This story originally appeared on J. Weekly.
Steve Schwartz’s mother did most of the cooking in his childhood home in suburban San Diego, but when his father, Miki, took to the stove, he had one specialty: mushroom omelets.
“That’s the only thing he ever cooked, and from that, I think I got the idea that mushrooms are a delicacy,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz, 47, learned how to grow mushrooms while in the Peace Corps in Thailand, from a tribe of Mien women, and the knowledge stuck. He followed that experience with a stint on a kibbutz in Israel, where he took to the rhythms of a farmer’s life, rising early and working in the fields.
Schwartz now farms oyster and shiitake mushrooms on his own three acres — though the mushrooms take up just a fraction of the land — in Sebastopol, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His farm, New Carpati, is named after the region where his father, a Holocaust survivor, grew up in Junosi, now part of Ukraine.
But that’s not all Schwartz does.
He also is executive director of the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative, which he founded last year to help faith communities support their local food systems. That can mean helping a church provide local food rather than canned goods as part of its food pantry, or guiding a couple to choose a local organic caterer for their wedding. Or it can mean helping congregations join CSAs (community-supported agriculture), as the national Jewish organization Hazon has advocated.
In April, the collaborative’s first conference drew 80 people from 25 congregations in Sonoma and Marin counties. Within a week after the event, a mosque in Novato began its own CSA with 13 members, “a big economic boon for that farm,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz, who is guided by similar interfaith efforts in Oregon and North Carolina, eventually hopes to expand his operation from the North Bay to the entire Bay Area.
The impetus came from his participation in the Hazon Food Conference at Asilomar in 2008 and 2009. At the time, Schwartz was executive director of California FarmLink, which he founded and ran for 13 years to help farmers — often immigrants — find land to lease or farm, something that is usually way beyond their means.
“It wasn’t until 10 years into all of that that I started to put together that my dad’s family had this small farm and they were kicked off their land,” he said, “and that is what’s driving me to work in this area, to make sure people who want to farm have access to land.”
The Hazon conference was pivotal in another way, too. “I never thought there was a place where the Jewish part of my life and the sustainable agricultural world part of my life [could] meet,” he said.
It also made him feel more connected to his father’s farming past, which he hadn’t considered before. For instance, Schwartz’s father recalled how he’d go with his own father in a horse-drawn wagon each week to sell their produce in an open-air food market.
“I had already been taking my kids to the farmers market at that time, since they were in diapers, so it was really exciting to feel that connection to this other part of my family’s life,” Schwartz said.
One of the crops on his father’s childhood farm was horseradish, and Schwartz is trying to track down the same variety for New Carpati. He also grows mulberries, plums, pears, apples and kohlrabi on his farm overlooking the Sonoma Mountains. The view reminds Schwartz a bit of the Carpathian Mountains, which he saw when he visited his father’s birthplace.
Even if he can’t duplicate the crops from his father’s farm, Schwartz has turned New Carpati into a Jewish farm. He’s held tree plantings for his daughters’ religious school classes on Tu B’Shevat; Sukkot celebrations; and a few kosher animal slaughters in which participants helped process the animals they killed.
Though his father is deceased now, “I like the thought of making this a place where we can connect in a positive way to this way of life my dad grew up in, but was forced out of,” he said. “It feels really good to be connecting to it in this way.”
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