Flowers in the sky: These crops grow on a Berkeley rooftop

Ask Joanna Letz how she became a flower farmer and she finds it a little hard to answer. There wasn’t one particular aha moment, although farming does run in her family.

Nevertheless, the 35-year-old, Berkeley-raised entrepreneur has cultivated flowers on a farm for several years. The latest iteration of her venture comes with a twist, however, as her crops are sown and bloom on top of a downtown apartment building that many Cal students call home.

A few months ago, Letz’s business, Bluma Flower Farm, took over the rooftop plots in the Garden Village building on Dwight and Fulton that used to be home to Top Leaf Farms.

At this time of year not much is in bloom, but there are snapdragons growing in one corner and lavender in another. In the ground are future dahlias, cosmos, lisianthus and zinnias.

For the past four years, Letz has been commuting to Sunol, which is where she first started the farm. And, despite having expanded to Berkeley, she is not yet ready to give up the lease on the land in Sunol, because farming in a city, on top of a roof, not to mention in a completely different climate, is a huge experiment.

“It’s definitely a huge learning curve,” she said. “I know a lot but I don’t know how my crops will grow on this rooftop, as I haven’t done it before, and I don’t know anyone else doing it. This is definitely the biggest leap I’ve taken with my business so far.”

While the locavore movement continues to gain strides where food is concerned, the same consideration is not typically given to flowers. Most commodity flowers are imported from abroad, and given that flowers are expected to be beautiful and pristine, they are often treated heavily with pesticides. Letz’s farm is certified organic. If couples care about serving locally grown food at their wedding reception, she hopes they will also consider where their flowers are grown.

The decision to farm flowers rather than vegetables was a practical one, she said, as flowers are more profitable.

“When I started farming, I was growing mostly vegetables, but all the farms I worked on grew flowers too,” she said. “I always knew that even if I was going to do vegetables, I would also grow flowers. But when I began my farm, I needed to focus and differentiate myself. There are a lot of vegetable growers out there.”

Letz grew up in the Elmwood, the daughter of two doctors (mother Edie Silber started East Bay Family Practice and father Gideon Letz is medical director at State Compensation Insurance Fund in San Francisco). She attended Willard Middle School – she now lives right near it – and Berkeley High. (She says more than a handful of Berkeley High graduates have become farmers.) She remains close with many of her childhood friends.

Letz focused on agriculture in California’s Central Valley for her senior thesis at Bard College and later, after working on several farms, including at Green Gulch in Marin, attended the Ecological Apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz.

Although there are several incidents that have guided her on her path, the earliest one is familial. Her maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors from what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. They spent much of the war hiding in a neighbor’s basement, after giving their daughter to a Christian family to be raised. (Joanna’s mother was born immediately afterwards, in a displaced persons camp in Germany), and they later became chicken farmers in New Jersey.

Letz said that her grandfather never really recovered from that experience, but one of the few things in life that truly brought him joy was spending time in a garden. She has fond memories of gardening with him, and the name Bluma connects her to that memory, as bluma means flower in Yiddish.

“I think I was searching for something to ground me,” said Letz. “And on some level, I knew that gardening brought levity from a very hard thing that happened in my family.”

After working on other people’s farms, she decided to go it alone in 2014 and her first growing season was in 2015. For a while, she was the only employee.

Over time, she has been able to hire others; last year she had a farm manager and she was able to take care of the business end.

“I had never done production flowers, never run a business, never managed my own employees,” she said. “I had done sales for other farms, but not for my own.”

She has relied on Kitchen Table Advisors for advice, a group that helps small farmers, which is how she learned that Benjamin Fahrer, who designed and grew vegetables on the Berkeley rooftop where she is now located, was looking to move on.

After years selling much of her inventory at farmers markets, grocery stores and to florists, she is now doing many more weddings and selling edible flowers to restaurants. Fahrer had been selling produce to local restaurants and left her a lot of culinary herbs, so she has taken over some of those accounts as well.

Being a small-business owner means constantly re-evaluating what will work, she said.

“People who have successful businesses tell me that things change and you need to go with it,” she said. “I’ve done a 360 turn with how I’m farming and what I’m doing now.”

Letz’s business has been profitable for a while now, and she is happy to be farming a short distance away from where she lives; she can now go home for lunch, if she wants to.

And she’s excited for the challenge that comes with being an urban farmer.

“It’s cool being in the city,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to show that it can happen here and can help push for more land or unused space or rooftops to be used for agriculture. There’s a lot more we could be doing on this front, and it makes for a more resilient and robust city.”

Bluma Farm takes volunteers Wednesdays through Fridays. To volunteer, email blumaflowers@gmail.com.