Fred Lake and Justin Vandenbroeck of Fleet Farming. Photo: Kate Williams
Fred Lake and Justin Vandenbroeck at Fleet Farming’s farmlette at 10th and Campbell streets in West Oakland. Photo: Kate Williams
Fred Lake and Justin Vandenbroeck at Fleet Farming’s farmlette at 10th and Campbell streets in West Oakland. Photo: Kate Williams

It’s a sunny day in West Oakland. I pull up to the corner of 10th and Campbell streets and look for produce. The lettuce and vegetable sprouts are at first a little hard to find, but eventually I spot three long rows of dark, healthy soil tucked in the back of a church’s yard.

This is a “farmlette” — a mini urban farm — run by Fleet Farming.

Fleet Farming was founded in Orlando, Florida, in 2014. It came about during a brainstorming “think and do tank” session put on by Orlando-based nonprofit IDEAS for Us. Its basic concept is a reimagining of sharecropping — without the negative connotation. Fleet Farming asks for volunteers to donate portions of their yards to transform into farmlettes, and then the organization will plant, water, weed and harvest the land. Depending on the resident’s financial circumstances, Fleet Farming can partially or fully subsidize the installation and watering costs. In return, the yard owners can harvest five to 10% of the produce for free.

Over the last two years, the program has grown from five pilot farms to 24 converted lawns and around 4,000 pounds of harvested produce across three international programs in Florida, Oakland and Uganda. There are currently around 300 people on a waiting list in Orlando to have their yards farmed, said Oakland branch manager Justin Vandenbroeck.

Vandenbroeck moved to West Oakland a year and a half ago, and first helped to establish the Bottoms Up Community Garden. He launched the Oakland branch of Fleet Farming this spring. In the span of only a few months, he’s farmed three lawns, negotiated contracts with six Oakland restaurants and hired his first employee, a 17-year-old graduate of the WOW Farms youth internship, Fred Lake, who is working as the assistant farm manager this summer.

Fred Lake of Fleet Farming. Photo: Kate Williams
Assistant farm manager Fred Lake moves soil at a farmlette in West Oakland. Photo: Kate Williams

“What’s unique about the Oakland branch is that we’re very lucky to have this incredible youth internship program across the street, and we can get great people like Fred [to work with us],” said Vandenbroeck. “He knows a lot for someone who’s just 17 years old.”

The new position carries much greater responsibility for Lake. “[At WOW Farms] we had just one job each week,” he said. “Here, I’m basically doing it all, planting, delivery, working with volunteers.”

Fleet Farming bases its farming model around fast-growing produce such as lettuces, greens and small vegetables like radishes, carrots and beets. “We need to be able to grow and harvest lots of produce,” said Vandenbroeck. Much of this produce is highly perishable, but this fact works to Fleet Farming’s advantage.

“The quality of the greens is really noticeable,” said Vandenbroeck. “Ours haven’t been cut, put in a box, refrigerated and shipped. It’s just picked and delivered on the same day, maybe even a few hours later. It’s so fresh.”

And that’s the draw for the local restaurants already using Fleet Farming produce. The farms’ greens are making appearances in salads at Miss Ollie’sHen House, The Cook and Her Farmer, Desco, Flora and Parlour.

Newest Fleet Farming plot. Photo: Kate Williams
The newest farmlette is currently being built out near 12th and Campbell streets. Photo: Kate Williams

All of the produce is delivered via bicycle — a fairly short ride between the West Oakland farmlettes and the restaurants. Using bicycles for delivery cuts carbon emissions down to almost nothing, and it helps to keep production hyper-local. Plus, said Lake, “It’s really good exercise.”

I met Vandenbroeck and Lake at Fleet Farming’s farmlette in the yard of Bay Community Fellowship at 10th and Campbell. Fleet Farming is managing a modest three-bed operation in the back of the church’s yard. I spied rows of tatsoi and teensy radish sprouts, but much of the rest of the produce was harvested the previous Sunday during a “swarm ride.”

It is these swarm rides that are the heart and soul of Fleet Farming. Community members near and far gather twice a month to do work on the farmlettes — harvesting, seeding, building rows — and they travel between the locations on bicycle.

“What’s important is activating the community during the rides,” said Vandenbroeck. “You’re not just sitting in a bed gardening, you’re moving around … and experiencing a neighborhood [you’ve] never seen before.” Indeed, Vandenbroeck said that volunteers from as far as San Francisco and Concord came out to help at a recent ride.

Swarm ride volunteers work at a Fleet Farming farmlette on June 5. Photo: Fleet Farming Oakland/Facebook
Swarm ride volunteers work at a Fleet Farming farmlette on June 5. Photo: Fleet Farming Oakland/Facebook

Swam rides, however, aren’t just easy, low-cost labor. They involve a lot of education.

“I have to teach everyone to do things like seed,” said Lake. Sometimes volunteers get it, but others, Lake said, need more instruction. He walked around and pointed out rows of radishes that had been planted with too many seeds, and those that were full of gaps. “But everyone has a good time,” he said.

“Most [volunteers] have never done anything ag-related at all,” said Vandenbroeck. But neither he nor Lake have extensive agricultural training either. “Neither of us have masters degrees in agriculture. We’re just regular folks from the city planting seeds.”

Vandenbroeck got his start urban farming while in college in Tallahassee, Florida. He merged his interests in healthy eating and social advocacy by helping to run a half acre urban farm and at-risk youth gardening program in low-income communities in the city.

Lake grew up helping his grandmother in her vegetable garden, and when he heard that some of his friends had gotten internships at WOW Farms, he decided to apply. The interest has stuck. “I want to keep farming [when I get older],” he said. “It’s something I want to continue to do when I have my own house. I want to have my own garden and sell produce to restaurants.”

Justin Vandenbroeck of Fleet Farming. Photo: Kate Williams
Justin Vandenbroeck of Fleet Farming. Photo: Kate Williams

“We want to show that anyone can farm,” said Vandenbroeck. “All you need is accessibility to land. And this [idea] is especially important in West Oakland because it is a food desert. [With Fleet Farming] we’re increasing food access and increasing food security here.”

So far, Fleet Farming has proved to be a popular endeavor in the neighborhood. The pastor at Bay Community Fellowship “is very supportive especially because there is a youth involvement aspect,” said Vandenbroeck. And “lots of kids from the church are interested in helping.”

“Somebody just asked me the other day, ‘Can I come work with you?’” added Lake.

Fred Lake and Justin Vandenbroeck of Fleet Farming. Photo: Kate Williams
Fred Lake and Justin Vandenbroeck pick weeds. Photo: Kate Williams

“I’d love to serve all of them but we do need to be careful and look for people that have the same great training and enthusiasm as Fred,” said Vandenbroeck. That, and they need to make money before they can continue to hire. Vandenbroeck said he’s hopeful that they’ll have built six farmlettes by the end of the summer, greatly increasing their potential revenue.

Fleet Farming also gets financial support through grant money. The Oakland branch currently receives money from the Clif Bar Family Foundation, as well as StopWaste, a public agency reducing waste in Alameda County.

But the one of the most important paths to growth, said Vandenbroeck, is to continue to foster relationships between Fleet Farming and its neighbors. “We need to be building relationships between old and new residents,” he said. “We think it is really important to build community in this changing neighborhood.”

Connect with Fleet Farming Oakland on Facebook and Twitter. Join the organization for its next swarm ride July 3. All swarm rides begin at 9 a.m. at Bottoms Up Community Garden at 8th and Peralta streets in Oakland. West Oakland homeowners interested in having their yards farmed can reach out here. Yards must be within one mile of current operations near the West Oakland BART, they must be close to a non-leaky water spout, they must receive at least five to six hours of sunlight, and the homeowner mustn’t spray pesticides in the area.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...