Backyard gardeners on a field trip to Soul Flower Farm on May 9, 2015. Photo: courtesy City Slicker Farms

By Piper Wheeler

The vacant lot at the corner of Peralta and 28th streets in West Oakland doesn’t look like much at the moment. Razor wire and cyclone fencing enclose 1.4 acres of overgrown grass and flowering weeds, with just a small shed and a few shade structures built near its center.

Across the street, at a salvage yard, giant hydraulic arms stack shiny cubes of compressed steel and aluminum. A ragtag line of pickups waits to sell their loads of broken fridges and scavenged scrap.

If the urban farming nonprofit City Slicker Farms gets their way, the salvage yard’s new neighbor will soon be producing thousands of pounds of vegetables, stone fruits, fresh eggs and honey. This mixed neighborhood of industrial and residential properties in West Oakland will then be home to the region’s premier urban farm and a center for agricultural education.

The shed will house farm implements and supplies, and those shade structures will shelter a sliding-scale farmers’ market. The land they sit on, already cleaned of contaminants from its past life as a paint factory, will be graded to make room for fruit trees, green space, a playground and dog run, all open to public use.

After receiving $4 million from the state via a 2006 bond initiative, City Slicker Farms purchased this lot in 2013 at a reported cost of $2.25 million. The urban farming nonprofit is now near the end of a Barnraiser crowdfunding campaign to raise an additional $25,000, which they say will enable them to begin construction on the land.

As of the afternoon of June 3, the campaign had garnered over $18,000 in tax-deductible donations. In order to receive any of the cash, though, the nonprofit must reach its $25,000 goal by June 15.

That amount is admittedly a small portion of the $1 million in additional funding that City Slicker is currently raising through grants and major donors. But crowdfunding has been key to the nonprofit’s efforts to engage local residents and to provide those they serve with a sense of direct investment, says development and communications manager Cora Lee Garcia.

The current, ambitious plans for this lot are the result of over two years of community engagement, including public meetings, surveys and consultations with local gardeners and educators.

City Slicker Farms’ planned urban farm and park. Image: City Slicker Farms
City Slicker Farms’ planned urban farm and park. Image: City Slicker Farms

Once constructed, the site’s beehives, chicken coops, greenhouses and orchards will serve as both educational models and food-production sites. A “nutrition demo zone” and outdoor classroom will provide further learning opportunities. And a large expanse of market beds will funnel fresh produce to the on-site farmstand, which will provide healthy food at a sliding scale to this underserved neighborhood.

New for the nonprofit are the planned community gardens, which it says will provide over twenty personal plots to apartment dwellers and others who can’t grow food at home.

All told, the new farm and park will more than double the organization’s current output of fresh produce. Its three market farms now grow between 7,000 and 9,000 pounds of food per year.

That number fluctuates in part due to difficulties inherent to working borrowed land, Garcia notes. Outputs will be both expanded and stabilized through ownership of this larger plot.

Because its market farms are located on borrowed land, City Slicker gardeners have several times been forced to uproot established gardens and orchards. Having a permanent site will greatly expand the gardeners’ ability to grow fruit trees, which can require many years to become established, Garcia says. And land ownership will enable City Slicker to be a permanent presence in this fast-changing neighborhood.

Active since 2001, City Slicker says it has so far helped Oakland residents grow over 219,000 pounds of food. The market farms currently grow produce that is distributed at affordable prices through a weekly farmer’s market. A greenhouse at the Ralph Bunche School fosters seedlings for sale and for the organization’s own use.

City Slicker’s innovative backyard garden program has helped over 300 low-income households grow food at home. The program provides free supplies, volunteers to help build and plant new beds, and two-year mentorships to novice gardeners.

The nonprofit is also active in schools, and connects West Oakland youth with paid farming internships.

City Slicker Farms will be at the corner of Peralta and 28th streets in West Oakland. Image: courtesy City Slicker Farms

Much of West Oakland is a food desert, with inadequate grocery stores and little fresh food to be found. About a third of residents live in poverty, exacerbating problems with health, longevity, nutrition and food security.

Read more about West Oakland food issues on NOSH

Programs like the backyard garden project emphasize self-sufficiency and skill-sharing, which, the organization notes, can foster social bonds and community pride. Simply having access to green space and opportunity to garden can help to relieve stress for urban residents, former director Barbara Finnin noted at the urban farm’s groundbreaking in 2013.

On the first day of June, just a few blocks north of their new lot, one of City Slicker’s established farm sites was bursting with crops.

The Fitzgerald and Union Plaza Park at Peralta and 34th streets is owned by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and since 2010 has hosted a City Slicker market farm.

There, raised beds boast an impressive array of greens, peas and squash. Outside the garden gate on a sunny afternoon, a half-dozen people relaxed and chatted on the park’s benches, shaded by tall trees. It’s not too hard to imagine the scene expanding into the vacant lot to the south, and this neighborhood gathering there to sow new crops.

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