Urban Adamah: Jewish farm takes root in West Berkeley
By Sarah Henry, Illustration by Alan Leon, Photos by Nicki Rosario
Adam Berman is no novice farmer, having previously grown food on the East Coast. But he has been bowled over by the abundant harvests at Urban Adamah, the one-acre West Berkeley farm with Jewish roots where he serves as executive director.
“I had no idea just how prolific it would be,” says Berman, marveling at the 3,000 pounds of produce the faith-based farm grew and gave away in its first six months. “You can grow a lot of food in a relatively small space.”
That’s not all. “The biggest surprise has been the response from the community,” Berman enthuses. “Not a day goes by without someone stopping in who is interested in what we do, [and] wants to volunteer, or learn how to farm. That’s been tremendously rewarding.”
Last June marked the grand opening of Urban Adamah: the Jewish Sustainability Corps, which seeks to offer environmental, educational, social justice, and spiritual lessons. Located opposite Fantasy Studios, Urban Adamah provides a residential fellowship program for young adults, summer camps for kids and teens, workshops, lectures, and a food-and-farming film series—along with fresh food for free to those in need at local food banks and shelters. It also hosts events marking the major Jewish holidays. And every Wednesday from 10am to noon there is a free farmstand frequented by about 40 families.
Beginning in March, Urban Adamah will launch a new side venture, a worm casting and composting enterprise.
“When Mama’s Worm Composting of Oakland went out of business she gave us all her infrastructure,” Berman explains. “We’re playing around with names right now. We joke we’ll call it Holy Crap or maybe Global Worming. But we’ll probably just call it Urban Worm Composting.” The worm operation, open to the public and nurseries, is expected to generate a modest amount of income. “You can’t make a ton of money from worm poo, but it should bring in a few thousand a year,” adds Berman.
Every bit helps. The annual budget for the farm for 2012 is $420,000. Public programs are slated to bring in between $40,000 and $50,000, and fellows pay $1,295 each to attend the leadership training. So Berman still needs to raise significant funds to keep the nonprofit farm afloat.
“Seventy percent of my time is devoted to fundraising,” he says. “We have enough income coming in for the next six months or so, and we’ll probably generate enough for the year, but beyond that, who knows?” To date, core support has come from the Dorot Foundation, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Repair the World, Saal Family Foundation, and UpStart Bay Area.
Urban Adamah is Berman’s baby. A UC Berkeley graduate (he has an MBA from the Haas School of Business), he named the farm with the Hebrew word for earth, adamah. The root word, adam, means human.
“I like that the name makes the connection between the earth and earthlings,” he says. The farm marries Berman’s interest in social justice issues, such as hunger and food security, with environmental issues of stewardship and spirituality. His own religious practice combines progressive Judaism with Buddhist teachings.
Aside from the challenge of finding funds for the program, the farm’s biggest problems are typical for any urban farm: dealing with pests both large (rodents) and small (aphids).
Bringing a Farming Fellowship
Berman spent seven years as the head of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut (about an hour from Hartford), where the seeds for Urban Adamah’s fellowship program were first sown. While there, Berman founded a Jewish environmental fellowship for young adults similar to the one he has started here in Berkeley. It is now in its ninth year. But the 40-year-old, who now lives in North Berkeley with his wife, says he always knew he’d bring his farming fellowship idea back to the Bay Area. And Berkeley, with its interest in sustainable food and social justice, made it the right fit for a pilot project here. “Plus Berkeley feels like home for me,” he says.
Urban Adamah offers a three-month in-house leadership-training program three times a year (spring, summer, and fall) for 12 young adults each session. The program integrates urban organic farming, social justice community service, and progressive Jewish practice. This winter, five former fellows stuck around to maintain the farm during the slow season.
“I wanted to give back to this area which has given so much to me,” says recent graduate Zach Stein, 22, who returned to the Bay Area after attending college in upstate New York. “It was the best three months of my life, so inspiring, and it’s equipped me in so many ways personally and with social justice work,” he adds. “And for many of us who grew up in a fairly secular generation, it’s been awesome to experience this spiritual reflection.” Stein hopes to stay on to help run the nascent worm business.
Program participants, who represent a range of Jewish beliefs, live in a rented house near the farm. The intensive curriculum, in a kibbutz-like setting, is designed to equip fellows with tools to bring about change in their communities. As part of the program, each intern volunteers at food security organizations in the area, including the Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice, Cooking Matters, City Slicker Farms, and People’s Grocery. Fellows have also helped out in the garden at John Muir Elementary School, Food First, and Lifelong Medical Care’s diabetes program for the indigent.
“Urban Adamah plays a crucial role in the ecology of the food justice movement of the East Bay,” says Barbara Finnian, executive director of City Slicker Farms. “Their farm is a hub of food production and community engagement, and the time the fellows provide to our organization and others like ours is invaluable.” Each week, five Urban Adamah fellows bike to West Oakland, where they work alongside City Slicker staff and community members to plant seeds at market farms, construct planter boxes from recycled lumber for backyard gardens, help with organic pest control, turn compost, and care for chickens.
As Berman explains it, the Jewish tradition’s core values of ahava (love), chessed (compassion), and tzedek (justice) inform all the activities on the farm, activities meant to strengthen young people’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. Urban Adamah also practices age-old Jewish customs such as bal tashchit (do not waste), shmita (letting the land rest), pe’ah (leaving the corners of the field for the poor), and tzaar ba’alei chayim (preventing cruelty to animals), all carried out amid the environmental and social realities of a 21st-century urban farm.
On a typical morning, fellows begin with a meditation, prayer, or yoga, and reflect on what they’re grateful for. Then staff and fellows come together over breakfast to set their intentions for the day ahead. After that, it’s off to the farm to take care of the routine chores associated with growing food, such as caring for the soil, seeding, harvesting, tending worm bins and greenhouse plants, maintaining infrastructure, and building portable pallets. Since the farm is set on a former printing press site with toxin-tainted soil, all the produce is grown in movable raised beds filled with organic soil. In the evenings, fellows take part in related study sessions; recent participants attended the Edible Education series at UC (See Fall/Winter 2011
Edible East Bay.)
An Urban Farm Innovation with Legs
There’s another reason for those portable garden beds. Berman got a lucky break when landowner Wareham Development agreed to host the farm rent-free for two years on the previously vacant lot. So the farm can call the site home through 2012 and some of 2013; beyond that is uncertain. Hence the mobile feel to the farm: all crops are grown in above-ground pallet boxes, the chicken coops are on wheels, classes are held in tents, and the greenhouses can be moved too, should a relocation prove necessary when the current lease is up.
At last year’s June opening, several hundred people, including many families with young children, turned out to tour the farm, meet chickens, bake pizzas, pickle cucumbers, make ice cream, and whip up bicycle smoothies (made under pedal power), as well as to learn a little about the philosophy behind the farm, which at that time was boasting greens, squashes, tomatoes, and other summer crops.
Local urban farming icon Novella Carpenter welcomed the newbies to the neighborhood, along with Assemblymember Nancy Skinner and Councilmember Darryl Moore. Fellow West Berkeley urban farmer Jim Montgomery, a guest faculty member, walked his goats over for children to pet.
“The more urban farms we have in this area to help fill a gap in accessibility and availability to fresh, healthy produce the better,” says Skinner, who grows her own backyard bounty in walking distance of Urban Adamah. “We need to demonstrate to people that we can grow food anywhere, and people need to see where their food comes from.”
The farm is a hit with both Jews and gentiles alike; local rabbis sing its praises, as do other leaders in the Jewish community.
“As a director of education at a local synagogue, I feel that we are truly blessed to have the farm at our fingertips,” writes Deborah Sagan-Massey of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. “Each week, 15 of our fourth-grade students have the opportunity to get their hands ‘dirty’ with Jewish learning.”
Not everyone, or even most of the program’s alumni, will take up urban agriculture, of course. But from Berman’s perspective that’s not the sole point of the project. “I’m confident they will take the gifts the program offers—engaged Judaism, environmental training, community-building skills, and leadership development—to become agents of change in their own lives in their communities.”
Despite its transitory nature, Berman sees his program putting down roots in other built-up areas.
“I hope that Urban Adamah becomes a national model for engaging Jewish young adults in environmental sustainability and urban community renewal,” he says. “The program is highly replicable. There could be an Urban Adamah site in a half-dozen cities across the country within the next 10 years.”
Info and resources
1050 Parker Street, Berkeley
At the website, you’ll find information about upcoming events at Urban Adamah, including workshops, summer camps, and movie nights.
The fellows and staff produced a video about those portable pallet beds. View it at: youtube.com/watch?v=fdhSPEDaTow.
And check out a Growing Your Greens video on the farm here:
Sarah Henry is an award-winning freelance food writer based in Berkeley and the voice behind the blogLettuce Eat Kale. Henry writes a weekly food column for Berkeleyside. Her stories on good food matters also appear on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and in magazines such as Eating Well, AFAR, and California.
Nicki Rosario is a freelance photographer working closely with the Bay Area communities to produce imagery that represents everyday life to the fullest. To see more of her work go to nickirosario.com.