Seven years ago, a bounty of blackberries and a few generous neighbors inspired Gail Murphy to become one of the driving forces in Altadena’s local food renaissance. Murphy is the founder of one of the country’s largest produce sharing organizations, RIPE Altadena, and has some terrific thoughts on food, community and creating your own edible neighborhood exchange.
What’s the importance of maintaining a local, seasonal and environmentally sustainable diet?
I don’t think you can get better quality, taste or nutrition outside of hyper local foods. I look at how past generations have lived longer and longer, and I believe a lot of it comes from their wholesome, local, full-of-real-nutrients food.
My mom, for example, grew up on a farm. She’s in her 80’s and, even though food has changed through her lifetime, she had such a good foundation for nutrition in her youth. These days, we have so little nutrients in our food, and our soil is so depleted, that I believe we’ll start dying younger.
You founded RIPE Altadena nearly six years ago. How did the idea for a free community produce exchange come about?
We live on a ¾ acre lot – which is huge for the city – and have enjoyed growing blackberries. One summer they were ripe and we still had some frozen from the previous year. So I thought, let’s have a berry stand. It caused a lot of excitement. Some neighbors even wanted to see the actual berry patch and talk about what was growing in their backyard.
Two things struck me from that berry stand. First, one of the neighbors who visited went to her backyard, brought back avocados and just gave them to me. I was touched because we’d just sold her some berries and here she was just giving me produce from her yard. It was awesome.
Another stopped by and said, ‘You just have to see my plums. They get ripe all at once, and when they do come by and get some.’ That, combined with the fact that I had so much fruit and hated taking it to the trash, just kept gnawing at me. I didn’t start the group thinking, ‘I want to have the best produce available.’ I started it with the idea of ‘Well, look at all this fruit that’s falling on my ground. Someone else should have some, too.’
How do local residents become a part of RIPE Altadena? Is there a minimum expected contribution at the group’s regular exchanges?
There is only one requirement: grow something or raise something. I also have members who make granola and bake bread. While I’m not adverse to having members who aren’t able to grow large amounts of produce, my idea in saying you have to plant something is that, when you put a seed or a tree in the ground, it will return more than you imagined. If you just put a few lettuce seeds in the ground, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll receive.
There is also no counting the beans, so to speak, and no minimum. People who bring a little bit tend to take a little bit. It’s been amazing because of that generosity and self-regulation.
Does RIPE Altadena trade only in organically raised and produced goods?
We highly recommend that everything be organic. We are willing to share with you how to garden without chemicals, but we don’t have any garden police.
How has RIPE Altadena evolved since its founding, and what lessons have you learned along the way?
I look at our group as the old-fashioned, talking to your neighbor over the fence sort of concept. I started with about eight people, and at first it was just us saying come on over. It was nice because we got to meet our neighbors, visit their homes and share ideas. From there it grew. Today we have roughly 230 members and meet in the local park.
Another way we’ve evolved is our community referral list, where you can ask about things like finding a good plumber or where to buy hay – which can be a tricky thing in the city. One of the members even wanted to build a local Wiki page about plants and trees that grow well in our area. So now we’re getting that started.
The members also voted to change our name to a share fair rather than a crop swap. We wanted to convey that we were freely sharing our excess bounty. Some people were requiring fellow members to convince them why they should trade. We are totally not about that. We’re about, ‘Here, I’ve been blessed with this. Would you like some, too?’
RIPE Altadena now offers various classes from Indian bread making to tree grafting tutorials. How has adding an educational element impacted the organization?
The members really enjoy it. It started with people asking questions like, where can I buy tomato cages? Someone else would say, I have this great method for building them, come over and we can make them. I thought, well, let’s just have classes and learn things from each other. Most of the time they start from what someone in the group already knows, or what several people in the group really want to know.
We’ve since had basic canning tutorials, and just had our first pressure canning class for things like soups, beans and tuna. We also have classes on square foot gardening, seed saving, using acorns for food, etc. Sometimes we’re lucky and get people like Brad Lancaster to speak on harvesting natural, native foods.
In previous interviews you’ve spoken about how developing RIPE Altadena has expanded not only your garden, but also your community. How did you see the local community grow and change as RIPE Altadena added more members?
Through RIPE Altadena, people have really been empowered and encouraged to pursue their passions. One member was interested in herbs and has gone on to have her own herbal company. I also had a member move to the area who wanted to start a farmers market. That underground market grew into the official Altadena Farmers Market.
Newspapers and media even talk about Altadena as being a food oasis or a place where food is really happening. I like to think maybe that’s one reason our real estate prices are starting to catch up to Pasadena. People are looking at Altadena as a place that’s interesting, that has community. I think in an indirect way we might have even improved our own value of living.
Altadena is lucky to be located in such a prime agricultural area that produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. What are some of the more unique or exotic varieties that make appearance at your monthly share fairs?
We get introduced to lots of different things. This year, we’ve had jujubes, Egyptian Walking Onion, Buddha’s Fingers, kaffir lime leaves, bitter melon, winter melon and sweet potato shoots. Every so often people will also make things like homemade goat cheese or grape pie so everyone can have a little taste and enjoy them as a group.
What are some of the unexpected or unanticipated benefits of belonging to a produce exchange organization?
The most surprising and largest benefit has been growing community and feeling like you belong. I can drive or walk anywhere and at least know a couple of people just because I’ve been to their place and know what they’re growing. I’ve never lived anywhere like Mayberry, and this is the closest I’ve ever felt. It’s wonderful.
RIPE now has offshoots in several neighboring cities. What advice do you have for communities who want to begin their own produce exchange?
Just do it. Start with a few friends and it will grow and evolve naturally. Also, don’t take on too much. Pair up with other members to see what they would like. You could have all kinds of great ideas, like composting or rainwater catchment classes, but if that’s not where everyone else is at then it won’t work.
Also, be a good example. When I started, I tried to make sure everyone got something from the share and had a good, positive experience. Plus, once you get to know people, they become your neighbor and not just someone you’re giving produce to. It’s a very big community. I thought it was going to be a produce sharing organization, but I ended up with a community on my plate.