Meet Urban Farmer Richard Tom
Despite almost 20 years as an attorney for a local utility, these days, Richard Tom introduces himself as an urban farmer. “People want to talk to me when they hear that,” he says. “Everybody has an interest in food in one way or another.” Richard has taken over the management of the Mott Street Urban Farm in Boyle Heights, and it’s been a real crash course in urban farming. “I’ve had a home garden for over 20 years,” he says, “but I’d never grown beets or fava beans or Brussels sprouts, and nothing at this scale.” He’s proving to be a natural though; some of the beets are the size of your head!
Last spring, Richard was figuring out his next chapter. He saw an LACGC Facebook post about an upcoming harvest organized by Mary Tokita, and he came down to check it out. Even though he travels 10 miles from South Pasadena, he was immediately hooked. He is also largely on his own. “The biggest challenge has been getting the neighborhood residents engaged. Volunteers are encouraged to come and work and as a reward, to harvest whatever they want for themselves, but it’s not always easy to get them coming back week after week.”
The farm is a different model from a typical community garden. Instead of each farmer paying a fee for an individual plot and harvesting exclusively from that plot, there are a few very large plots, planted intensively for maximum yield. Distribution in this food desert is still a work in progress – local farmer’s markets, bodegas, restaurants, and non-profits are all avenues being explored. Ideally, the farm will produce enough to provide the neighborhood with fresh, organic vegetables and to cover its costs. If they really get production up, they may even be able to create some jobs. Richard’s latest scheme is to plant hops for LA’s growing craft beer scene. “I’m thinking an ‘East LA IPA’ could be great marketing for the farm,” he says, “and build a positive brand for Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles just like Brooklyn Heights and New York.”
The bottom line is the farm needs to be financially sustainable, and locally supported. “I think our best bet for developing community is to establish ‘anchors’ who live nearby. Probably older people with a little extra time on their hands who know a lot of local people and can help get them involved.”
In the meantime, Richard is there at least twice a week, keeping the farm humming with help from environmental designer Cora Neil and Megan Lim, who works in the local schools. He doesn’t mind the commitment. “Selfishly, I feel this project makes for a more interesting life for me,” he says. “I find that giving ends up paying you back more in the long run. Who knows, it might even lead to people asking me to do legal work for them!”