HOLDING TIGHT TO TRADITIONS IN BRENTWOOD
By: Matthew Green
This is the story of receding farmland, encroaching suburbia, and a three-year-old boy who refused to sell his tree fort.
Within a mile of Brookside Farm, in the Bay Area’s easternmost reaches, Route 4 winds through a maze of sprawling development. Big-box
stores, identical subdivisions, and golf courses stretch unyieldingly across the horizon, covering the softly undulating hills once blanketed
with wheat fields and wildflowers. A serious leap of faith is required to believe that somewhere in this landscape of neon lights and terra-cotta
creations there are still farmers at work pulling produce out of this soil, which is some of the most prime farmland in the country.
In the suddenly too big city of Brentwood, on the far eastern edge of Contra Costa County, Walnut Street meanders through newly poured,
largely vacant concrete villages, fast-food joints, and median strips dotted with “For Sale” signs. A few turns, though, and the blacktop narrows.
Blockbusters and Wal-Marts give way to robust walnut and peach groves behind which fertile fields unfold. The roads
around here—Eureka, Concord, Payne—are almost all named after walnut varieties.
Just before a dry creek bed lined with gnarled oak trees, a yellow sign announces “END.” Following the advice, I kill the ignition
and step into the stillness of a sunny November afternoon, the rounded peak of Mt. Diablo just visible to the south, and any traces
of suburbia all but extinguished. In a small clearing among rows of late-season summer crops, Welling Tom stands over a smoldering
pile of tangled tomato vines. Soft-spoken, and with a boyish grin, he greets me succinctly, sticks his face near the fire to blow it further into life, and walksout through the orchard to find the co-manager of the farm, his mom.
Welling moved to this 10-acre plot 34 years ago at the ripe age of 3 when his parents, both Chinese immigrants, purchased the land for the seemingly
impossible price of roughly $2,000 per acre. The family initially bought part of a walnut orchard with no intention of working the land. They
just wanted to provide Welling and his two older brothers a place where they could run around in the fields and catch frogs in the creek.
At the time, Welling’s father was a chemist at UCSF. While he made the long daily commute to the city, his wife, Anne Tom, stayed at home
to care for the kids, who helped her put in a small garden. After the first selection of edibles burst effortlessly from the rich clay loam, the plot
changed. “We didn’t know you could make a living as a farmer,” Anne tells me when we meet. A sturdy woman in her late 60s, with strong,
calloused hands and a warm smile, she says the land first brought back memories of her grandfather’s farm in China where she grew up.
After her husband retired, the family cleared the remaining walnut trees and planted rows of Chinese vegetables. It was only
when Anne began carting the harvest weekly to restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown that the realization struck: She had inadvertently
become a full-fledged farmer. “I never knew farming could be so difficult,” she says, shaking her head and grinning.
The area’s mild winters and scorching summers, where the midday temperatures can reach 115 degrees, convinced Anne to
switch to crops more suitable to a Mediterranean growing climate. Along with planting several tomato varieties, melons, eggplants,
and greens, the family filled the property with small orchards of Asian pears, peaches, and pluots. Alongsidethem grow long rows of onions, garlic,and other hearty winter crops.
Meanwhile, Anne’s three boys grew up and went to college. Two of them became engineers and moved to large cities to raise their families.
But after graduating with a degree in philosophy from UCLA, Welling came back (which Anne attributes to his liberal-arts education).
“I went to L.A. because I wanted to get as far away as I could,” Welling tells me, inspecting a row of shiny black Italian eggplants and large
Asian cucumbers, still vibrant in late fall. “But in the back of my mind I always thought there was something special about this place. There’s
so much you can do with it . . . and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.”
Welling moved back in with his parents, sharing their redwood house, which after three decades still remains a work in progress. He
soon adopted the farming lifestyle, working seven days a week throughout much of the year. He grows an impressive abundance of food and
sells at farmers markets in Montclair and San Francisco, as well as to a handful of high-end restaurants. He and his mom run the operation by
themselves, with only intermittent seasonal help from one hired hand and occasional volunteers. The farm is not certified organic—Anne says
she didn’t want to deal with all the paperwork and fees, but she claims no toxic pesticides or herbicides are used. “Even before we knew about
organic, I had three kids and was working out here all the time,” Anne remembers. “I didn’t want to poison myself.” Synthetic fertilizer, however,
is applied, as they lack the infrastructure to compost on a large scale (hence the burning tomato vines).
Brookside is very much a relic of a time in the surprisingly recent past when farming was the norm here and there was nothing anomalous
about younger generations sticking around to work their parents’ land. In the 1880s, this entire area was covered in wheat fields, the harvest
shipped out of the Sacramento Delta to England. If the rich soil and year-round growing season weren’t incentive enough, farmers flocked to
the area after the installation in the early 20th century of an irrigation system that guaranteed an ample supply of reasonably priced water. A
diverse array of crops sprang up, and the region became a breadbasket for the burgeoning communities throughout the Bay Area.
The country’s most recent economic boom, however, created a sweeping facelift in this community. The growth of jobs, income, and
rents in the Bay Area brought a surge in demand for home ownership, as eager developers flocked to small cities in the region’s periphery in
search of cheap land and amenable planning departments. Brentwood proved a perfect spot for a Bay Area bedroom community. Between
1990 and 2006, Brentwood’s population increased by more than 500 percent—transforming it from a quaint farming enclave of 7,500 to a
sprawling city of more than 47,000.
Farmers were offered considerably more cash to sell their land than they were able to make from farming it. Farmland worth roughly
$12,000 an acre was suddenly going for $200,000. In just over a decade, 25,000 acres of agricultural land in Contra Costa County was converted
for development, including more than 12,000 acres of prime farmland. Almost overnight, farms gave way to strip malls, subdivisions, and a dramatically different culture. The boom that turned the once sleepy rural town into one of the fastest-growing cities in California brought with it crowded roads and a spiking crime rate.
About four years ago, the Toms refused a developer’s $1.5 million bid for their land. “It wasn’t enough for me to move,” says Anne. “I was
so stubborn. I said ‘No, we like it here.’” Grinning, she recalls the first offer to buy their land nearly 30 years ago when its value was significantly
less and the family had just begun putting down roots. Anne and her husband were speaking with a real estate agent in
the living room when Welling, still a toddler but already settled into his newly built tree fort, burst into the room and declared, as Anne tells it,
“This property is not for sale! ”And with that, all negotiations ended.
Since the early ’90s, Anne and her family have been eyewitnesses to the dramatic transformation of the land around them. “What can I
do, what can I say? It’s social change, it’s economic change,” she says with a shrug. But emotion creeps into her voice as she recalls watching the first
platoon of bulldozers in the early 1990s uproot nearby majestic walnut orchards to clear land for new houses. “I really felt like there was a knife
stabbing me in my chest,” she says. “There were tears in my eyes. But there’s nothing I could do. I just felt hurt. I don’t know why I felt so
upset. Looking at the soil so good and trees lying down, it was just a sad feeling.”
Anne doesn’t fault her former farmer neighbors for caving in to the pressures of development. “It’s a sad thing but inevitable,” she says, noting that her farm wouldn’t pay for itself without the cushion of social security and her husband’s pension. “If the offspring of older farmers don’t want to farm, I don’t blame them. It’s a very hard way to make a
living . . . Welling is earning below minimum wage, but fortunately he doesn’t have a mortgage.” An impish grin on her face, she adds: “That’s why I say, grow marijuana.”
The situation is similar for farmers in China, Anne adds, describing the hyper-development there that’s steamrolled over agricultural lands,
including the plot owned by her grandfather. Only there it’s even more dramatic, she notes, and often waged by the government, which will use
eminent domain to encroach on private farmland. “People over there are even more eager to get rich quick.”
Yet the once-lucrative housing boom that outdid the agricultural economy here has turned to bust, in line with the country’s economic downturn. A quick tour of the developments in and around Brentwood reveals a slew of grand plans that never materialized. Large, tire-encrusted tracts of land cleared years ago still stand barren, and many of the units in the newly completed complexes are vacant, a strange new form of ghost town, peppered with “For Sale” and “Foreclosure” signs. Street signs stand in the middle of empty lots.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle article reported that since the beginning of 2007, hundreds of families in Brentwood have lost their homes to foreclosure—one of the highest rates in the state—and at least one in 16 remaining households have received default notices. In a strange agricultural revision, police have found an increasing number of squatters growing marijuana in some of the empty units.
A few years ago, Welling decided to stop selling his produce at the small farmers market in town, choosing instead to make the long drive to larger markets closer to the Bay, a sad indication of tough economic times. “I could tell that people who lived here were barely getting by,” he says. “They put all their money in their house and couldn’t afford to pay our prices. They probably shop at Food Max.”
Despite the many bleak factors at play, there are optimistic signs that Brookside Farm and a handful of other small producers here, including Knoll and Frog Hollow farms, will continue to endure as the economic lull alleviates the threat of encroaching development, at least for the moment.
In 2002, alarmed by spiraling growth, local environmental groups helped create the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust. In addition to promoting its member farms and helping to run the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” marketing campaign, the group lobbies city and county officials to adopt farm-friendly zoning ordinances. Modeled after the Marin Agricultural
Land Trust, a national leader in the farmland preservation effort, BALT helps ensure the perpetuity of existing farmland through conservation easement arrangements,by which landowners are compensated for keeping their land in production.
Brentwood and the county have both recently been quite supportive of these efforts, says BALT’s executive director, Kathryn Lyddan, noting that the city initially
funded the organization. “In the past five and a half years, we’ve seen incredible interest and excitement about local food.” Her group seeks to make Bay Area residents aware of the 12,000 acres of prime farmland that still exist in the Brentwood area, and the huge abundance they produce. “We really view our work as something that benefits everyone in the Bay Area,” she adds. “We’re making sure that future generations have the opportunity to eat locally . . . If we pave it all, it won’t be there.”
It’s late in the afternoon, and as the light weakens, Welling and Anne lead me past a scattering of citrus, loquat, and pomegranate trees to a small stone bridge at the edge of the property. A thick canopy of oak and yellowing poplar shades the creek bed. The small road crosses the property boundary and runs along a large bare, open field. On the far edge looms a newly minted subdivision. Staring at the landscape for a moment, Welling says he recently heard, for the first time, a high-speed car chase go by here. On Friday nights, once filled with silence, the sounds of street racing and police sirens drift through the trees.
We walk quietly back to the other side of the creek, where all evidence of change is veiled by the riparian underbrush. As the two return to the fields to finish the day’s work, I ask Welling what he thinks his farm will look like 50 years from now. Hardly pausing to consider, he says the land will stay the same, especially because he has no intention of ever leaving. He points to his immediate neighbors, nearly all of whom have also preserved their fields. “They want to keep things the way they are. They have no intention of changing or selling.”
“Most families here, they like where they live,” Anne pitches in. She motions at her son. “He may not be well off, but at least he’s not homeless.”
Matthew Green is a Berkeley-based freelance writer and environmental education teacher. In addition to Edible East Bay, he writes regularly for
the East Bay Express and also contributes to the SF Chronicle. You can reach him at email@example.com