Tomatoes at the Station

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Kassenhoff Growers takes
root at Oakland landmark

By Cheryl Angelina Koehler • Photos by Andrew Ellis

In May, when Kassenhoff Growers invited a group of devoted customers to a debut plant sale at their new West Oakland digs, owners Helen Krayenhoff and Peggy Kass weren’t quite prepared for the frenzy that would ensue over Krayenhoff’s newly minted tomato trading cards*.

“People started trading them right after they came through the gate,” Krayenhoff says, explaining how she gave each visitor two copies of the same card as a signal to start swapping. The surprise was that some people talked others out of their cards entirely in an effort to amass all eight “stars” of the tomato-lover’s garden.

Helen Krayenhoff  gets seedlings ready to take to the farmers’ market.

Helen Krayenhoff gets seedlings ready to take to the farmers’ market.

But of course, the fans didn’t come to this sale for the cards: The actual stock in trade at Kassenhoff Growers is organic seedlings. After nearly two decades in the biz, Helen and her life partner Peggy Kass are now known fondly as the “tomato gals” or “tomato ladies” of the Grand Lake and Temescal farmers’ markets. They also have a loyal following for their full array of vegetable, flower, and herb seedlings, which get high marks for growing up to be healthy and productive members of many an East Bay home garden.

“So why do the plants do so well?” I ask Helen on a recent afternoon visit to the station.

“There’s no transplant shock,” she says, explaining the advantage of starts that don’t come from a greenhouse. “It’s tough love. They grow up right in the elements, so they’re really hardy.”

A customer named Dave, who blogs about life with his dog at theadventuresofdaveandlucy.com, was surely lovin’ his tomato plants when he posted the following comment at kassenhoffgrowers.com: “They do the best veggie starts around. Zero attrition rate. Their plants are healthy and proud. I got two San Marzanos, two Brandywines, and golden something or other, and I stuck them in the ground seriously amended with Bumper Crop, which is really great stuff. It smells like farm poop, so you know it’s good.”

Customers attending the tomato gals’ May sale were treated to more than the groovy trading cards and primo plants: They also got a close-up look at Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station, which Kassenhoff now calls home. The grand old structure, first put into use as a transcontinental rail terminus in 1912, was closed after disruptions caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It’s currently in redevelopment by BRIDGE Housing, a nonprofit that bought the station in 2005 with ideas for creating such West Oakland community assets as a school, a museum, a commercial kitchen, eateries, and event/performance spaces.

At left: Peggy Kass tends her seedlings in front of Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station.

At left: Peggy Kass tends her seedlings in front of Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station.

“It is great to have Kassenhoff there. The community stops by all the time when they are working,” says Frankie Whitman, a consultant to BRIDGE Housing whose assignment for the past four years has been business development at the 16th Street Station. “I thought it would be great to have some urban ag on the plaza to send a message to the vandals that the property was not abandoned, and to green the area,” she says.

Whitman first connected with Helen and Peggy as their Kassenhoff lease at Alameda Point Collaborative’s Ploughshares Nursery was ending last year. Whitman was able to offer them a large plot on the station’s asphalt-covered front plaza, where in bygone years passengers hopped on and off streetcars to make connections on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The grower gals started setting up at the first of the year, recruiting a large group of customers (who have become friends) to help build new growing tables. Miraculously, spring starts were ready for sale at the farmers’ markets right on schedule.

In addition to signing up Kassenhoff, Whitman has recruited two more urban agriculture operations to the station project: Farmscape, an edible landscapes business that’s just moving up from Los Angeles, and WOW Flower Farm, which is operated by Game Theory Academy, a nonprofit that works with older at-risk youth to teach economic literacy using the farm as the platform/classroom.

Whitman says that long-term plans for the station are not clear. “It requires a very significant investment to rehab it, so it all depends on finding the right champion who can be our partner. When BRIDGE first took ownership of the Station, the assumption was that 1,500 new [units of] mixed-use housing would be developed along that swath of Wood Street known as Central Station. The station itself would be the centerpiece. The taxes generated by the new development would be reinvested through tax increment financing to rehab the station. But after the first three projects were built [Pacific Cannery Lofts, Zephyr Gate, and Ironhorse], 2008 happened and development came to a halt. Then Jerry Brown did away with the Redevelopment Agency and there was no longer the vehicle to do tax increment financing.”

Helen says she and Peggy understand that the station-as-community-center is a partially realized dream, but they are happy to be part of it for now. “It has been a good landing place for us,” Helen says.

*Now available in two sets, the tomato trading cards give “stats” of tomato power players like Bloody Butcher, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, Cherokee Green, and Paul Robeson. Symbols and description on the cards cover likely size of the fruit, days to maturity, ripening season of each tomato cultivar, and lots more juicy details. To learn more, go to Kassenhoffgrowers.com and click on the Tomato Trading Cards tab.

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