Growing a community: Morro Bay team wins Sunset contest

A Morro Bay team won Sunset magazine’s ‘One Block Party Contest,’ the results of which were announced at last weekend’s Savor the Central Coast event at the Santa Margarita Ranch.
A Morro Bay team won Sunset magazine’s ‘One Block Party Contest,’ the results of which were announced at last weekend’s Savor the Central Coast event at the Santa Margarita Ranch. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

The day before their once-in-a-lifetime feast, eight families in Morro Bay exchanged a flurry of emails and text messages.

Collectively known as Team Beach Tractors — a group of neighbors selected to participate in Sunset Magazine’s One Block Party Contest — they still had to coordinate final plans before unveiling the fruits of their labor. And with months of work coming to a head, pressure was mounting.

“Definitely tensions were high and everyone was tired,” said Christine Johnson, one of the participants. Still, she added, everyone managed to keep cool. “No one lost it. No one snapped at anyone else.”

That ability to stay calm — plus creative ideas and meticulous planning — paid off. The group beat out nine other neighborhoods across the country in a contest that championed both gardening and community bonding.

Inspired by Sunset’s book, “The One-Block Feast,” the contest challenged neighborhoods to grow their own food through the summer. Teams were encouraged to post their progress on Sunset’s website. The contest ended with each team fixing a feast made from homegrown food.

The winners were announced at Sunset Savor the Central Coast wine and food event last weekend.

From the outset, it was clear that each team had taken the task seriously. One group had a cow. Another had a beehive. And a third team even attempted to grow sunflowers for sunflower oil.

But Team Beach Tractors was the most ambitious — even though some of the neighbors had no experience gardening.

“What impressed us was the arc of the learning curve,” said Margo True, food editor at Sunset.

Already a tight-knit group, the Tractors might not have been the best gardeners, but they were organized and committed.

“We embraced and wanted to try anything we thought would work, even if we had no clue it would work,” said John Diodati, the team leader.

In addition to the slew of vegetables they grew, they raised chickens for meat, kept goats for milk and raised 700 oysters. They even got the kids involved, launching a children’s garden that included squash, cucumbers, broccoli, cherry tomatoes and stevia for lemonade.

“We wanted to create a parallel experience for the kids,” Johnson said, noting that the older kids became leaders of the youth garden.

To coordinate the project, the group set up a website to communicate progress, needs and vacation times. As word of their project spread, other neighbors began to take notice.

“We’d have people drive by our houses and yell, ‘Go, Beach Tractors!’” Diodati said.

Neal Maloney of Morro Bay Oyster Co. donated 750 oyster seeds. Leonard Gentieu invited the team to have their feast on his 72-foot yacht, Papagallo II, for little cost. And various others neighbors began offering help in small ways.

“The thing that clinched it for us is they really affected the whole neighborhood,” True said. “It really galvanized the neighborhood and set an example for other people.”

When the team boarded the boat — a day after serving a separate feast made from the kids garden — they brought homegrown onions, garlic, eggs, potatoes, oysters, goat cheese, sea salt, chicken, cod, ceviche and wheat rolls.

“The food surpassed my expectations,” Diodati said.

A Sunset magazine photographer spent three days chronicling the feast for an article to be published in the magazine’s April issue. And for winning, the team will be awarded $500, which it will donate to a local charity.

But even more worthy, Johnson said, is that they learned to grow organic food — something the team members will continue to do, though less intensely — gave the kids lasting memories and formed even stronger bonds with their neighbors.

“We just feel so much closer through the experience,” she said. “I’ve never had such a comfort level with a neighborhood.”