2 East Bay companies redefine urban farming

Benjamin Fahrer at work at the Top Leaf Farms location on the roof of 2201 Dwight Way in Berkeley. Photo: Alix Wall

One hundred miles, give or take, from farm to table, is the ideal maximum distance for produce to be considered local. But there are some companies that are greatly improving on that goal — instead of triple-digit mileage, they’re offering produce that’s grown within just a few miles. Even better, when there’s a short distance involved, delivery happens by bicycle or on foot, eliminating any reliance on fossil fuels.

Traditionally, this type of urban farming takes place in abandoned lots, backyards or parks. But two new East Bay companies are changing up that paradigm.

The larger of the two operations is Top Leaf Farms, a rooftop garden at 2201 Dwight Way in Berkeley. The building, which was built by the Oakland-based Nautilus Group, Inc., is called Garden Village and functions as student housing for UC Berkeley. It was completed in January 2016 and Top Leaf began installing its garden in August 2016. By October it was up and running, growing produce in 10,000 of its 12,000 square feet of space.

Top Leaf Farms is in contract for another rooftop garden at Telegraph and 51st Street in Oakland, where the garden will be grown across 30,000 square feet of roof space. The mixed-use building will include apartments, as well as a Whole Foods’ 365 store. In fact Top Leaf is already gardening in the vacant lot on which the building will be constructed; that garden will be dug up once construction begins. While Top Leaf Farms is in discussion to sell produce to the new 365 store headed to the building, nothing has been confirmed yet.


Benjamin Fahrer uses a Quick Greens Harvester (made by Farmer’s Friend LLC) at Top Leaf Farms. Photo: Alix Wall

Top Leaf has just two full-time employees. Benjamin Fahrer is the co-owner, principal designer and farm manager, and he is a 20-year veteran of organic farming in such places as Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center in Sonoma, as well as Esalen in Big Sur.

No doubt he would still be farming in a more rural locale had he not fallen in love with his wife, whose career requires her to be in an urban environment — she is a physician at UCSF and performs in a band.

There’s been a bit of a learning curve when taking his farming skills to the roof of a building. For one, much less soil can be used because of weight restrictions.

“Agriculture is a contrived system where we impose a production system on nature to serve our needs to extract product,” Fahrer explained. “On a roof, it’s even more contrived in that it’s separated from the earth. On the ground, you’re working with nature, and here you’re working with concrete, steel and metal. Fabricated materials have a certain rigidity you can’t be flexible with.”

The rooftop farm created by Top Leaf Farms at 2201 Dwight Way in Berkeley. Photo: Alix Wall

Whatever challenges a rooftop presents, though, are not apparent to a farming novice visiting the roof on Dwight. One can walk through numerous terraces and see neat rows of crops growing; it looks no different than a regular farm, except for the fact that you can also see the tops of nearby office buildings and past those, the Bay Bridge in the distance.


They may call the arugula they grow “arufula” or “aroofula”

Right now Fahrer is growing numerous varieties of kale and lettuces, arugula, pea shoots, herbs, flowers and more. Fahrer said he’s already determined which variety of arugula grows best on the roof — they may call it “arufula,” or “aroofula.”

Top Leaf sells produce to the students in the building in limited quantities, but makes most of its income with its “RSA,” or restaurant-supported agriculture, as Fahrer likes to call it. It currently supplies six restaurants with produce and all are within a three-mile radius. These include all three of Charlie Hallowell’s restaurants (Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose), Juhu Beach Club, Chez Panisse, Ramen Shop, Benchmark Pizzeria and Gather.

“Ideally the [building’s] residents would take the majority of food that’s grown above them,” Fahrer said. “But right now the restaurants provide a constant revenue stream.”

Top Leaf Farms has an advisory board that includes author and sustainability expert Raj Patel and former Oakland Food Policy Council director Esperanza Pallana, and is in contract to design a handful of other projects, but Fahrer said they are very particular about their clients. The company has had a few experiences where a developer asks for a rooftop garden with the latest green technology, but after entering into a discussion, “at a certain point we realize we don’t agree with the ethics of that development,” said Fahrer. “We’ve declined because of gentrification and the way in which they’re developing because they’re evicting people from their homes.”

The hope for the Temescal farm, which Fahrer expects will be finished in 2019, is for it to be “a worker-owned cooperative, where we can train and employ local people to become part owners, and create more of a livelihood from urban agriculture,” he said.


Oaktown Farms: The only way is up

John Wichmann of Oaktown Farms (left) sells lettuce to Paul Bosky at the Temescal farmers market. Photo: Alix Wall

Meanwhile, another Oakland farm has taken shape, albeit on a much smaller scale. If you’ve shopped at the Temescal farmers market these past few weeks, you will likely have seen a white tower, attached to a bike trailer, with various types of greens growing in it.

This is Oaktown Farms.

While vertical towers are a new fad in urban agriculture, Oakland engineer John Wichmann has built one of his own design that he believes is better than any on the market.

“There’s one person making a tower system similar to mine but you’re only able to grow plants on one side of a four-sided box. Why not utilize all the real estate you have?” he asks.

Noting that this other system grows nine plants in the same amount of space in which he can grow 40, Wichmann said his tower grows 1,000 plants in 100 square feet of space.

Then there’s the portability factor. He can disconnect a piece of his farm, attach it to his bike, and ride it approximately three-quarters of a mile to the market. Wichmann doesn’t give out the exact address of the farm, but it is on a friend’s lot somewhere within a one mile radius of the Claremont Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The tower allows me to grow, transport and sell from one device, which is unique,” Wichmann said.

Oaktown Farms grows all of its produce in a vertical system. Photo: Alix Wall

Wichmann’s day job is as an engineer at Nauto, a company that’s competing with Google and Uber in the self-driving car space. His interest in gardening has been lifelong; growing up in Southern California, his father was a food technologist and his mother a dietician.

“My dad had a compost pile in the 1970s when I was a kid,” he said. “I always thought that was normal.”

His high school had a Future Farmers of America organization, and also offered advanced courses in wood and metal shop, all of which Wichmann took advantage of.

But while farming had always been a hobby, Wichmann was especially inspired when learning about aquaponics systems. “I got really excited about that because you can get fish and greens in the same system,” he said.

Like Fahrer, Wichmann was also inspired by the fact that more and more people are living in an urban environment. He thinks that new food systems should be feeding them.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of California’s drought.

While it’s hard to quantify, Wichmann believes his system uses 90% less water than conventional farming.

“When you water plants, a lot of it runs off and some evaporates,” he said. With his vertical-farming methods, called a close-looped system, “the water is in a reservoir if it’s not being sprayed onto the roots, and the only water that’s taken up [goes to] the roots.”

The Oaktown Farms stand at the Temescal farmers market. Photo: Alix Wall

Wichmann’s system also prevents waste, as customers only cut the plants when they buy them; whatever isn’t sold remains planted until the next market.

Wichmann also argues that his produce has better health benefits than traditionally farmed vegetables. He said that once you cut a plant, it slowly starts to lose its nutritional value. His are as close to living as you can get.

He’s been bringing to market a mix of Asian greens like tatsoi and mizuna, as well as heirloom varieties of lettuce and mustard greens. People have been puzzled so far, and they sometimes inquire about buying the tower rather than the greens from it.

This last request may become a reality: Wichmann has some big ideas about how a tower like his could alleviate hunger in certain parts of the world, and he is busy pitching it around.