Estuary News

June 2020

Tending the Urban Earth and Its People

By Audrey Mei Yi Brown
Research & Art Robin Bean Crane

While most activities ground to a halt in the COVID-19 crisis, nature didn’t skip a beat at urban farms across the Bay Area. Urban farms meet an array of local needs, whether it’s for organic food, living wage jobs, a community center, or a place to connect with nature. With the COVID crisis, and with many American communities touched by loss and fighting racism, these needs have become even more acute. Farms, gardens, and nurseries across the Bay Area are rising to the challenge.

Times of extraordinary change reveal how future climate injustices may well play out: the “haves” marshal the means to protect themselves and the “have-nots” bear the burden of impacts. In particular, the nation is gaining painful insight into how pre-existing vulnerabilities and prejudices get lethally compounded in a crisis.

The voices of Bay Area farmers, shared in this story, highlight personal experiences of climate justice and community resilience. Urban farms and gardens strengthen their communities, in the face of both climate change and persistent inequality.

Gardening for Health and Justice

Yenni Copto grafts fruit trees for East Oakland’s Planting Justice, a combination farm, nursery, and education program that serves people impacted by mass incarceration and social inequity. The community the nursery serves has been her home for twelve years, and it is already experiencing tangible climate impacts.

“I remember, when I was a little girl, the heat waves didn’t used to be this hot,” says Copto. She has felt firsthand the escalation of heat and unbreathable air from wildfires, which in recent years have razed communities across the state. Many of Copto’s neighbors have asthma, a condition linked to prolonged exposure to air high in particulate matter. In East Oakland, the air is already polluted by the 880 freeway, and wildfires only exacerbate the pollution. But Copto’s neighbors have noted improved air quality around the nursery.

Planting Justice uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, in order to protect the plants they grow and the people who eat them. From the organization’s standpoint, the resilience of the land is intimately tied to the health of the people. Fresh produce in itself presents a health boost, given that the area is a food desert. “Aside from the nursery, you have to drive to get organic food that’s not processed,” says Julio Madrigal, a Planting Justice farmer.

As Copto’s community proves, a food desert is not just a place of lack. They can be dynamic communities, animated by people who have found innovative and resourceful ways to meet their needs despite their circumstances.

Illustration: Robin Bean Crane
Growing a Resilient Community

Urban farms strengthen a community’s social safety net. Even before the COVID crisis, they offered resources and mutual aid through informal community networks. “The chayote, collard greens, herbs for respiratory distress, garlic— it was all already growing before COVID,” says Wanda Stewart, a garden educator at Hoover Elementary School Garden in West Oakland.

In a time when bulk food supply chains have broken down across the country, community farms have emerged as a strength rather than vulnerability. Marianne Olney-Hamel is a farmer with Berkeley Basket CSA, which grows its produce in three Berkeley backs. The farm participates in an intricate web of cooperation. “Because we are so small and hyper-local, there is opportunity for community building and mutual aid, like some CSA members delivering boxes to those who are disabled or can’t leave the house,” says Olney-Hamel.

The farms foster relationships between neighbors, and between the community and the land. Zolina Zizi is a farmer with Urban Tilth, and she maintains the community garden along the Richmond Greenway’s three-mile community bicycle and pedestrian trail, along with a nearby edible forest that boasts more than sixty varieties of fruit trees. She has observed the mutual benefits that the Greenway and the community gain from each other. “Homeless folks have a really good relationship with the garden and help take care of it, and make sure nobody bothers it,” Zizi says. In turn, the garden’s bounty is available to all for free, as a community resource.

“It’s the ultimate in stacking functions,” says Stewart, describing the diverse benefits, including support for mental wellness, that coalesce in community gardens and farms. At Hoover Elementary, she has observed firsthand how her students’ test scores, behavioral issues, and general ability to focus improved after the school’s garden education program was implemented. At Planting Justice, the staff includes people re-entering society from jail and the prison system. The farm provides structure and a tight-knit community. “People who have worked with us have stayed out of trouble for years, because we give them the support and resources they need,” says Copto.

Adaptive Farming With Past and Future in Mind

In anticipation of a changing climate, Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas has intentionally stressed its crops with minimal watering and selected seeds for drought tolerance. Owner Scott Chang-Fleeman is entering his second growing season, selling heritage Asian produce to CSA members across the Bay Area as part of the urban greenbelt. As someone who learned how to farm during the worst drought in California history, Chang-Fleeman knows what he will be up against in the future and is preparing today. In an effort to conserve water and minimize impact, at Shao Shan all irrigation water is gathered as rainwater catchment. The farm does not divert water from streams or draw water from wells.

Not all farmers are on equal footing when it comes to preparing for climate impacts. Much of a farmer’s power and ability to plan ahead hinges on land ownership, which has been denied to many farmers of color. That inequity galvanizes Chang-Fleeman. “California’s agricultural landscape was built by people of color, and it was stolen from them. There needs to be a redistribution and re-allocation of wealth when it comes to land ownership and agriculture,” he says.

This history affects how farmers today like Minkah Taharkah can prepare for disasters. “People who come from historically marginalized communities have certain generational setbacks that impede our ability to get prepared,” says Taharkah, a farmer with the Black Earth Farms Collective in Berkeley, which practices African indigenous agroecology on UC Berkeley-owned land at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. Because they cultivate land that they don’t own, they can’t count on being able to farm it in the future, making it difficult to plan ahead. Nevertheless, the Collective is undeterred. “Working within a communal structure of different parcels of land will allow us to build a network that [provides for] different types of disaster preparedness,” she says.

Illustration: Robin Bean Crane
Healing and Health

In addition to supplying the community with food and jobs, the farms seek to shift how people care for the land and each other. Before he joined Planting Justice over ten years ago, Madrigal wasn’t aware of the pesticides and chemicals in the food he ate. “Learning about farming opened my eyes to having that connection to growing my own food, for myself and my family,” he says. As one of Planting Justice’s teachers, he hopes to pass on that awareness to his students.

When it comes to raising awareness of climate change in the community, he thinks the lessons lie in the garden. “When people grow gardens, they start to realize that we emit a lot of pollution and that we have to allow nature to recover,” he says.

Taharkah also sees implicit lessons in cultivating the land that have long-term impacts. “We learn from plants that things take time. We have to move at their speed alongside them. Continuing to return to the earth together is an integral part of addressing all these crises,” she says.

“I don’t think the climate change piece is in any way separate from the people piece,” says Stewart. “The people systems have served me as well: sharing resources, seeds, relationships. Those relationships are what get us through. We’re tending the earth and tending its people.”

Shao Shan Farm

Planting Justice

Urban Tilth

The Berkeley Basket

Black Earth Farms

Hoover Elementary School Garden

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Top photo: Planting Justice Nursery, East Oakland

About the author

Audrey Brown is an independent writer based in the Bay Area who works at the intersection of environment, culture, social equity, food, art and climate. She covers environmental climate justice issues for Estuary, among other topics.

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