As you drive along Highway 101, between Los Osos Valley Road and the SLO Promenade shopping center, you’ll notice a large expanse of farmland to the west. The southernmost 20 acres of that parcel has recently taken root as San Luis Obispo’s first urban farm — appropriately dubbed City Farm.
The farm occupies the city-owned Calle Joaquin Agricultural Reserve project. As part of a San Luis Obispo policy to maintain production on a certain percentage of prime agricultural land, City Farm was leased to the non-profit Central Coast Grown (CCG).
As part of that management agreement, CCG can sublease the property to various entities and has also recently “partnered with (nearby) Pacific Beach High School to install a garden that will serve as the basis for the school’s new agriculture-based curriculum this fall,” explained Jenna Smith, executive director of Central Coast Grown.
In the summer of 2013, the largest sublease — 16 acres — went to Nicola Allegretta’s Nico Farms. As Smith explained, “Central Coast Grown’s vision for City Farm is that it serves as a resource for the community — a place to learn about agriculture and engage with our local food system. We selected Nico Farms as City Farm’s first partner because they share City Farm’s values of community engagement and sustainable food production.”
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If Allegretta’s name sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because you’re already acquainted with the fresh cuisine at his Mama’s Meatball restaurant and Haute Catering business in San Luis Obispo.
A native of Italy, Allegretta grew up on a farm and is relishing the opportunity to reconnect so integrally with the land.
“For me, this is like a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about this for many years, and we’re willing to work hard.”
Darian Flowers, a prep chef at the restaurant who also works at the farm, noted that “for me, it’s great getting involved in this part of the process.”
Though the acreage is prime ag land, getting it amenable for row crops has indeed taken some effort.
Farm manager Derron Dike explained that the property was in hay production, so the dirt was fairly compacted. And because “we’re growing according to organic standards (though not yet certified), we’re still battling a lot of weeds and pests.”
Among the crops that Nico Farms is producing and/or getting ready to produce are: artichokes, basil, beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, fennel, kale, leeks, parsley, peppers and tomatoes. The farm staff is doing all their own seed starts, an approach that will allow them to play with some specialty crops from time to time.
Because Nico Farms is still in its startup stages, the infrastructure is being built as funds and time allow. (Allegretta noted that donations/trade of either are always welcome.) One thing currently lacking is refrigeration, but the upside is that the produce is harvested first thing in the morning and then delivered as soon as possible — about as fresh as fresh can be.
Allegretta is using much of the produce at his restaurant, which is currently serving as the farm’s commissary kitchen when needed. However, Nico Farms also provides vegetables and herbs to a local community supported agriculture group, two food stores and several other restaurants as well.
“We’re in the process of getting our farmers market certification too,” said Dike, “so we’re hoping to do some markets and work with some more restaurants and stores. There’s so much that can be done, but being sustainable depends on support from our community.”