Farm growth means more leafy greens for Oakland

City Slickers

Gardener Joseph Davis working at the City Slicker garden at Peralta and 34th streets in Oakland on Jan. 31. Photo: Mary Flaherty

City Slicker Farms, an urban farming group in West Oakland, has bought its own land, and expects to dramatically increase its output of leafy greens, vegetables and fresh eggs for local residents.

With its five existing gardens, the organization sold a total 9,000 pounds of food in West Oakland in 2012. Since its founding in 2001, the yield has been 72,000 pounds of food.

But, with the new expansion, City Slicker expects to double the amount of food it grows, according to Barbara Finnin, the organization’s executive director.

About 120 supporters – and a half-dozen geese — gathered at the groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday Jan. 31 in what’s currently an empty, grassy lot at the corner of Peralta and 28th St., not far from the MacArthur Maze.

City Slickers 2

At the groundbreaking for what will be City Slicker’s largest farm site: 1.4 acres on the site of a former paint factory. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The urban farming group is about to start building its largest farm site, 1.4 acres on what was once the site of a paint factory. The soil was cleaned of toxic substances in 2006 and has sat vacant since then.

In November 2010 City Slicker Farms received $4 million in funding for the project, from Prop. 84, a 2006 bond initiative.

City Slicker finally took ownership of the land at the beginning of this year. About $2.25 million of the funding went toward the purchase, the rest is to pay for construction.

This site is to be more than a farm – it will also be a public park. In a series of public meetings in 2010, community members decided the park should include a tot lot, lawn space and a dog run, in addition to a vegetable growing area for the farm stand, a community garden, a fruit orchard, a chicken coop, and a beehive.

On Thursday, Finnin said, “I want everything to be done by the end of 2014” – with the stress on the word want.

The new lot is the only land that City Slicker actually owns, and the group is happy to have that security.

“We’ve had to leave farms in the past when people wanted to develop,” Finnin told those assembled.  “This space represents longevity.”

Just a few blocks north is one of the group’s established gardens at Fitzgerald and Union Plaza Park, a small triangle at Peralta and 34th streets. Even in winter, that garden is filled with greens – Swiss chard, multiple varieties of kale, mustard and turnip greens.

From February through November, a weekly farm-stand is held next to the garden. The produce is sold on a sliding scale, with some of it actually given away, because, according to City Slicker, 32% of West Oakland residents live below the poverty line.

Joseph Davis, a staff member with City Slicker, works the weekly farm-stand and says customers and staff routinely exchange recipes. A survey by the group found that many of the market customers report eating more fresh produce now.

Finnin, the executive director, reported another, unexpected health benefit.

“People always say that coming into the garden, they can meet with the earth, they can de-stress. And stress in a major factor in health,” Finnin said.  “I never thought I would be talking about stress,” as a benefit of the program, she added.

A rendering of what City Slicker’s new urban farm will look like at Peralta and 28th St. superimposed onto a map. Source: City Slicker Farms

In addition to its urban farms, City Slicker has a backyard garden program. Since 2005, the group has helped more than 250 households create their vegetable gardens. City Slicker workers test the soil, build beds, and share supplies. Mentors work with the new gardeners for two years.

One of these backyard gardeners, Olugbemiga Oluwole, Sr., spoke at Thursday’s ceremony.

Oluwole, who is from Nigeria, and his wife, Barbara Lafitte-Oluwole, who is from Louisiana, both had agricultural experience growing up. But, they hadn’t been using it.

“Before, my backyard was like a junkyard. It was depressing,” he said.

They started shopping at the City Slicker farm-stand, and then asked for help with a garden about five years ago. Oluwole had to clean out the yard, but City Slicker workers built the garden beds and gave them seeds and a chicken coop. Now the couple grows cabbage, tomatoes, green onions and peppers, and they get about 15 eggs a day. Oluwole sells some of eggs to co-workers. And, as the flock grows, they sometimes enjoy a chicken for dinner.

Oluwole said he brings the chicken coop out into the street for National Night Out, and the neighboring kids come running to see the chickens.

The beauty of the program, Oluwole says, is how it spreads.

“Last Sunday, my next-door neighbors brought their own chicken coop home,” he told those attending the groundbreaking ceremony, to cheers of support.

“I think this is the wave of the future.”

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