Sun-kissed tomatoes are ripening on vines. Free roaming chickens are laying their eggs. And hands are getting dirty, reaping the earth’s bounty in some unexpected places. Surprisingly, there are an increasing number of urban organic farms growing up all over the Bay Area.
Vicki Ramos is the manager of the 55th Street Garden, one of five urban farms run by People’s Grocery, a non profit organization that works to meet the health and food needs of the West Oakland community.
“There are trucks all the time; sometimes fire trucks and dogs barking, so it definitely is the city but it’s like a little green retreat,” says Vicki.
Green retreats like the 55th Street Garden are providing urban residents with places to experience nature in the city and with local food sources.
“You know our food sometimes travels the world to get to our table and whether we know it or not, it really does effect the environment,” Vicki says. “Organic local food can be really hard to find and it can be expensive so not everybody can afford it.”
To make organic food more accessible to West Oakland residents, People’s Grocery converted an old postal truck into a mobile market. They hit the road to bring their low cost produce to the people.
“All that other stuff that’s at the store, all that greasy old food and stuff. It’s better than eating all that. It’s better for this truck to come,” says a customer.
They recently retired the Mobile Market in order to focus their efforts on a more permanent solution. Vicki explains, “We hope to have a grocery store in the West Oakland community where we can actually have our produce there to have the price where a lot of families can afford to eat locally and organic foods.”
Another surprising source of local, organic food can be found just a few miles away, where we meet a farmer and her fowl. Willow Rosenthal founded City Slicker Farms when she moved to West Oakland and discovered that there were no grocery stores in the neighborhood.
“We have over 40 corner liquor stores and we don’t have a grocery store,” Willow says.
“We are the source for fresh food, that’s for sure.”
In contrast to the dearth of fresh food, Willow found an abundance of vacant land.
“There’s blight, there’s houses that burn down that nobody has money to build or maintain,” Willow says. “So there’s actually a lot of land. And as a gardener, farmer type person, I thought hey, I could do something here.”
With the help of volunteers, she has been transforming small plots of land into productive urban farms…complete with some farm animals. “It used to be that all over the country, farmers developed their own breeds of chickens,” Willow says. “So there are hundreds of them. This is healthy for the stock to have more genetic variety. Now, they just have these more common breeds by the hundreds in the commercial farms.”
The free-range, city chickens are fun to visit and feed. They’re also a source of farm fresh food. “We probably have about 20 dozen eggs a week that we give out at our farm stand,” Willow says. “People really come for the eggs. They love them.”
Along with the eggs, the Saturday farm stand offers neighborhood residents their fresh organic produce for low or no cost. “I like their tomatoes, and their greens - their mustard greens,” says a boy at the farm stand. “They’re fresh. Fresh grown.”
“I feel really proud of the fact that we have done this,” Willow says. “That we’ve been able to grow thousands of pounds of organic food that went out into the community; that people just can’t get anywhere else here.”
She adds, “And when one of the grannies that we see every Saturday comes by and gets her collard greens. You know, I’m like, ok I can keep working this hard.”
We head across the bay to San Francisco’s biggest farm were there’s more hard work going on. Located by Interstate 280 and Alemany Boulevard, the four acre Alemany Farm is a country retreat within the city.
“You don’t need to drive five hours to get a dose of nature, you can come right here in San Francisco,” says Jason Mark, the farm’s manager.
“If you’re having a bad day, you just come up here and sit. It’s relaxing. It’s calming,” says Betty Hunter, one of the farm’s youth workers.
In the 1990’s, the former dumpsite had been transformed into an urban farm by the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, but had been left abandoned for years.
“We used to play back here as kids,” says youth mentor Darryl Kelley who now helps work the land. “This was all a swamp-like, and a dump site. People would dump trash. I didn’t believe that things could grow up here,”
“My mom lives right there and so I would walk my mom’s dog down into this area and I noticed that there were fruit trees and that it used to be a farm,” says Antonio Roman – Alcalá.
With little more than borrowed tools and an eagerness to learn about growing food, Antonio and his friends began reviving the farm. After receiving permission from the city to work the land, they contacted the Alemany Housing community next door.
“We went into the Alemany community to ask what their connection was to the space and what they wanted to see out of it,” Antonio says. “We heard from the community they weren’t interested in organic carrots. The thing we heard most commonly was that people wanted jobs.”
The group of volunteers secured city funding to create a work study program for young people. Run by farm manager Jason Mark, students are learning how to grow their own fresh, organic food.
“It is trying to give these young folks what I hope are marketable job skills - as irrigation specialists, as organic landscapers, maybe as landscape designers… trying to get their interest piqued in what I think are some of these cutting edge industries of the 21st century,” says Jason.
Youth mentor Larry Blaine says that the kids are learning, and best of all, the kids love it.
“When we start up again in the summer it would be looking destroyed because of all the rain,” says youth worker, Byron Smith. “But then, I like how we make it change. Make it better."
“It’s been a beautiful thing to watch things grow from nothing, you know, from dirt. To be able to say we did this; it’s a blessing,” says Darryl.
“Have it look like this; that was lovely to see. That was my first time ever seeing something like that,” Larry adds.
Alemany Farm is open on weekends to anyone who wants to help hoe or harvest, or to just enjoy a day on a city farm.
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