Envisioning Sustainable Futures for Urban Farms

Envisioning Sustainable Futures for Urban Farms

Story and Photos by Jess Watson


A huge bramble of blackberry bushes sprawls at the corner of 28th and Peralta in Dogtown, the only hint of the future crops that will be grown on the 1.4-acre triangular lot after its transformation into the West Oakland Park and Urban Farm. City Slicker Farms recently won a $4 million grant from the California bond initiative Proposition 84 to purchase the land and develop the park. The site was a paint factory for 50 years, then a brownfields clean-up site. Soon it will contain a grassy area, a play space, a dog run, community garden plots, and an urban farm complete with chickens and an orchard.

Planning of the new urban farm park has brought up all the larger questions that urban agriculture-focused organizations confront daily —issues such as production efficiency, community participation, organizational sustainability, and gentrification. David Roach of Mo’ Better Food, an Oakland-based community enhancement program, framed two of these key questions: “Urban gardens are mostly subsidized programs, which I think are very educational, and very much needed, but how long can it last? And once the money is used, where does it go from there?” How can urban gardens become more sustainable, in every sense of the word?


The list of what will be included in the park was determined after a three-month-long community engagement process spearheaded by Barbara Finnin, executive director of City Slicker Farms, and funded by the owners of the land, Peralta Street LLC and the Emerald Fund. The process Finnin oversaw included surveys and meetings at community centers targeting different sectors of the population. At each meeting participants brainstormed wish lists. “From that the group decides, ‘OK, what are the themes I see here?’” says Finnin. Community members then created physical maps placing the most desired elements of the urban farm park in the configuration they’d like to see.

Fencing emerged as a highly contentious issue. “With the community process, we have very loud voices saying the whole thing needs to be fenced and locked, and then we have very loud voices saying, this cannot be fenced at all. So knowing that there are very, very divergent opinions about it, we need to figure out a way to make it accessible,” Finnin explains. “The fence issue is really around people’s fear. So we need to figure out how to incorporate a fence in a way that is not exclusive and also that is open to the public.”

The organization is now determining a legal structure that will maintain the open space in perpetuity. “We want to ensure if something happens to City Slicker Farms and we don’t exist, that it will still be community space. So we need to figure out a structure to make that happen.” They have been consulting land trust models that would allow the park to be designated as long-term agricultural space.

Approximately $3 million of the grant will go toward the purchase of the land, and $1 million toward the development of the park and farm. The grant does not set aside money for the sustainability of the project or the organization over time, so City Slicker plans to step up its fundraising to cover ongoing maintenance. Finnin puts it in perspective: “I mean this whole $4 million, that’s great, but it’s only going to purchase the land and construct [the park]. And then what? We’ve got to figure out how to keep this going.”


Visiting City Slicker’s Center Street Farm for a day as a volunteer, my first job is to muck out the chicken run. The smell—a combination of rotting organic matter, bits of feed, and layers of chicken shit—clings to my rubber boots, but I feel richly rewarded for my efforts when neighbor after neighbor stops in for fresh eggs, asking with a hint of worry in their voices, “Do you have any eggs left?” Everyone knows that they’re a precious commodity, and only one six-pack is allowed per customer.

The Center Street Farm is one of seven City Slicker–farmed plots around West Oakland. In 2009, these supplied 6,805 pounds of produce, eggs, and honey to their weekly donation-only farm stand, serving over 1,000 people. City Slicker’s Backyard Garden Program has built over 100 gardens in homes around West Oakland, producing 15,000 pounds of food during the same period. The organization hires apprentices to run these programs, offers internships, and provides community-based workshops.

“Our Backyard Garden Program and our Community Market Farms really complement each other,” says Finnin. She describes how the two models address different needs: those of people who don’t have money and want to grow their own food, and those who aren’t interested in growing food, but need a place to buy it. The organization struggles to balance a focus on efficient production with community engagement in the Market Farms, but feels that the Backyard Garden Program supplies the sense of ownership and skills-based learning that is so essential in community gardening.

Not too far away in North Oakland, I visit an unfenced garden—a tangle of flowers and mature fruit trees, with rows of collards in between—where local residents wander in with children, who graze on the unused fruit. This garden, along with a site at the California Hotel, is one of a few small urban gardens that comprise People’s Grocery’s current urban agricultural projects aimed at supplying low-income West Oakland residents with fresh produce. The produce comes in what’s called the Grub Box, a subsidized community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The majority of the produce in the boxes is sourced from Veritable Vegetable, a San Francisco–based company that is the nation’s oldest distributor of certified organic produce. Until last year, the Grub Box produce was being grown on People’s Grocery’s large plot in the Sunol AgPark, but the organization recently made the decision to cease production there. Jason Uribe, People’s Grocery’s urban farm manager, explains that it was difficult to bring people from West Oakland to work the land in Sunol. “After several years we had trouble with our system, our landlords, the infrastructure. The bottom line was we really wanted to do something similar to City Slicker Farms, finding a bigger piece of land closer to the city [where we could] engage with the community much more than in Sunol.” Max Cadji, site coordinator for the California Hotel and founder of Phat Beets Produce, commented on the Sunol produce, “The vegetables were more expensive to grow than to buy.”

People’s Grocery now distributes more than 100 Grub Boxes weekly, as well as providing cooking classes, maintaining their remaining gardens, and offering internships (or allyships) and youth development programs. Cadji says, “The future lies in [maintaining] close partnership with City Slicker, because they really have the model of food production down. People’s Grocery can then be focused more on the broader food system and food justice.”

For another perspective I visit Dig Deep Farms & Produce (DDF&P), where they are harvesting turnip greens to be delivered that afternoon to the head chef of Flora, in downtown Oakland. DDF&P began in April 2010 with foundation and government funds, but aims to be a for-profit business based on CSA, farmers market, and restaurant sales. The farms are located in Ashland and Cherryland, unincorporated portions of Alameda County that report the highest housing density in the East Bay. The communities are largely African American, Latino, and Asian with a median household income lower than that in Oakland. DDF&P is a project of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Activity League, a nonprofit whose mission is crime prevention, with a focus on creating green jobs and more green space in the community.

“Jobs are a way of preventing crime,” says Hank Hererra, DDF&P project manager. “I come from the community food security movement and the food justice movement, so for me, food justice is at the top of my mind, but these two missions complement and fit together perfectly. One can’t be done without the other. From a very grassroots base, we’re building a social enterprise that cascades into the community, with a range of benefits focused on people, place, and profit.”

DDF&P has been able to employ 11 people part-time. The workers are paid a living wage and hired from the surrounding neighborhoods. While still a very young organization, Dig Deep has already managed to subscribe over 70 CSA members and begun to supply local restaurants. Can an urban farm be successful as a profitable business providing both food and jobs for the community? The DDF&P economic model will be watched closely in coming months for an answer.


David Little, who dry-farms potatoes organically in Petaluma, questions the efficiency of urban agriculture: “I call it ‘the ten-dollar apple.’ If they think they can feed an apartment building in Oakland I’d be surprised.” Little struggles to stay afloat as an organic farmer and feels that the high expectations around urban agriculture are misplaced. “It’s not a bad thing,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion.”

“The model that I would like to see is small urban gardens growing intensive things that you can’t grow elsewhere and then being a distribution center. They should focus on exotic herbs, things they could grow and sell.” He believes that urban and rural organic farmers could work more closely together in ways that maximize the strengths of each.

With Phat Beets, Max Cadji works to bring rural farmers of color into several local farmers markets, but is frustrated when urban agriculture is dismissed as a viable method of production. “When someone brings up the efficiency of urban agriculture, it’s like looking at a forest just for the value of the wood.” Proponents of urban agriculture emphasize its holistic nature: Rather than focusing solely on production, urban agriculture often integrates youth employment programs, science education, a focus on nutrition and disease-prevention, improving air quality, adding green space and beautification, and creating a safe area for relaxation in concrete-heavy neighborhoods.

Barbara Finnin clarifies, “We’re not trying to compete with a farm that has acres and acres. In urban areas we don’t have the acreage, but we do have a significant impact, especially when you think about what we can grow and grow well, for instance, cooking greens—mustard greens, collards, kale—and things like tomatoes that not a lot of people can afford. We can grow a lot here in an urban environment.”

Another common criticism of urban agriculture is that it encourages gentrification. David Roach of Mo’ Better Foods in West Oakland feels that everyone deserves a garden. “I think it’s long overdue for monies to be allocated into urban farms.” However, he worries about disparities in who ends up with access to the land. “As these communities have been redlined for so long and neglected, a lot of these blighted areas are now open season for organizations to say, ‘Hey, we have a good idea,’ and then they get it, when other people have had good ideas for a long time and haven’t gotten anything,” he says.

Cadji takes the issue very seriously. “Any time you improve a community [it] can be seen as a first step of gentrification. What it comes down to is community organizing. If the community has a say, it’s not gentrification, it’s community improvement. Everyone wants healthy food, clean neighborhoods, and green spaces. Gentrification happens when you work for a community, not with a community. It’s always in the back of our minds, and we’re always speaking about and thinking about it. If gentrification is the result, the process is wrong.”

Herrera sees Dig Deep Farms & Produce as a way to organize against gentrification by creating jobs in the community. “The answer is to ensure that people have enough power and wealth on their own to maintain those places for themselves.”


Across the board, movement leaders were cautiously optimistic about the increasing collaboration among food justice organizations in the East Bay. Jason Uribe of People’s Grocery has strong hopes that the new Urban Farm Park can help bring the movement together. “I think the City Slicker Farms piece is going to attract the idea that we need more collaboration, both here locally and even nationally. There’s so much we can learn from these incredible organizations working around food justice. If you don’t collaborate and partner, you’re not having as big of an impact as you can.”

So why hasn’t a more formal movement coalesced? Herrera answers, “Sometimes people find that doing something different, even though it may be pointed at the same objective in the long term, is a threat to what people know how to do. So it causes tension. We’re all fighting the same battle for food justice, but we do different things.”

Competition for limited amounts of grant funds for sustainable agriculture has created divisions between organizations in the past, although all of the groups contacted were supportive and eager to collaborate on the new urban farm project. Nikki Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery, recently spoke on the divisions in the movement at a UC Berkeley panel, Food Movements Unite: “When you start working together to create alternative economies, inevitably you’re going to encounter human nature. You’re going to encounter squabbles, you’re going to encounter fights. That’s why a lot of these things haven’t worked.”

Dig Deep Farms & Produce and People’s Grocery are currently working out future collaborations, and People’s Grocery is also in active discussions with City Slicker Farms to share resources and maximize strengths between organizations. Barbara Finnin is adamant that collaboration is crucial. “We’re all interdependent, we’re a food system! Of course we have to talk to one another, and support each other, and figure out how to share resources. When it comes to food justice, we’ve got to think big and work together.”

Fault lines of race and class clearly exist within the movement, but seem to be slowly healing, with growing involvement in the national food justice movement and recent turnovers in local leadership both cited as positive influences. Henderson called for introspection as the movement goes forward: “This is what I want you all to mull on: Who are you? What do you want to do? Where does your humility sit as you do your work?” Three good questions, indeed.

Jess Watson is a freelance journalist on the urban farming beat and a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at UCSC. She spends far too much time fermenting, foraging, canning, and blogging about it all from her North Oakland home. Contact her at pellucid.oakland@gmail.com, or just check out her blog at quirkyurbanite.blogspot.com.

Organizations mentioned in this article

City Slicker Farms: www.cityslickerfarms.org

Dig Deep Farms & Produce: www.digdeepfarms.weebly.com

Mo’ Better Food: www.mobetterfood.com

People’s Grocery: www.peoplesgrocery.org

Phat Beets Produce: www.phatbeetsproduce.org

Other organizations of note

Oakland Food Connection: Community-building in East Oakland, with a focus on nutritional awareness, access to healthy foods, and youth employment. They build gardens, run a mobile food cart, and cater events with fresh local foods. www.foodcommunityculture.org

OBUGS, or Oakland Based Urban Gardens: Building healthy communities through programs offered in a network of school and neighborhood gardens, green spaces, and farmers markets. www.obugs.org

Planting Justice: Founded with a model of creating permaculture-influenced gardens for homeowners on a fee-for-service basis in order to fund the construction of community gardens in Oakland’s food deserts. In 2010, 80 percent of their $120,000 budget was earned income, and they were able to hire seven part-time community organizers and edible garden landscapers. www.plantingjustice.org

Spiral Gardens and Community Food Security Project: Watch for the sign while driving down Sacramento Street in southwest Berkeley and stop in if it’s open. You’ll learn about one of the earliest nonprofits in the country to conceive of the notion of healthy community-building through gardening. Spiral Gardens was founded in the fall of 1993 as a project of the Agape Foundation for Nonviolent Social Change by a handful of individuals dedicated to urban greening, innovative organic farming methods, food security, and environmental justice issues. They now run a nursery, produce stand, and community farm, and also carry out educational and community harvesting programs. www.spiralgardens.org

Kijiji Grows: The name of this Oakland-based non-profit is the Swahili word for village. It’s a group of farmers, artists, engineers, builders, and educators who advocate for urban sustainable growing systems through aquaponic gardening. www.kijijigrows.com

Urban Tilth: Based in Richmond, they are working with west Contra Costa County schools, community-based organizations, government agencies, businesses, and individuals, with a goal of developing the capacity to produce 5 percent of the county’s food supply. Featured in our Harvest 2009 issue, which you can find online at edibleeastbay.com under the “Explore” section. www.urbantilth.org

Veggielution: A nonprofit community farm in East San Jose offering youth programs, a sliding-scale farmstand, and free community workshops and cooking classes to promote healthy eating. www.veggielution.org

EcoVillage Farm Center: With approximately six acres of farmland in Richmond, the center offers urban residents an opportunity to learn about agriculture while running the Farm 2 Table CSA program. Read more in our Fall 2007 issue, which you can find online at edibleeastbay.com under the “Explore” section. www.ecovillagefarm.org

Full Circle Farm: This sustainable 11-acre educational farm in Sunnyvale puts fresh food in Santa Clara Unified School District cafeterias. Local youth develop job and life skills through growing, harvesting, and marketing fruit and vegetable crops. www.fullcirclesunnyvale.org

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