SANTA CRUZ -- Pioneers of the slow food movement are joining chefs, farmers and other supporters of the UC Santa Cruz Farm to raise money for a plan to construct cabins for apprentices who live in tents while they learn the fine points of organic agriculture.
Berkeley's famed restaurant, Chez Panisse, created by sustainable food guru Alice Waters, is among the businesses hosting benefits this month to raise money for the six-month-long Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture, which has trained more than 1,200 organic farmers since the 1970s. Locally, Gabriella Cafe and Ristorante Avanti are among those donating a portion of sales to the Grow a Farmer campaign to keep free housing for students. Most students could not afford to rent a place in town.
"If I had to pay for housing while I was here, there is no way I could have done it," said Wisconsin farmer Claire Strader, a 2000 graduate of the program who was a top vote-getter for the online competition at WhiteHouseFarmer.com allowing her to propose the White House hire a full-time farmer.
Although she learned beekeeping and orchard management at the farm, the experience that has stuck with her the most was the communal cooking, eating and overall sense of camaraderie built among fellow students.
"That was a big piece for me," said Strader, who visited UCSC last weekend to speak on an environmental panel during Alumni Weekend.
The university has approved plans to build eight four-room tent cabins to accommodate 32 apprentices near the site of the tents, which sit on one side of the 25-acre farm. Apprentices have been allowed to pitch their own tents for two decades, but now the university wants the farm to complete its 10-year plan to build permanent housing.
"For many reasons, most of which involve the health and safety of the participants, the campus informed representatives of the apprenticeship program that its residential housing needed to be upgraded," UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said.
Burns said several campus departments -- Physical Planning and Construction, Environmental Health and Safety, the Fire Department and the Division of Social Sciences -- decided the tents had to go after this year. And he noted that part of the project includes new parking for participants with disabilities and other accessibility improvements.
Ann Lindsey, apprenticeship development coordinator for UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, is delighted by how quickly supporters have come to the farm's aid. She said graduates and other backers have planned events in Los Angeles, Portland and elsewhere.
"The outpouring of support for this project has been so heartening," she said, adding that she has received money from small-scale farmers who "I know don't have any money."
Chez Panisse will donate a portion of proceeds raised Wednesday to the campaign. Iron Chef competitor David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos has donated dinners for four to the campaign's two highest individual donors.
In the Santa Cruz area, Ristorante Avanti will donate a portion of proceeds raised Monday and Gabriella Cafe will do the same May 13. New Leaf Community Markets will donate 5 percent of profits from all five of its stores May 28.
Cindy Geise, who has co-owned Avanti's with husband Paul for 22 years, said she is glad to help the farm.
"We have grown more and more to rely on local farmers for our produce and some of our meat needs," she said. "We're getting things picked hours before that never went into cold storage or traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, burning up fuel, to get here."
The final fundraising push to build the 22-feet-by-22-feet cabins -- to be built with milled redwood from campus trees felled for construction projects -- began in December. Lindsey said $160,000 has been raised, but another $100,000 is needed. The cabins will cost at least $487,000 to build, and the program itself has already kicked in several hundred thousand dollars collected from students fees and farms sales.
Interest in the program is at an all-time high, with a record 152 applicants vying for the 38 positions in the 2009 program. In the 1970s, during the first few years of the program, apprentices stayed in tepees, which were later taken down and replaced by tents furnished by students.
Current apprentice Jessy Beckett, 25, of Santa Cruz, said, "I don't think there is one person here who could pay for rent in town and do this program. It's absolutely vital that we live here. It would make this a program that would make it accessible only to the elite."
Beyond just providing free shelter while paying more than $4,000 in tuition, on-site housing allowed Lindsey, a Colorado native who took the program 20 years ago and stayed, to be "in tune with the land" by "walking through the land you're working on."
Farmer Joshua Anderson agreed, having arrived to take this spring's course from the small Missouri town of Avalon with just a couple of bucks in his pocket. He said communing with the land and other farmers is the best part of residing on the hill.
"Being able to live in the tents, you are constantly engaged by the environment," he said. "You hear the pests, predators -- bobcats and owls. A farmer really needs to take the time to understand the landscape as much as he does trying to grow food."