grate over rocks, in which banana peels are steeped in heated water -- a brew used to enrich the soil for certain potassium-loving plants, including tomatoes.
The 15-month-old experiment is being closely watched by the local priests who envisioned it, the partners who are making it possible and the St. Francis church community -- watched with hope and prayers that it will allow a greater number of unemployed or underemployed parishioners to "find work that is dignified, honorable, and profitable within their communities," according to a statement on the NanoFarms website.
"The parish of St. Francis of Assisi is in a very poor community in a rich area," said Father Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit priest who grew up in Menlo Park. In 2013, he said, he received a letter from St. Francis pastor Father Lawrence Goode, who wanted to discuss ideas on how to ease the financial hardship of his parishioners.
Together with another friend, St. Patrick's Seminary professor Father George Schultze, they began brainstorming ideas. Because Fr. Fessio is editor of Ignatius Press, which he founded in 1979 to publish Catholic books with the intent of using the revenue to help the disadvantaged, he was able to offer potential funding for a project. They just needed a viable plan.
"We discussed ideas ... such as affordable housing, but not farming," Fr. Fessio recalls of the early talks. "That idea came in the middle of the night."
Along with work in the fields, the new enterprise would include training guild members to install custom gardens in people's backyards. They would include soil amendments to enhance existing soil, organic vegetable seedlings of the customer's choosing, training in biointensive gardening methods and, if desired, regular maintenance by a guild member.
Fr. Fessio came up with the name NanoFarms based on the typical size of a backyard garden that would be installed by guild members. "Nano means a billionth," he noted -- roughly the size of a backyard garden in relation to the largest farm in the world.
But where would this seed of an idea be rooted? That remained to be determined. Then one day, driving on St. Patrick's grounds, Fr. Fessio said, "I noticed all the land, with weeds growing. I said, 'Wait a minute, let's see what we can grow here.'"
Tests showed that the loam and clay soil was "among the most fertile" in the area, he said. There was a well on the property. With the blessing of St. Patrick's Seminary Rector Father Gladstone Stevens, the project was launched.
Ignatius Press and Lighthouse Catholic Media provided the seed money, which pays for guild-member training and for salaries, including that of Regional Manager Brendon Ford.
Produce from the farm is sold at small farmers markets after Sunday Mass at local Catholic churches, including three in Menlo Park: Church of the Nativity (first Sunday of the month); St. Denis (third Sunday); and St. Raymond (fourth Sunday). Produce is also sold or donated to the seminary for daily meals.
NanoFarms is also launching a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program, called NanoFarms Box, in which subscribers can pick up fresh produce weekly or have it delivered.
A banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- an image that inspires deep reverence among the Catholic faithful -- ripples in the breeze at the farm's entrance at St. Patrick's. A mature California pepper tree provides shade for those who work the land, and attracts bees to ensure pollination of the crops that are grown from seed. Three guild members are out in the field one particularly hot July morning: garden manager Ernesto Jasso; his wife, Norma; and their son, Dario, residents of the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park. Ernesto and Norma work the farm full time, except for the two afternoons they travel to Salinas for training in farming practices.
Theirs is an unlikely journey from urban life to farm work. When their parish pastor, Fr. Goode, spoke to them about possibly joining the new NanoFarms guild, "I said, 'Sorry, but we don't know anything about farming,'" Ernesto Jasso recalled.
"But Fr. Goode said, 'That's OK, here is the land,' and gave us a book ... and a video" explaining farming techniques, he said. He added that Fr. Goode and seminary officials "then said 'Now, go ahead' -- and gave the blessing. All the time, they give the blessing."
Part of the farm is planted using biointensive methods that allow more crops to be planted. The remainder is planted using traditional organic and sustainable methods. Although the farm isn't certified as organic -- it's a long and costly process -- the guild farmers use only organic practices.
Edible crops grow alongside plants used for natural pest control, such as alfalfa. The farmers also use lime and garlic to ward off pests.
Compost crops are also part of the mix, used "so that nutrients are returned to the soil," said Ford, the project manager. "We're not just sucking the nutrients out -- we're taking care of our soil."
In addition to the Jassos, Belle Haven resident Sofia Mendoza and her son, Edgar Valladares, also tend the farm as guild members. Mendoza experienced the farming life growing up in Mexico, Ford said.
Do the Jassos, who grew up in big cities in Mexico, enjoy doing work they had to learn from scratch when already in their 40s? "Oh yes," said Norma Jasso, who worked as a university registrar in Mexico before moving to the Bay Area five years ago. "We learn (new things) every day, every day."
Her husband, who worked in finance and sales in Mexico, has also embraced his new vocation.
"It's one of the most honest jobs to work," he said. "I sweat here every day. All the money I have, I have because I worked for it. Before that, I worked in sales. It was good work, but not so honest.
"Here, we don't have to use others to earn a living."
With a sweep of his arm to point out the crop-rich field, he added: "It's amazing. I never thought about one small seed -- how it could turn into all of this. ... I understand more now the power of God."
Since the St. Patrick's-based project was launched, another NanoFarms guild was instituted by a Catholic community in the Chicago area, according to Ford.
Fr. Schultze, the seminary professor, said NanoFarms "is a place where we can hopefully help members with meaningful work and income to meet their needs and provide healthy food for others. It's a nascent attempt at supporting the participants' economic and work needs."
The guild, he said, "is a budding attempt at creating a worker-owned social enterprise. The significance of people working as owners is that they are hopefully going to have greater incentive for the enterprise's success and they will reap the rewards of their effort. ... People find intrinsic meaning in what they do, and I have to believe that farming and producing food for others provides intrinsic meaning; the work itself is food for the soul."
For information about the after-church markets, the farm box program and the backyard garden-installation service, go to nanofarms.com.