Life in the 'hood can be stressful, but moving to the country is no walk in the park when expectations are high. Just ask Jason Uribe, farm manager at a shaggy-looking plot that's part of People's Grocery's five-year-old mission to bring decent produce to West Oakland.
The nonprofit, perhaps best known for the brightly painted produce van that used to make the rounds in flatland neighborhoods, planted its first seeds in the Sunol Water Temple Agricultural Park midway through last year's growing season.
The seventeen-acre park, an idyllic stretch in the unincorporated southern Alameda County town, is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Sustainable Agriculture Education, a Berkeley nonprofit, holds the master lease. AgPark farmers pay nominal rent and water costs.
People's Grocery already cultivates three urban gardens, but its two-acre AgPark plot lets it think big by city standards. Executive director Brahm Ahmadi says it was a good move. It helps school young people in the complex issues of food security in West Oakland, where a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos can be a kid's default breakfast.
He hopes to launch a neighborhood produce dropoff next spring. He calls it the SOUL Box for Seasonal, Organic, Unrefined, and Local. But that project depends on raising cash this season by selling niche crops to local chefs. And pleasing a small but hyperdiscerning restaurant clientele is what makes Jason Uribe wake up in the middle of the night, sweating out his bush beans.
This morning, Uribe is squatting in a row of Romano beans, dragging a plastic bin as he works to harvest the smallish specimens his customers expect. The 31-year-old is on the learning curve of farming. At least half of his job is to educate the farm relies on five youth volunteers two days a week, but today they're at a youth empowerment conference, and Uribe is working solo. "Since this morning, I've only gotten this far," he says, pointing to a spot a dozen feet away.
More than half of the beans he's picking end up on the ground at the base of the plants, too big to sell. He should have spaced out his planting times better, he says, so things wouldn't need harvesting all at once.
Early last month, People's Grocery delivered its first beans to Chez Panisse, and in late July Berkeley's Eccolo got its first order. The six varieties of peppers stretched out over three long rows are promised to the restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
At least one of the customers is thrilled. "We buy from the best farms, but these were incredible," says Eccolo sous-chef Samin Nosrat, describing that first batch of Romano, yellow wax, and French beans. "So sweet."
But when you're in the midst of a seat-of-the-pants farming experiment, there's no time to rest on a rave review. Now Uribe is stressing about okra. He planted three varieties, but isn't sure there's been enough heat. "I'm always worried," he admits.
The road to food security, it seems, can leave those in charge feeling very, very insecure.
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