By Piper Wheeler
Enera and Yessica are kneeling in the dirt in their Carhartt overalls, harvesting fresh arugula, when they give me a crash course in small-business economics.
“It’s all about supply and demand, and you have to keep that in equilibrium,” Yessica says.
She expertly scissors through gathered handfuls of the spicy-smelling greens, then clips their ends and arranges them into neat bundles in a shallow wooden box.
“A lot of it is just calculation, and figuring out how much you can sell something for. And you have to calculate the labor costs, cost of seed,” explains Enera.
These young women are nearly finished with their six-month internship at West Oakland Woods (WOW) Farm, a small nonprofit in West Oakland that aims to develop youths’ business and management skills while imparting a comprehensive education in sustainable, organic urban farming.
We are in a small triangular lot in the Prescott neighborhood, just blocks from the West Oakland BART station. Every few minutes, conversation is interrupted as trains clatter over the above-ground tracks along Seventh Street.
This ground has been farmed sustainably since 1999, when landowner Philip Krohn planted beds of produce here. He enlisted a squadron of community volunteers to help provide fresh, organic produce to the neighborhood, which has long been characterized as a food desert due to its lack of grocery stores.
In its early days, WOW Farm operated a volunteer-run Saturday market to distribute its produce onsite.
In 2005, Krohn stepped back from the farm and invited City Slicker Farms, another West Oakland urban-farm nonprofit, to take over operations. Then, in 2012, Krohn partnered with Game Theory Academy, a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy and business skills in Oakland’s schools and juvenile detention centers, to create the youth business program that’s still thriving today.
WOW Farms operates this lot as their produce farm. Not far away is their newly developed commercial flower farm, situated on the grounds of the 16th Street Station, the long-derelict passenger train station beneath Freeway 880.
Both enterprises employ cohorts of Oakland youth who are paid for their labor under farm managers. These young people, mostly high-school students, oversee all aspects of the farm. They gather twice a week for hours of whirlwind planting, weeding, harvesting and compost maintenance. Farm managers teach soil science and best practices for organic pest control.
Each week, too, the students transport their wares to some of Oakland’s best restaurants, where chefs eagerly snap up their baskets of produce. If you’ve eaten at Hopscotch, Flora or Duende, you might have tasted some fancy greens or radishes from these beds.
Farm Manager Kana Azhari emphasizes the importance of these restaurant relationships. “When the youth bring their produce into the kitchen, they get to hear from the chef, they see the work that’s going on in the kitchens; they see that whole other side of the business,” she says.
Each cohort also benefits from the resources of Game Theory Academy. The nonprofit hosts Monday evening classes that teach the young farmers tangible business skills.
In addition to the day-to-day challenges of helping to run the farm, the interns create mock businesses, practice management skills, and learn how to handle their own — and their future companies’ — money.
Still hard at work over the arugula, Enera and Yessica want to tell me about ecology. In the past few months, they have become expert at making compost.
“If a bed fails, we have to figure out why. … Maybe we didn’t layer the soil right, or some kind of bugs got to it,” Yessica says.
Enera holds forth on what seems to be a highly effective pest-control system. It involves silver ribbons fluttering from stakes (“Birds think that’s fire,” she says), as well as a sonic device that scares off gophers.
“Also, we pick the bugs off and throw them in the bushes,” she adds.
Not far away, other students are planting radish and kale seeds. In the next bed are young sprouts of giant red mustard.
Although WOW Farm no longer operates its Saturday market, the interns still use the farm to engage with neighbors. On Halloween, they invited children to come for face-painting, treats and a tour of the farm.
And local children frequently stop by to snag a taste of whatever’s being harvested. Fruit trees — guava, two types of apple and plum — are not cultivated for sale, so the farmers freely share their bounty with passing kids. “They love the produce,” Enera says. “Love, love, love it.”
On my way out, Enera, universally acknowledged in these parts as the Guava Queen, picks me two perfect pineapple guavas. Not to be outdone, Yessica gives me an enormous Pink Lady apple. I leave them to their arugula, and Enera cries, “Make sure to tell them about my guava!”
The guava was delicious: a tender tart rind and a sweet, pinkish, juicy heart.
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