STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS COURTESY JACQUE RUPP AND TERA FARM
When the pandemic first hit last March, wreaking havoc on the food industry, it wasn’t just restaurants that were forced to shut down — the agriculture industry also suffered from the sudden drop in demand.
Sheena Vaidyanathan, a teacher in the Los Altos School District, first heard about this impact to farmers through the grapevine, before subsequently ordering her vegetables directly from a local farmer. This purchase was to show him support through the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic — and also for some fresh kale.
The result was her founding of Tera Farm just weeks later, a nonprofit that aims to directly support local farmers by publicizing and marketing their produce to consumers, cutting commercial grocery stores completely out of the picture. By operating with a volunteer-run team, Tera Farm ensures that farmers receive 100% of the profits.
“When they sell [produce] to a wholesaler, these small farmers don’t get the money right away. They get it in six weeks to eight weeks after everything has sold,” Vaidyanathan said. “They are now able to get the money right away. … We sell it in the store and the credit card payments get posted into their bank account.”
When the Tera Farm store is open between Monday afternoon and Wednesday evenings, customers can place orders from a wide selection of locally grown and fully organic vegetables, fruits and herbs.
“[Customers] get to pick exactly what they want. So if they want three bunches of carrots and two pounds of onions, they can get exactly that,” Vaidyanthan said.
Picking up a “farm box” order starts on Saturday mornings at the customer’s choice out of 28 available “neighborhood sites” — houses of volunteers located throughout the Bay Area from Berkeley to Carmel.
Vaidyanathan said she hadn’t expected to enter this type of work, but is now able to apply her expertise in education to her role in the organization.
“As a teacher and educator, I want people to understand where food comes from, so on Wednesdays, I send a newsletter,” Vaidyanathan said. “What does it mean when you grow organic? What happens to the weeds? What are they allowed to put on [organic produce]?”
Through involvement with the nonprofit Kitchen Table Advisors and prior experience gardening as a hobby, Vaidyanathan had “always had a passion” for learning about farming and produce.
“We, living in California, are so fortunate,” Vaidyanathan said. “We have all this amazing produce that can grow right here … but we personally don’t have a connection to it. … We think we just walk into a grocery store, and there is the food.”
For Vaidyanathan, the opportunity to take action on this followed 24 bunches of kale arriving on her doorstep last March — the initial order from a local farmer. When she assessed them to be far too much for just her household, Vaidyanathan decided to reach out to friends offering to share. They soon couldn’t get enough.
“Because of the pandemic, people didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Vaidyanathan said. “And here was something that was literally grown one hour away from them. [My friends] had never seen something that fresh.”
After a couple weeks of acting as the middleman — ordering from the farmer and distributing a steadily increasing quantity of their produce to friends — Vaidyanathan simply “couldn’t stop.”
“Thankfully it was spring break, so I used my spring break to make the ecommerce website and I got it all going,” Vaidyanathan said.
Thanks to the exposure she credits to almost exclusively word-of-mouth advertising within the community, Tera Farm has made a heartwarming, positive impact on farmers and community members alike since it was founded close to one year ago.
The nonprofit collaborates with two main farmers, Maria and Bertha; as a result of the cash flow Tera Farm made possible, the latter was able to complete her long term project of building a greenhouse, allowing her to “move forward in her farming career.”
Vaidyanathan described another story in which neighbors of several years spoke for the very first time upon one inquiring where “all those boxes” — Tera Farm’s weekly farm boxes — had come from.
“Neighbors are talking to neighbors, neighbors are talking to farmers, farmers are also talking to other farmers now because they are trying to help each other with this,” Vaidyanathan said. “I think [Tera Farm] is a really wonderful community.”
After all, this nonprofit’s mission is right there in its name. “Tera” is a Hindi word that translates to “your.”
“The hope is that each one of us will consider that this is your farm,” Vaidyanathan said. “You are involved and invested in where your food comes from.”