If you started gardening during the pandemic, when there were shortages of everything, you might now be asking yourself: What am I supposed to do with all that zucchini?
The Crop Swap, an iconic but little-known Berkeley food sharing event, was designed to solve this very problem. The swap has flown under the radar for many years — overshadowed by better-known food destinations such as the Berkeley Bowl and North Berkeley’s culinary district — but it’s an idea whose time has definitely come.
Anyone who attended this very small but intimate gathering in the past couple of weeks would have been able to take home and sample sun-dried ground cherries (which taste like an exotic raisin); nasturtium seeds (which are delightfully pungent, with a hint of garlic); ginormous and exotic Hida Beni turnips; or rhubarb (“what do you do with that?”). They would also have exchanged ideas about making or using “nasturtium capers,” rhubarb fool, and pickled radishes.
The swap kicked off this year on June 7 and meets every Monday night during growing season at 6:30 p.m.
The swap meets every Monday night during growing season at 6:30 p.m., in the bucolic setting of Ohlone Park, at Sacramento and Delaware streets, right across from the North Berkeley BART. People arrive by foot, car, bike or BART and gather to the sound of musicians playing old-time music. There is a hand-made banner announcing the event, some picnic blankets on the ground to place excess produce, and a couple of folding tables.
It’s a simple concept, but also very profound. The swap is not just about exchanging fruits and veggies, or chocolate and homemade kombucha. It’s about building a community, encouraging self-sufficiency, and reducing our carbon footprint by growing and sharing food close to home.
“We wanted to build on the concept of urban agriculture,” said Carole Bennett Simmons, one of the three co-founders of Transition Berkeley, which sponsors the swap. “But we decided to make it more of a potluck than a strict swap: You put your contribution on the table, and people share freely.” It’s not a one-for-one exchange, and everyone is welcome, even without bringing crops.
On a typical Monday one might find arugula, lettuces, marjoram, thyme, mint, Meyer lemons, basil, morning glory seedlings, parsley, garlic chives, purple artichokes, turnips, radishes, feverfew daisies, and of course zucchini and zucchini flowers. Later on in the summer there will be tomatoes and cucumbers, eggplants and peppers, figs and plums. In the winter there will be broccoli, cabbage, kale and collards.
Vegetable learning curve
There is a palpable sense of anticipation as people arrive at the swap and start checking out the offerings. Questions are asked about unusual items, which might be produce or seedlings or flowers. Who brought the nasturtium seeds? What can you do with them? What kind of radish is that? What is feverfew good for? How do you plant those poppy seeds?
“The swap is a great way for people to share, and to get to know their neighbors,” said Lori Hines, one of the Transition Berkeley steering committee members. “With crops, you usually have too much of something all at once. You don’t want to see it go to waste, so the swap is a great opportunity” to trade for things that don’t grow in your garden.
Hines, who has a large vegetable garden in her South Berkeley backyard, has been involved with the group since 2013. During that time, she has explored foods she would not otherwise have tried. “I’m not a hot pepper person,” she said. “But I’ll try one, or maybe a couple, and that’s kind of fun. You are more open to trying new things if you get something at the crop swap because someone is there to tell you about it.”
“A lot of things I’ve tried are from South America,” she said. “There’s a fruit that looks like a little watermelon, and tastes like a little sweet cucumber. It’s called — wait a minute, I have to look it up — pepino dulce.” She now has a bush growing in her backyard.
Jenifer Azulay got involved with the swap because she was looking for community. “I don’t have a lot of family here, and I wanted to set down some roots,” she said. “The moment I went to my first swap, it was an immediate feeling of being at home and having a community. Everyone is so welcoming, and there is so much to learn from people.”
Azulay began going to the swaps when her son Max was an infant. He is now seven, and an active participant, handing out the playing cards which determine the order by which participants select their items from the swap. “Max likes to sprout seedlings,” Azulay said. “He doesn’t understand the space limitations of our garden.” The swap offers them a chance to find homes for excess seedlings.
“This year I am trying to turn up my turnip game,” Azulay said. “Yesterday I made a salad for the first time with raw Tokyo turnips, with a recipe I got from a library book.”
The swap also introduced Azulay to pickling. “Someone used to bring in lacto-fermented vegetables, and he gave me a little taste,” she said. “It activated all the cells in my body. Over the course of a few weeks, he taught me how to begin pickling, and now it’s a regular part of my life.”
Azulay also got her first-ever kombucha SCOBY (starter) from Catherine Rose Crowther, one of the musicians at the swap. “She wrote out the sweetest little instructions with it,” Azulay said. “It felt like a very Berkeley experience, getting your kombucha SCOBY from a musician at the swap.”
The crop swap is the produce equivalent of a little free library: Bring some, take some, share the joy. But neither the swap nor the little free libraries were born in Berkeley. While Simmons had gotten the idea for the crop swap after seeing one in Albany, the idea itself actually originated in England.
Think global, act local
“Transition is a movement that has been growing since 2005,” according to the British group, called Transition Network. “It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to create solutions together. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on connection with self, others and nature.” The purpose of the movement is to overcome a sense of disconnection “because the world’s huge challenges feel more manageable if addressed at the local scale.” There are now over 1,000 transition groups worldwide, and 326 of them are in the U.S.
Since the group started in Berkeley in 2011, it’s met in several locations, some of them in South Berkeley. But the location that seems to draw the most people is the North Berkeley swap, likely because it’s near BART and has a lot of visibility. The event leaders would like to see more swaps across the city, though. “It doesn’t need to be something that’s just once a week,” Azulay said. “It can be a way of life, connecting to our food system and sharing information.
Transition Berkeley does receive a few grants, but it’s an all-volunteer organization with a budget of only about $10,000 a year, Bennett Simmons said. During the pandemic, the group began working on several pollinator gardens all around Berkeley. And Transition also sponsors four Repair Clinics annually, encouraging people to repair and reuse rather than replace broken belongings.
“Our goal is to help each other be self-sufficient, and also to help one another,” Bennett Simmons said. “We are building community through sharing our own strength, knowledge and skills. It’s a very exciting thing.”
Berkeley’s Crop Swap is every Monday at 6:30 p.m. “until fall,” at the Ohlone Greenway at Sacramento and Delaware streets, across from the North Berkeley BART. Participants are encouraged to bring “any homemade goodies, seeds, seedlings, extra vegetable and fruit harvest or anything else you have to share,” but “if you don’t have anything to bring, that’s totally ok too — just come with your brilliant self and your desire to help foster a connected, sustainable community.”