The New West Oakland Farm Park

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BY JILLIAN LAUREL STEINBERGER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARMEN SILVA

It’s a new chapter in an organization’s life: After enduring the rigors of farming on borrowed land since 2001, City Slicker Farms is turning yet another blighted lot in West Oakland into a lush food oasis—but this time on its own land. The lack of land security had always loomed large.

Now, gone are the fears of having to uproot established farms when an old site becomes unavailable, which has happened many times. Now the hardworking staff at this nonprofit can relax, take a breath, connect to place, and let roots grow deep. “The new site is an urban agriculture education hub that brings all the pieces of the program together,” says Ariel Dekovic, City Slicker’s interim executive director, smiling brightly.

The new West Oakland Farm and Park—known as the Farm Park—is located on 1.4 acres at 28th and Peralta streets in the Dogtown neighborhood. Formerly a brownfield—it had been a paint factory for decades and a junkyard—the lot was cleaned up in 2006 by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, when up to two feet of soil was removed across the site. (New soil brought in has been tested, and construction plans specified no use of chemicals.)

From Brownfield to Paradise

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On the top is the architect’s view of the Farm Park from the corner of Peralta and Helen streets, where the weekly sliding-scale farm stand will be held every Saturday from 10am until everything sells out. Below: The community can relax on benches shaded by fruit trees while watching staff and volunteers tending the lush market farm. (Images courtesy of City Slicker Farms)

“If you could have whatever you wanted, what would it be?” That’s the question the design team posed to West Oakland residents. Spearheaded by CMG landscape architect Carrie Rybcynski and community leaders, the team conducted a series of charrettes and visioning sessions over three months in 2010, which led to a concept design that matched the community’s wants and needs.

But there was a caveat….

… City Slicker couldn’t just operate a farm on the land they proposed to purchase and develop with the $4 million grant they were awarded for the project. The funds, which came via California’s Proposition 84 (the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act) set aside $5.4 billion in taxpayer funds to develop open space in underserved communities and designated that the space had to include a public park.

Not a problem. Says Dekovic, “Our experience running other urban farms is that the more we can draw people into a site—whether it’s through seating areas, planned activities, or interactive demonstration areas—the more engaged and connected people feel.”

Rybczynski says the park and farm are a natural fit. “There will be lots of eyes on the project, and advocates for keeping it going. It’s a good way to build community around food.”

Several years in the making, the new Farm Park will open by late fall. It has emerged as a busy site. On the farm side, the community settled on an outdoor classroom for urban agriculture education; a market farm on approximately one-third of the site; a community garden for 28 families; an orchard, greenhouse, and shade structure for plants; a large chicken coop and beehives; a toolshed and woodshop; and a nutrition demonstration zone.

The park, which will be free and open to the public seven days a week, features public art, a plaza with seating, open space for playing and picnics, and a children’s playground surrounded by a food forest. “By including a food forest in the children’s play area, we are creating an opportunity for kids to naturally see and understand where their food comes from, while making it a normalized and everyday part of their reality,” says Dekovic.

To maximize access, City Slicker’s popular weekly, sliding-scale farmstand will be situated in the park and will be open every Saturday morning from 10:00am until everything is sold out. (Head gardener Joseph Davis says most people try to pay something even if it’s a stretch.) Produce and eggs at the stand will come from the Farm Park, of course, and will be supplemented by produce from City Slicker’s three other “borrowed” sites. These include the market farm at Fitzgerald and Union Plaza Parks (corner of 34th and Peralta), the Ralph Bunche Nursery at Bunche Academy (1240 18th Street), and the Secret Garden (5105 Genoa Street), which is in a big backyard in North Oakland.

“The Farm Park’s got everything: a functioning farm, a functioning park, a functioning playground, a functioning farmstand,” says Farm Park Council member Samaki Dorsey, one of City Slicker’s backyard garden mentors. “I’m excited that we’ll be able to have so many different people come here. It’s a destination point in West Oakland, something to do here, somewhere to be.”

Allies and Partners

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Left: Head gardener Joseph Davis mentors interns on ecological farming techniques. Right: Volunteers get veggie starts ready for planting.

A collaborative approach has characterized City Slicker Farms from its conception, and the model continues. “You know the phrase, ‘It takes a village’? Well, the new Farm Park is the personification of that,” says Rybczynski, who designed the project.

In Good Company, a community service project of Clif Bar & Company, built the woodshed, toolshed, and farmstand. Apprentices from the Crucible built a gate—a dramatic and beautiful portal that opens from the park to the farm—which serves as the public art component of the grant. The playground was built by Kaboom!, a nonprofit that promotes the importance of play in kids’ lives. Groups such as 18 Reasons will teach nutrition classes based on that organization’s belief in the transformative power of good food.

The people are also united around the project. An impressive 253 individuals contributed to a Barnraiser campaign, which surpassed its $25,000 goal by 11%, raising $27,861 to start construction on the community garden.

Team Instructa-COOP

Eggs are the second most popular item after collards, says Davis. As such, chickens are important to the farm and have prompted the idea of a chicken facility that could help meet both customer demand and educational goals. The outcome is that the Farm Park may become home to the single most innovative urban chicken education system in the region.

In yet another example of good partnering, City Slicker connected with a group of Masters of Architecture students who won an IMPACT Social Entrepreneurship Award from California College of the Arts’ Center for Art and Public Life for their chicken coop design. The group, which calls itself Team Instructa-COOP, includes graduates Frances Reid, Logan Kelley, Leila Khosrovi, Shawn Komlos, and Hachem Mahfoud.

“We designed the coop so that there are spyholes and benches to stand on and look through at different heights, and different places where you can see what’s going on without disturbing the chickens,” says team member Frances Reid.

A spacious 400 square feet, the four-chambered compound can house 20 chickens. Besides the coop, it includes three paddocks, or enclosures, where the chickens can scratch, peck, and enjoy the sunshine. One paddock can be dedicated to hatchlings, as needed.

Coop-drawingThe coop incorporates permaculture design principles, such as “stacking functions.” For example, worm bins are placed below the chickens’ roosts (where they sleep). As team member Frances Reid points out, “The roosts are where chickens most frequently poop.” The worms turn the poop into compost with no shoveling or transport. If funds permit, there will also be a rainwater catchment system with the ability to collect around 1500 gallons of water off the roof in an average year.

Plans for Instructa-COOP are open source and are available on City Slicker Farm’s website, which also hosts a plan for a smaller, two- to three-chicken coop developed by the team for backyard gardens.

Help City Slicker Farms build the new Farm Park! Volunteers are needed for the playground build August 18–20. cityslickerfarms.org.

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