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A Look on the Sunnyside of Richmond: Sunnyside Organic Seedlings

sunnyside-0083_smA Look on the Sunnyside of Richmond:

Sunnyside Organic Seedlings

Pity the indecisive gardener, snared in the bounty of Sunnyside Organic Seedlings’ farmers’ market booth. Lettuces are easy: six different types come in each variety pack, each pert baby ruffled, frilled, or speckled in deepest magenta or new-leaf green. But then come the herbs, far beyond the usual parsley and cilantro. Is this the year to try lovage, which looks (and tastes) like a toughly aromatic celery? In springtime, hours could be lost just choosing between the 60 varieties of sturdy, quirkily named heirloom tomatoes. Move on to autumn’s kales and broccolis, chards and cauliflowers, and before you realize, you’ve picked out enough to fill up not just your own backyard but your neighbor’s, too.

Where do all these green treasures get their start? A place that too many Bay Area dwellers only connect with Chevron and crime: Richmond.

“Richmond used to be the salad bowl of the Bay Area,” Sunnyside founder Vernay ‘Pilar’ Reber tells me as we walk through the greenhouses on the seven-acre property she leases near the Richmond Parkway. Pointing out the 50-year-old wooden water tank still in use, she says that this land has been used for agriculture since the early 1900s, part of what was once an 80-acre farm growing sunnyside-0060_smlettuce and cabbage. The climate’s perfect, she says, mild and cool by Contra Costa standards, with steady marine breezes to help keep fungal diseases and insect infestations at bay. Longtime commercial flower growers still tend orchids and other blooms in greenhouses up and down the street.

Pilar battles Richmond’s reputation whenever she sets up shop at the farmers’ market. “I want to change that conversation, make it so that there’s different questions being asked about Richmond,” she says. Already, she sees a lot of under-the-radar urban farming in the area, spearheaded by organizations like Urban Tilth and Lots for Crops.

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Pilar started her nursery career in Florida, working as a pesticide applicator in thecountry’s third largest commercial greenhouse. “All the pansies and ferns you see at Walmart and Home Depot? We grew them.” Soon, she was a manager, overseeing the many chemicals required to keep the close-packed plants looking shiny and shelf-ready at all times. Growth inhibitors stopped plants from getting leggy if they had to be held for a week or two; constant fertilizer drips meant rootbound plants hardly needed soil to stay green. The chemical-company reps were the smart guys with all the answers. They took her out to lunch whenever a competitor started calling or a new pesticide came on the market.

All business as usual—until Pilar noticed her co-workers complaining of chronic skin and respiratory ailments, and saw that many of them had kids with similar birth defects. She started studying organic nursery methods, introducing beneficial insects and other holistic, integrated botanical practices into her workplace. In 2002, she headed to California to complete an intensive six-month apprenticeship in organic farming and gardening through the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at UC Santa Cruz. From then on, she said, her life changed, and she became dedicated to organics. After a few more yearssunnyside-0025_sm working for Taiwanese orchid growers in Salinas, she had a firm desire to build her own company.

The business is still small, but Pilar is eager to see it become increasingly sustainable. El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company on San Pablo Avenue has asked her to grow cut flowers, and she has other enterprises brewing, such as the 1,500 whorls of aquaponic lettuce that are growing in a long, shallow pool connected to a tank full of swimming koi. The fish excrete nitrogen and other nutrients that are then taken up by the plants, which grow twice as fast as their soil-bound counterparts, using 90 percent less water in the process. Learning how to create (and troubleshoot) a closed-loop ecosystem like this one, Pilar says, “taught me more about Mother Nature” than two decades of commercial growing.

In the corner of another greenhouse, ducks and chickens peck and squawk, while three goats nibble down weeds around the property. Just outside, there’s a strip of good soil under cultivation, where beets, squash, kale, chard, and lettuces thrive. Sunnyside’s staff works this in partnership with the nearby Bay Area Rescue Mission. Men in the Mission’s free 14-month rehabilitation program come out to hoe, weed, plant, and pick, taking what they harvest back to the Mission’s kitchen. “It’s a win for us,” said Tim Hammack, who cooked at Bouchon in Yountville before becoming the Mission’s executive chef. “The men get the benefit of being out in the sunshine, they get job skills, and we’re eating local, fresh food. It all works really well.”

sunnyside-0007_smLook for Sunnyside Organic Seedlings at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market in Oakland on Saturday, as well as at Berkeley Horticulture and East Bay Nursery. February through October, Sunnyside holds a monthly ‘last Saturday’ open house from 10am to 2pm. Upcoming dates are August 25, September 29, and October 27. Info: organic.biz or call 510.221.5050

—Stephanie Rosenbaum

—Photos by Nicki Rosario

Stephanie Rosenbaum is a longtime Bay Area food writer and the author of The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press), Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams-Sonoma), and Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books). She blogs for Bay Area Bites on KQED.org as well as on her own site, Adventures of the Pie Queen, www.piequeen.blogspot.com .

Nicki Rosario is a freelance photographer working closely with local communities to produce imagery that represents everyday life to the fullest. To see more of her work go to www.nickirosario.com .

Pictured Top Left: Pilar Reber. Middle Left: hydroponic lettuce and koi pond.  Bottom Right: Bay Area Rescue Mission garden.

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