Small Farm Revival
Here's an uplifting story about West Oakland, urban farming and agricultural revival.
Security, business drive small farm revival
By Suzanne Bohan
Contra Costa Times
The din of a neighborhood gathering made it hard to hear Barbara Finnin as she strolled through a dense garden thriving on a once vacant lot in West Oakland.
On all four corners near the fenced-in garden, a dozen adults, young and old, shouted greetings and comments. Some sat in white plastic chairs, others leaned against walls, and several swigged from bottles covered with brown paper bags.
Two or three children played on the streets, which featured a couple of tidy homes, a few boarded-up ones, and others in between.
Ignoring the ruckus, Finnin, executive director of City Slicker Farms, pointed to the plum, mulberry, fig, cherry and apple trees, the climbing vines, and planting beds growing thick with produce such as lettuce, carrots, garlic and strawberries. On one side of the garden, honey bees unhurriedly entered and exited two white boxes, and building material lay on the floor of a partially-built henhouse in the corner.
Then lifelong West Oakland resident Charles Brown, 31, walked toward Finnin, smiling broadly with his hand outstretched.
"You all are doing a pretty good job," he tells Finnin, shaking her hand. "It's great here. This is what we want to see. Gardens and fruit and everything we need."
There's no grocery store in West Oakland, a low-income neighborhood of 23,000. A nearby corner market gamely sells some produce — cabbage, onions, potatoes, oranges and apples — but the latter were bruised and old.
In contrast, when the garden's chained gate opens at 10 a.m. Saturdays, residents can buy inexpensive freshly-picked organic produce, newly-gathered eggs and Oakland-made honey at a farm stand run by City Slicker's, a nonprofit dedicated to developing urban agriculture in West Oakland.
"People come super early for our honey and eggs," said Finnin.
Brown said his mother buys collard greens from the stand "to make the old recipes."
In counties around the Bay Area, there's a similar burst of agriculture in formerly empty fields, vacant lots and backyards.
Older farms, survivors of a long-gone pastoral era, are also facing a fresh future as new markets and policies support their operations. And a new generation of farmers dedicated to environmentally-friendly practices and equitable distribution of fresh foods are starting new endeavors with colorful names.
From 2002 to 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a surge in the growth of small farms in the Bay Area, with a 24 percent increase in Alameda County, 7 percent in Contra Costa County, 8 percent in San Mateo County, 4 percent in Santa Clara County, and 13 percent in Napa County. (The agency didn't survey San Francisco.)
It's a trend occurring nationwide, as the number of U.S. farms grew 4 percent during that time.
"We've seen growth in what we call 'the new farmer,'" said Gail Raabe, agricultural commissioner for San Mateo County. She cited operations such as Pie Ranch and Blue House Farm along the county's coast, which sell organic produce, eggs, and other products, while providing apprenticeships for young adults aspiring to learn about sustainable agriculture and what's called food justice — ensuring widespread access to healthful foods, regardless of income level.
Richmond has the 5% Local Coalition, launched in 2007 to help residents, especially those in neighborhoods devoid of grocery stores, grow their own food. Several gardens tended by students and adult volunteers provide berries, lettuce, tomatoes and many other foods.
"It's the most apparent solution," said Park Guthrie, a former schoolteacher and founder of the 5% Local Coalition, which operates under the umbrella of nonprofit Urban Tilth. "We have hundreds of acres of open space in West Contra Costa County, and we have kids who don't want to spend all day inside. Gardens actually address lots and lots of problems at once."
Enthusiasm for urban farming has waxed and waned over the decades, said Hilary Melcarek, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz with an expertise in urban agriculture.
Economic necessity fueled the growth of gardens during the Great Depression. And Melcarek said the "victory gardens" planted by millions during World War II supplied 40 percent of the nation's produce. But that gardening devotion faded in the prosperous 1950s. In the 1970s, Melcarek said a back-to-the-land movement launched a renewal of urban agriculture, but when the USDA dismantled its 17-year-old Urban Gardening Program in 1993, it reflected the waning interest in farming in and around cities.
But this time, organizations backing the rebirth of urban agriculture speak of a movement that's here to stay, in part to ensure the food security not just of low-income neighborhoods, but the entire region.
"You never want to give up the ability to feed yourself, you don't want to be relying on imported food alone," said Raabe, the San Mateo County agricultural commissioner.
And ensuring a local food supply means helping small operators survive, Raabe said. "It takes two things to farm, land and a farmer, and you have to protect both."
In 2006, the San Mateo County Food System Alliance was launched to develop new markets for the county's farming and fishing industries. Alliance members realized the county had an economically precarious food-producing industry, while certain areas were coping with high rates of diabetes, obesity and other health problems linked in part to poor nutrition. So the alliance is developing numerous programs to increase sales of locally-raised and -caught foods into these communities, as well as to institutions such as hospitals and jails.
"What you look at when you step back is the proverbial win-win," said Raabe.
A similar program is running in Contra Costa County with the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign, which distributes produce from the county's agricultural-rich East side to the produce-poor West side.
Established farmers, such as 77-year-old Joseph Perry in Fremont, stay in business by adapting to changing markets and tastes. Years ago, he certified his 91-acre farm as organic, and now he grows lettuce, broccoli, peas, strawberries and other produce. He and his sons sell to Berkeley Bowl grocery store, organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable, at three farmers markets, and at their own stand next to their farmland on Ardenwood Historic Farm, a site managed by the East Bay Regional Park District.
It's a different world from the time he mostly grew tomatoes in Fremont, sold on contract to long-gone canneries.
"You have to change," said Perry. "You can't lock your mind on one thing."
Adaptive policies are also critical to help farmers stay in business, or expand, said Kathryn Lyddan, executive director of the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust. Even with 12,000 acres of farmland in Contra Costa County east of Mt. Diablo, Lyddan said many farms struggle to compete against larger operations. So the 2007 County General Plan was amended to allow roadside stands, which were limited to 200 square feet, to expand up to 3,500 square feet. And to increase sales, farmers now can sell jams and jellies made from their produce.
"We're 50 miles from the epicenter of the local food movement," Lyddan said. "There's just an extraordinary opportunity. But there are certain things we need to do to foster the development of small farms."
In addition to the six urban plots that City Slicker Farms planted in West Oakland, which yielded 8,000 pounds of produce in 2007, the group intends to keep its backyard gardening program going strong. Since 2005, the nonprofit has established nearly 90 backyard gardens at little or no cost to the home dweller, and expects to add at least one weekly. Backyard gardens aren't counted in the USDA's farm survey, but City Slicker Farms and other organizations consider their growth as critical to increasing the availability of fresh produce in low-income areas.
Edith, who asked that her last name not be used, lives in Emeryville, across the border from West Oakland. The 64-year-old retired nurse from San Francisco moved to the area seven years ago to escape high rents, and last year, she set up a garden at her cottage with the help of City Slicker Farms.
"I just love it," Edith said. "I eat out of my garden every single day, and it's a good feeling."
Wearing black gardener's clogs, tan pants and a black shirt, Edith walked around her the small garden the City Slicker workers set up. In planter boxes filled with rich soil and fitted with trellises for climbing vines, she pointed out the numerous plants growing — including several kinds of lettuce, celery, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, chard, zucchini, peppers, parsley, mint and apples. She'll soon have a drip irrigation system set up at no charge.
Her 8-year-old neighbor, Brianna, also frequents the garden.
"I like it here because I just wanted to try some new foods," said Brianna. "The peas are good, the strawberries are good." She snapped a pea pod from a vine, and Edith showed Brianna an emerging artichoke and young arugula leaves.
Guthrie, with the 5% Local Coalition, said students relish the produce they grow. "I can't stop the kids from eating the collard greens straight from the garden," he said.
The self-sufficiency that comes from growing your own food also instills a sense of pride, said Finnin, with City Slicker Farms. One-quarter of West Oakland residents use some form of food assistance, and 69 emergency food sites in the neighborhood feed 2,300 people a month.
"We have all this yard space in West Oakland," she said. "So let's use it as opposed to relying on charity models, soup kitchens. It's life affirming."