Giving by Growing”

Urban Farmer Joni Albers on a More Sustainable Approach to Growing Food

Businesses, with an unwavering focus on the bottom line, often value quantity over quality. When it comes to our food, consumers pay the price for that shortsighted approach.

Joni Albers grew up in rural Kansas, where agriculture was a way of life. The early influence of her dairy-farming grandparents helped shape her into what she calls a “shepherd of the land.” Her grandmother signed her up for the youth development organization 4-H when she was six years old; and her mother helped her create her first garden, which produced prize-winning green beans that first year. Albers describes her hands-on learning experience as foundational for what she has achieved today.

A few years after earning a bachelor’s degree in Colorado, Albers moved to New York, where much of her work centered on technology and digital media. But there was no space for her to garden in the Big Apple. After 12 years she relocated to the Los Angeles area and, finding a promising half-acre (0.2 hectare) lot, dug right in.

Reconnecting with her agricultural roots and employing regenerative farming methods, Albers started Hungry Gardens Urban Farm. Her concern for the environment informed her careful development of all aspects of the farm, while her technology training helped her reach out to customers via social media and websites. She added scannable tags to help educate people about the produce and the process. Her first forays into local farmers markets were immediate sellouts, which encouraged her to expand. Soon she was growing 85 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, adding mushrooms, microgreens, and rare and unusual produce that wasn’t typically found in stores. This caught the attention of several well-known chefs, and her business and reputation blossomed.

The results of her efforts go well beyond designing a visually stunning, sustainable farm; Albers also hosts educational workshops and events for adults and children. In addition, she offers culinary education and experiences and grows produce for a local retirement center—all part of what she calls “giving by growing.”

As she continues to refine and expand her business, Albers focuses on restoring life through complete cycles and is often called on to help balance those cycles in upscale home and restaurant gardens as well as urban gardens.

Vision’s Alice Abler, herself an avid gardener, spoke with Albers about her work and her approach to growing nutrient-dense food sustainably.

Joni Albers is founder of the Hungry Gardens Urban Farm in Sun Valley, California.

AA In a relatively short time, you’ve done some remarkable things, including reclaiming several “wasteland” plots and turning them into productive farms.

JA Yes, I’ve taken a vacant lot, where a home had been torn down and the land left empty—no water, so nothing was growing there for at least three and a half years before I took it over—and now it’s very fertile. It’s probably the most fertile ground in the [San Fernando] Valley. We’ve added a lot of compost and organic material.

When I first went there, you could dig as deep a hole as you wanted and you couldn’t find a single earthworm. If you go there now and just barely scratch the surface, there will be an infinite number of them. It’s a good indicator of the soil health, which really comes down to what’s living in the soil. There’s dirt, and then there’s soil—a living entity with lots of microbial life, both bacterial and fungal. It’s really about giving the right inputs to let them thrive, and by nature’s processes, you end up with the most perfect local native mineral profile that you could ask for, because all of those bacteria and all of those fungi produce the correct minerals and nutrients—all the things we need. It’s far better than adding fertilizer. You can create it naturally just by adding compost and water.

AA What about manure?

JA I believe in natural cycles. Animals play a part in nature, and taking that aspect out definitely has a detrimental effect. The diversity of both plants and animals is critical to the success of the ecosystem.

All of those systems and processes interact with each other, and that’s what creates all the living systems around us. As soon as you take something out or put something unnaturally back in, you disrupt those cycles. So it’s all harmonious, and I wish it were simple. It’s not. It’s very complex. We as humans don’t fully understand the complexity of it and aren’t able to really track it well.

There is no such thing as natural monocrops. It doesn’t occur if you take humans out of the equation and just let it go.”

Joni Albers

AA It seems like things have really taken a turn since about the 1950s, by many accounts the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Since then we’ve seen an increase in so many problems: climate change, pollution, flooding, deforestation, species extinction, greenhouse gases, ocean acidification. Much of this is reaching a tipping point now, it seems, where some people are making dire predictions of us not being able to pull out of it. What can be done? Will the answer come from the governmental level?

JA Well, I’m a little bit cynical in that. I think humans will wait till it’s already too far to fix it before we actually do anything.

AA Many people seem apathetic. They think, “It doesn’t affect me right now.”

JA It already is affecting them, but they don’t see the reciprocal effects of it quite yet. They will soon. I think our food systems are going to start taking a significant hit. When you have temperatures increasing, migratory patterns being interrupted and topsoil being depleted—things that are absolutely critical to the agricultural environment—they don’t just come back overnight. There isn’t a quick solution. But it’s so much easier to fix the problem now than when we get to that point.

And so, yes, I do think it is fixable. It requires massive regulation, but in a capitalistic society, government change takes time. We’re still trying to learn how to regulate the Internet, and it’s been around for my entire adult life.

And now we have AI. I’m trying to be optimistic that we will manage AI in a way that it actually has benefits, such as understanding nature at a more critical level. We don’t have the data processing currently, but when we move into quantum computing, we would be able to process and track so much more data that would then give us a picture. Right now we only look at weather in an immediate area with certain indicators. But if you’re taking in all the global indicators at the same time, overlaying it with plants and animals and migratory patterns and things that give us data, and utilize the data, there’s so much that could be learned. So I think that anybody working in the system, with AI tracking natural patterns, has the potential to make a really big shift.

But we have to get there. And that’s really about data collection and processing and somebody even having an interest in doing it. I don’t have a lot of hope for the government side of things in that they just are so slow. It takes too long to implement regulation.

And then there’s also every lobbyist and every fighter against it, because it hurts their business. It comes down to money rather than doing the right thing.

I don’t know if there’s a way to get there without a complete human reset. It takes incredible leadership. And I don’t see that in our immediate future, if I’m being honest.”

Joni Albers

AA You mentioned capitalism; it’s all about the bottom line. So if it isn’t making money for someone right now, why are they going to be motivated to do it?

JA In COVID, when there was a shortage of test kits and personal protective equipment, the government said that if anybody was willing to put their manufacturing business on pause to manufacture these things, they would buy them. Switching to “Who’s willing to figure out devices to take carbon out of the air?” shifts our focus. But that might be a pipe dream and an overoptimistic viewpoint.

We have created a society that values food for cheapness and not quality and health. Why is fast food cheaper than any other form? It offers zero nutrition and actually is detrimental to your health—and we know that. Yet we still support that culture instead of trying to support local farmers who are actually providing real nutrition for people so that health-care costs go down. But actually we don’t want that, because then insurance companies don’t make money. It’s such a cyclical problem, and it requires a massive shift.

Joni Albers is founder of the Hungry Gardens Urban Farm in Sun Valley, California.

AA Everyone wants cheap food without realizing they pay a much higher price in the end.

JA I have this conversation a lot with people at the farmers market who give me a hard time about my pricing. I tell them that when they buy a tomato at the local grocery store, it will probably have been grown in a hothouse with synthetic fertilizer. It will be grown out of season. It will have no microbiome living on it. As far as I’m concerned, it has no flavor. You can pay for that tomato, or you can pay ever so slightly more for one that has actual nutrition and tastes amazing. You use it because you’re excited about it. You don’t end up throwing it away. And you’ve gotten the gut health and all the microbiome from that tomato because it was grown in living soil instead of nutrient-dense water that’s synthetically fertilized. You just have to decide what you care about.

Also, I’m not willing to pay my workers subpar wages; I want them to have a living wage. You can’t pay migrant workers almost nothing just so you can make more money. That’s just not right.

AA So ethics and morality come into play, both on the consumer level and in production.

JA I think people are a lot more savvy about that now. And the younger generation is a lot more aware of it than some of the older generation, because it affects them so much more critically. They’re just more aware of those things, whereas from the ’50s on, it’s been all about how much cheaper can you get it.

AA How can consumers help bring about a change? We hear a lot about voting with our dollars.

JA The farmers market is a good example of voting with your dollar. You can vote with your dollar by choosing the farmer that’s representative of what you value. One of the focuses for my business is on the unusual, rare varieties, because I’m all about biodynamics and biodiversity and not just one kind of eggplant, tomato or cucumber.

When you go to the store, it’s always the same variety. It’s grown for mass production: they get the most from it and it costs the least. I don’t grow that way. I grow for color, for flavor, for experience.”

Joni Albers

So when you visit the farmers market, we have the most amazing display. And people say, “I’ve never seen these before. What kind of cucumbers are these? I’ve never seen an eggplant that looks like this. There are orange eggplants?” There’s this excitement around what it is. All the other vendors look at what I’m doing and the excitement and the lines at my stand, and they say, “Whatever she’s doing, I need to do more of that.” Farmers markets used to do what I do now. They’ve gotten away from it because people were choosing the thing that they knew and that was in the grocery store. “Why is this tomato a different color than what I’m used to?” So they would go with what they knew. At least a percentage of the population has shifted now to try, or want, the different.

AA You’ve built a business growing crops regeneratively, organically; and you’re supplying some of the top chefs and finest restaurants in the area. But you also say you want to give back to the community. How do you do that?

JA That’s one of the reasons I do the farmers market. It’s maybe not the most profitable thing, but I enjoy it so much. The experience that people have when they’re there is what makes me do it, because it really gives people an awareness and starts to break them out of their shell. It gives them the opportunity to make these changes that we’re talking about. It’s an educational experience. I like people to be excited about their food, because it gives a different meaning to food.

I’ve also worked with a couple of youth organizations that are doing different things. The kids get to experience the curriculum. They have one session on pollinators, and they get to find all the pollinators on the farm—praying mantises, different native bees in the area, butterflies—everything you would find on a farm. They did a seed-saving session. Hands-on learning is always the most influential, especially for kids.

I think about people my own age who grew up in the city and have almost no awareness of their environment. They don’t know what those birds or bugs are. They aren’t aware that we’re in a certain season and that certain things are flowering or budding. So education is absolutely critical to this hope of change. If we’re going to make it, the kids are going to be it.

AA What effect does our changing climate have on these natural, seasonal cycles?

JA We’re seeing that climate change has a lot of effects. One of the things I’m seeing is a big change in the time frames of when things are hatching. We had harlequin beetles on the kale at a certain time every year. They descend, and it’s like the harlequin beetle apocalypse. They’re everywhere. Typically, certain things prey on those bugs. But if the beetles’ cycles are off, then they don’t match up with the cycles of the other insects that consume them. It all starts to get out of balance. Add pesticides to the equation, and everything is thrown off.

AA Do you have any suggestions for how people can educate themselves about some of the issues you’ve discussed and become more aware of how their food is grown?

JA The Internet is a wealth of knowledge. If you really want to learn more about this, you don’t need to go to school for it. You can watch different sources and get really comprehensive information. And there’s a lot of training out there too. I recently spoke with an apprentice program out of the University of California–Davis. They will train you on all aspects of farming. It’s a state-subsidized grant program; you don’t pay to go there. So there are opportunities out there.

I will say farming is not for everybody. It’s really hard work, but if you’re willing to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty and get up early in the morning, that doesn’t matter anymore. You do it because you love it and enjoy it. That’s the driving factor behind the Gardens, for sure—you’ve got to love it.

Farming is not something that you make a lot of money in. Why do basketball players make millions of dollars, and some schoolteachers can’t even pay their bills? Probably people would call me a socialist for this, but I don’t understand it. There are two things in life that you can’t live without: food and water. If people are providing these essentials for you, you need to make sure they’re taken care of.

It’s a win-win: we get to save the environment (and eat well), and the growers get to make a living wage.