‘NanoFarms’ co-ops put ownership in workers’ hands

Ernesto Jasso says working as part of his parish’s NanoFarms USA sustainable garden co-op is probably the best job he has ever had.

“I had other jobs, and I earned good money, but I think none is so beautiful as this job,” said Jasso, who with his wife, Marcella, is among the five co-op members from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in East Palo Alto, California. The co-op is installing small sustainable garden plots as its primary product, thus the name: NanoFarms.

St. Francis is a mostly poor, Latino parish surrounded by the wealthy enclaves and corporations of Silicon Valley. Residents, many of whom are recent immigrants, are employed largely in low-wage positions and are burdened by rising rents and housing prices driven by the area’s booming tech and bio-tech economy.

NanoFarms is an effort to apply the Catholic social justice and economic principles of distributism — as advocated by Catholic thinkers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in the early 20th century — to modern-day income disparity, said Father Lawrence Goode, the pastor at St. Francis. “The economy has not been nice to us,” he said. “We’re kind of the ones at the end of the line.”

Explaining the co-op

NanoFarms is a Catholic faith-based nonprofit that sells and installs sustainable produce gardens. The group’s website says it is “dedicated to assisting the formation of parish-based and worker-owned cooperatives ... [which] grow and sell local produce and build backyard gardens known as ‘NanoFarms.’”

The members of the co-op are trained how to set up and maintain these sustainable gardens for homeowners who want fresh produce from their own backyards. For an 8-by-10 foot garden, the homeowner pays around $900 to the co-op, which comes in, prepares the soil and plants the crops. For an additional fee, the co-op can maintain the garden on a weekly or monthly basis, said Brendon Ford, NanoFarms West Coast manager.

NanoFarms’ first cooperative is the St. Francis of Assisi East Palo Alto co-op.

NanoFarms “is working through the capitalist system for people to own what they do,” said Jesuit Father George Schultze, professor at St. Patrick Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, where the organization began.

“The core of this is spiritual — the understanding that we are all interconnected, that we help each other become more fully who we are,” Father Schultze said.

Organization’s origins

NanoFarms got its start a year ago at St. Patrick Seminary & University, where, with the blessings of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and seminary rector Sulpician Father Gladstone Stevens, a pilot garden that doubles as a training ground was planted. Now, bumper crops of broccoli, Swiss chard, kale and strawberries are being harvested from the 10,000 square foot garden. Co-op members are selling the produce at local parishes.

“I was actually surprised we yielded so much the first year,” said Father Stevens, who hopes his seminarians will take the concept of the co-op and the idea of gardens to their parishes once they are ordained. The gardens also supply produce for the seminarians.

In the Chicago area, Lighthouse Catholic Media is working with St. Rita of Cascia in Aurora, Illinois, said Mark Middendorf, president of Lighthouse, which is paying much of the startup costs. With the much shorter Midwestern growing season, the project just kicked off, but it is already garnering a lot of attention from parishioners of various income levels interested in participating in the co-op.

“People liked the idea of supporting this and getting the benefit of an organic garden in their homes,” Middendorf said.

The first time the idea was promoted at St. Rita’s, 15 families signed up to have the co-op come build and plant raised-bed gardens at about $500 each, Middendorf said. He hopes to branch out to other parishes.

“It is one attempt at creating work and income — among others,” said Father Schultze, who said it is important for the co-ops to maintain their parish affiliation and their spiritual basis. For instance, the Jassos are leaders of the St. Francis of Assisi respect life group, he noted.

“I see the NanoFarms’ effort as a means of contributing to the income of families, and that ownership of one’s work is a worthy goal. It encourages initiative and personal investment.”

Goal going forward

 Distributism places the family at the center and includes the idea of co-ops where workers own the means of production and share in the profits within the framework of a capitalist economic system. It comes out of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“On Capital and Labor”), released in 1891 in response to the inhumanity of unregulated 19th-century capitalism, the advent of socialism and atheistic Marxism and the rise of trade unions. The encyclical is the foundation of modern Catholic social justice teaching.

“My experience is that if people want to improve, they have to have an economic source of well-being. This is a small attempt at that. It is doing it from a spiritual basis,” said Father Schultze, who brainstormed with Father Goode and Guadalupe Associates/Ignatius Press founder Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio before coming up with NanoFarms. Lighthouse Catholic Media loved the idea and signed on in the Midwest.

Father Fessio said he hopes for a national movement of parish-based worker-owned cooperatives.

Guadalupe Associates is funding the startup costs of NanoFarms, including paying Ford’s salary and for training in the specialized farming techniques for Ernesto and Marcella Jasso, who are sharing what they learn with the other members of the St. Francis co-op, Ford said. In Illinois, Lighthouse and Ignatius are donating the cost of materials for the first 25 gardens installed, and a Lighthouse employee is a trained horticulturist who is sharing his knowledge, Middendorf said.

The idea of selling the installation of organically tilled produce gardens for households was a middle-of the-night brainwave by Father Fessio last April.

He said he woke up with the thought: “All of these people on the peninsula [near San Francisco] are interested in sustainable agriculture. What if we trained some of the people who don’t have professional skills to install little organic gardens? What do we call it? NanoFarms. A billionth.”

“The largest farm in the world is thousands of acres, one-billionth of that is several hundred feet: a NanoFarm,” Father Fessio said.

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.