Locals + Culture

Frog Bench Farms

12/4/2013 |
Stacey Jo Rabiger

Driving through the quiet east bench neighborhood, you’d never know it’s there: an almost-two acre, intensive, experimental, working farm tucked behind an elementary school and accessible via a residential cul de sac. We COLLECTIVELY swooned at a recent Pago sommelier series dinner hosted at Frog Bench Farms featuring food-porn-worthy produce harvested on site and paired with Utah-vinified RUTH Lewandowski Wines. Amazing food, kick ass wine, yada, yada...you know we love them. In this particular case, the real show-stopper was the farm itself and its talented and gracious stewards, Joe and Paula Sargetakis.

Specifics? Truly bad-ass site planning sets the stage for a ludicrous variety of fruits and veggies grown and harvested thereon: a 10,000 sq. ft. footprint, including a modern greenhouse and an additional 1.25 acres of dedicated planting, virtually invisible below the grade of the neighborhood streetscape. Ingenious. Clutching our wine glasses, we wandered aimlessly past row after row of verdant garden beds, delighted by a small lap-pool, bocce court, raised planters, young Sauvignon Blanc vines, steaming cold frames, and an adorable chicken coop. We wanted to be adopted by the hosts and never leave. There may have been pleading involved.

Welcome to Frog Bench Farms, the decades-long dream of the Sargetakis’s, come true. And, like most success stories, this one is based more on precise vision, hard work, fan-freaking-tastic timing, and serious business savvy than upon the vagaries of luck and fate. Paula Swaner Sargetakis grew up in a family dedicated to community, agriculture, ranching, and environmental education [Swaner Nature Preserve ring a bell?]. Together, Joe and Paula also have serious viniculture cred with their Napa-based Parallel Wines brand. But in 1999, Paula envisioned a new focus for their family’s dedication to conscientious agriculture: an intensive urban garden experiment, fully integrated with residential living and community education. Their ideal? Instead of a semi-retirement spent gazing at the 9th fairway, Joe and Paula wanted their lifestyle to reflect and celebrate the things they love. They’d combine a reasonably-sized living space, their non-profit support work, and their passion for agriculture and great food. Oh, and they’d like to find that space in a walkable community, close to their aging parents and grown children.

If it sounds like it might be a bitch and a half to find the perfect lot matching these criteria, you’d be right.

But here’s where the luck part of the story meets up with fabulous timing and some cold hard cash: an LDS church was demolished in their target area due to structural instability, creating eight empty residential lots. The Sargetakis’s stepped in and Bought. Them. All. Talk about hella commitment. As Joe says, “Yes, we are committed. Or we should be.”

That they built their “family garden” on a scale that would also become a model for environmental planning and urban agriculture, still not piss off their neighbors, plus harvest lots of produce to sell to local restaurants is a testament to their canny planning and business chops. And we local diners get to reap those über-delicious benefits. Check out the menus at some of your fave farm-to-table driven establishments – Zest, Avenues Proper, Fresco, Pago, Finca – and you’ll see Frog Bench Farms celebrated all over your plate and in your cocktails. Oh, and they’re planning to host more harvest dinners right at the farm, too. Squeee! [#fangirl] We finagled a follow-up visit so we could find out more...

So, where did the name come from? Paula has always collected frogs. Frog art, frog jewelry, frog ceramics, frog garden statuary. Once we tried to count them all and stopped after a couple hundred. So, Paula’s frogs, we’re on the bench, and we’re farming. Frog Bench Farms.

Is the farm open to the public? No, but we do work with non-profits for limited special events. Eventually, we will be opening up the farm more for educational programming, like gardening and cooking classes. People ask us all the time to help them figure out what to do with produce they’re not used to eating. They’ll get their CSA boxes and say, “I’ve got all these veggies, what do I do with them?” We can help with that. Food, where it comes from, what to do with it, how to cook these amazing vegetables, is a common language. It’s a lifestyle that we want to share. We live here, too, and try to keep traffic at a minimum so we don’t disrupt our neighbors. We’re here, we farm, we share with the public. All while keeping our private lives private.

You are growing an incredible amount of stuff here. Do you choose what you are growing, or do restaurants make requests?  It’s a bit of both. We grow dozens of types of tomatoes and peppers, and between 5-8 kinds of basil. Restaurants can buy harvested veggies or flats of live plants -- like salad microgreens and pea shoots -- so chefs can keep harvesting directly from the live plants for weeks. We have a seed saving bank here on site, and grow 98% of our produce from seed.

What are some of the more unusual suspects? We are growing exotic plants in the greenhouse for chefs who are looking for locally-sourced, unusual items. Australian finger limes, bananas, figs, Meyer lemons, tiny gherkins. We love to experiment with what we can grow here, and love to cook with these ingredients. Cooking together is our relaxing time.

How many people do you need to keep the farm going? Lots of people were involved when we got started, including Kathleen Hill (wonderful architect), Ryan Stevens (heaven-sent contractor), and our vineyard manager from Parallel Wine, Nate George, who helped us figure out where things would grow best. We brought in 20 truckloads of topsoil to get going. Now, to keep the farm running we both work here every day. Plus, we have one part-time employee and an intern or two from Westminster College.

Nice solar panels! Yes, two-thirds of our power for the house and farm comes from solar. We designed the house for optimal efficiency: it has 12” double walls, and an R60 roof. We’ve also worked to make our water use minimal. An extensive rainwater collection system goes to irrigate the greenhouse; one good storm can fill 2500 gallons in the two tanks. We end up using 2500-3000 gallons of water per month in the hottest part of the summer.

We love your chickens. Chickens are the funniest creatures. They’ll make you smile no matter what kind of day you are having. Our gals (named Fricassee, BB, Q, Nugget, etc.) are a constant source of entertainment, along with our ancient, 7-pound cat, Foofy.

So, about that adoption thing?  You’re not the first to ask.

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