John Diodati isn’t optimistic about the beer growing in his front lawn.
What was once a small parcel of land filled with crab grass now hosts a small crop of barley, hop rhizome and sugar beets. Yet, while the crops are growing, they might not be growing fast enough for September’s block party.
“I feel a lot of pressure to have beer at the party,” he said. “Or it’s not going to be a party.”
That party will feature eight Morro Bay families celebrating their unique farming project by eating and drinking the things they’ve been growing since April. The families — who collectively call themselves The Beach Tractors — are competing with nine other Western neighborhoods in Sunset Magazine’s One Block Feast Contest.
Diodati first learned of the contest after meeting two Sunset editors at last year’s Savor the Central Coast wine and food event. After talking to the editors about his band of friendly neighbors, they suggested he apply for the contest, which challenges neighborhoods to grow gardens and raise farm animals while working as a team.
"I think everybody’s gotten to know each other a lot better,” said Jolie Ditmore, one of the neighbors. “And I think we feel a lot more part of the neighborhood than we did before.”
That neighborhood, just north of the Cloisters park, used to consist of mostly seniors and vacation rental tourists that typically kept to themselves. But, beginning around five years ago, the neighborhood saw more younger, permanent residents move in. And since they were roughly the same age, many bonded.
The families surfed together, camped together and spent time at the beach together. They started the 4th of July Bike Parade, and they recently won a neighborhood chili cook-off.
“This team, in a way, embodies the experience of the Central Coast,” said Sunset food editor Margo True, noting that the neighbors seemed happy and prideful of their community.
Soon the eight families — 15 adults, 16 children — assembled and mapped out their strategy. They agreed to plant seeds, raise chickens for meat and eggs and fish for local rock cod. While some of the neighbors had little to no gardening experience, others were better prepared. “Chicken” Dave Muffy, a teacher, already had a pretty impressive garden, so he would be the key green thumb adviser. Meanwhile, Diodati has a degree in crop science from Cal Poly, and Josh Beckett, another neighbor, is a winemaker.
But none of them had done anything like this.
While Diodati is exploring new avenues with his front yard beer project, his backyard now features potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, onions and two goats on loan. Meanwhile, neighbor Dave Burton is raising chickens, which will become barbecued chicken, while growing peppers, broccoli and tomatoes. And Muff’s already impressive garden — which began with a bit of garlic a few years ago — has expanded to include strawberries, artichokes, wheat, figs, asparagus, avocados and more.
Even the kids are involved, the neighbors having built a special garden for the youngest participants.
“They definitely got excited when we first harvested radishes — which they don’t actually like,” Burton said.
The kid garden has now become somewhat of a neighborhood park, where the children play while their parents mingle.
Even non-participants have chipped in. When Neal Maloney, owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Co., heard about the contest, he donated 750 oyster seeds. So now the neighbors are paddling into the estuary weekly, shaking up oyster bags, which will help them grow in time for the feast.
“We really wanted to sell our proximity to the ocean and the challenge of small lots,” said Diodati, who, along with other neighbors, is blogging about their progress on the Sunset website.
While Sunset editors liked the ocean connection, Morro Bay’s wind and chilly climate also pose difficulties. You won’t find wine grapes or oranges, which are better for warmer climates, at this feast.
“I almost find myself looking forward to next year or to the end so I can say, ‘Okay, these are things that I know I can grow in Morro Bay, and these are things I know I can buy at the Farmers Market that someone else can grow in Templeton,’” said Christine Johnson, who has planted a dozen different items for the feast in her small yard.
The contest, as a whole, has spurred creative ideas, True said. One team recently decided to raise shrimp. Another is growing sunflower seeds for sunflower oil.
“Every time someone sends in an update, I find my jaw just dropping,” she said.
While the winning group will receive $500, that money won’t cover what they’ve put into the project.
“Sunset calls it the One Block Feast, but some of us are calling it the One Million Dollar Feast,” Diodati said. “I joke that I could fly to France and back and bring an ounce of goat cheese cheaper than it’s going to cost to make it with these goats.”
But, of course, he knows that’s not the point. Really, it’s all about getting in touch with the soil and bringing communities and families together.
“Yes, this is certainly about gardening and food,” True said. “But it’s about so much more.”
It’s about community, she said, having a connection with the natural world, taking pride in your efforts and eating healthy food.
For Diodati it provides an excuse to do something simple but worthwhile.
“This has caused me to slow down and stare at the ground and pick weeds with my son.”