People often ask me about urban farms in the Bay Area. I’ve become like a robot and recite all the well-known ones: City Slicker Farms, People’s Grocery, and SOL (sustaining ourselves locally–not shit outta luck) in the East Bay; Alemany in SF. I’ve repeatedly forgotten to mention Ardenwood! It’s a 205 acre urban farm right off I-880, at the Newark exit in Fremont. I guess it’s really a suburban farm. But I did want to see it!

Now, I must admit that I almost never go to Fremont even though I hear there’s really good Indian food there. I hate driving on I-880 ever since Bill got in a car accident there and no one stopped to see if he had been injured–bastards! But when Dan from Bay Nature Magazine (where I was an intern a few years back) suggested that we go together and learn about threshing wheat and pet some pigs, and that he would drive, I was game. I had heard rumours of sheep shearing and canning workshops, so I wanted to see if this place would be the ultimate resource for urbanites who wanted to learn how to farm.

When we drove up, we saw signs for the farm, and were reminded that it is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. Dan told me they get 160,000 visitors every year, a similar number as other hotspots like Chabot Science Center and the Oakland Museum. In the fields, which were flat and long, there were rows and rows of crops like corn, pumpkins, squash, broccoli. It was the biggest sub-urban farm I’ve ever seen! As we drove closer to the houses and barn areas, the place suddenly started to take on a historic quality. I spotted a draft horse and a blacksmith’s shop, a granary, and a Victorian house with peacocks pecking out front.


The ranger, Ira Bletz, took us for a tour. First stop was the impressive fields. Most of these are maintained by an organic farmer named Doug Perry, but the Park plants wheat, corn, pumpkins, and potatoes for educational purposes. School kids visit and help harvest wheat (they learn how difficult it is without modern machines), and at the annual Harvest Fest (Oct 10-11), they have a corn harvest, sending everyone out into the fields to pick cobs to take home.


We got to meet their two pigs, the handful of chickens, three turkeys, a few goats and sheep who inhabit the farm. My head swam with how much potential the place had! If one was motivated, they could have at least three dairy cows–they could have a milking coop and make cheese; or they could bred meat goats (which are so popular now); or they could raise rabbits for restaurants (the ones they have are rescue bunnies from a shelter); or teach canning classes. All of these things would be a huge hit with the local foodie people.


I know why, though, they aren’t doing anything like I fantasized: people. You would need at least 5 people working full time on the farm to get all that work done, and products sold. These people would have to live on the farm to make it truly come to life. What was missing was the stuff of everyday life: the compost from a day of eating going to the pigs; the milk buckets and dairy paraphernalia; a curing ham or side of bacon that would have given it a more f0od connection. But if you were living and working on a farm, you wouldn’t have time to deal with visitors, you wouldn’t have the bandwidth to talk with groups of 4th graders. So here’s an idea: all you people who live in the Fremont area and know how to farm or want to set up a dairy cow co-op or start rearing milk goats, give Ira a call. If you want to teach a cheese-making class or a bacon curing workshop, call Ira. I’m willing to bet they would work with you. Because really, it takes all of our input–and effort–to create a more sustainable way of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are already wonderful things about the farm. The corncrib area is really cool and features an old machine that pulls off the corn kernels; the old outdoor kitchen is inspiring, the heirloom veggie garden has potential, and the blacksmith shop is functional. It is a great place to take kids 10 or younger to have their first experience petting a goat or a pig. The Harvest Fest is a really big deal, and it is a great opportunity for everyone to learn about harvesting food and make a connection to the land.


For the second part of our tour, we went to Doug Perry’s veggie growing operation. Doug is the real deal, a hard-working farmer who grows 55 acres of veggies on the park land, where he sells his crops to Berkeley Bowl and a local veg distributor. He’s figured out his crop: broccoli and cauliflower, and grows a shit ton of it. Doug didn’t paint any romantic portrait of farming; he explained that it is hard work, a living, but that it prevents him from spending time with his children. He doesn’t have too much time to take school kids out for tours and leaves most of that up to Ira.

As Dan and I drove away, we stopped at the produce stand and bought some cauliflower. While I was slow-cooking the marvelous white veggie, it struck me that Perry Farms and Ardenwood are like the Yin and Yang of farming–Perry does the growing, Ardenwood does the educating, and perhaps they do balance each other out.

You should go to the Harvest Fest and score some free corn!

Oct 10 and 11

34600 Ardenwood Blvd, Fremont, Ca 94555


Here’s an article from Bay Nature all about growing food on public land.

10 responses to “Ardenwood

  1. I’m the same way about urban space — I see it and think of what it offers agriculturally. We have Will Allen’s farm about an hour east of us in Milwaukee.

    He, too, works his ass off, with mucho crops and few animals. He does, however, have commercial worm composters that crank out great soil enhancement.

  2. Thanks for the investigative work Novella! I was just reading about Ardenwood in my local paper. The East Bay Parks Nature Guide listed all the cool demonstrations that have- brewing, black smithing, hand-washing a full load of laundry. The price for events ranges from $2 to $8. Hard to beat that.

    It also got me thinking about urban farm contests. The Alameda County Fair needs a special category for urban livestock.

  3. You have a very narrow definition of a farm: your own. My grandfather was a mid-west hog farmer, and I own both an orchard and a vineyard myself. I am fully aware of what a farm is or is not. A farm is a place that primarily grows food. It does not have to be an integrated, holistic organic system to be a farm. You are confusing these issues. But a fish farm is a farm just as much as a vineyard is a farm; they are just specialized to grow a single particular food crop. A vineyard will never have livestock like goats, and a fish farm is pretty devoid of any type of terrestrial vegetation. Your, for most intents and purposes, have a subsistence farm. It is not really a sustainable business. You seem to make more revenue telling people about farming that actually farming. I consider your farm a hobby. Most farms, be they family farms or corporate farms, are business and are sustainable as such. Some basic research on definitions may help before you critique other’s endeavors:

  4. whoa QC, what a smack down!
    what i’m trying to say is the perry operation is clearly a farm. it’s awesome, they grow tons of vegetables. it is a business, obviously. the historic part of ardenwood isn’t so much a farm but a demonstration site. i didn’t talk about my farm compared to ardenwood or the perrys, but i do see my place more along the lines of ardenwood–educational, selling some stuff but mostly subsistence.
    i don’t think a definition of farming can just come from a wikipedia entry. as farmers, we all have to come to terms–in our hearts–about whether we are a real farm or not. when i sell one of my goats, or vegetables to a chef, or feed the hungry in my neighborhood, i decide that these acts make me a farmer. ira at ardenwood clearly decided that he’s a farmer, too. my yearning is that they had more funds so they could do even more farming.
    clearly i hit a sore spot with you. why do you need an expert or someone else to define your farm to you? if you grow grapes and feel like a farmer: great, you are one. as you know, it’s very personal thing, and how i define a farm will differ from other people’s definitions.

  5. I agree with QC.
    Novella, did you read the Wikipedia entry? Would be worth it not to take it off the table too fast. It is not about using Wikipedia as a source, we can debate about that, that is not the point. QC could have used any other source, which provides definitions. The point and fact is “Farm” and “farmer” are defined terms.

    Many of my ancestors had animals, fruit trees, gardens and were not “gardeners” or “farmers”. They were simply “keeping animals”, “gardening” and “farming” – a huge difference. However, the point here is, that the difference between definitions and self-definitions are important.

    Now you could say with a lovely and elegant expression, that you are “a farmer at heart”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? This would include, that your heart and soul longs for cultivation, (of your garden and your personality) and for creation in tune with Nature. What a healthy approach.

    And here is where I have a problem with the issue. Real farmers, but also people who do things “with a heart”, people who “cultivate” keep animals as they are supposed to be kept, (this goes for every species), keep their garden-farm-environment neat and clean and have in general an organized attitude about their hobby or occupation. As “cultivation” is always a way of “organization”. But in pictures you provide of your garden I see a lot of chaos.

    You changed the original blog entry, but I think you missed the point here. It is not that your entry was too negative. It was, that this entry clearly showed (and not just through calling the farm a “pet farm”) that you did not go there to learn, which is the only honorable attitude in this context. You went there to think and later spread some ideas about how they should do their job (better, more effective etc.). Meanwhile you keep writing entries about how you are supposed to clean up your own farm, house etc.

    It is the classic “start by thyself…” hint, I am giving, but I go a step further. Real farm people (“farmers”) are professionals. And this is what QC meant: you are just not.

    This is where we are at the point I mentioned in the beginning: If you were an expert, you would use the definitions correctly. That is what experts do. If you are a “farmer by love”, your garden and your world would look different. Being sloppy might be a business-model but not necessary good education for others.

    Since your book is subtitled “The Education of an Urban Farmer”, here is some education:
    For to keep up the charm of your good intentions, which many people seem to like, I think you would not loose but actually gain through some self-evaluation, which might lead to successful re-invention. You had the chance to “educate” people, who visited you at the farm. Keep in mind that all good educators also have to be eager students. Your garden could shine in Ghost Town, but not through books and blogs, but because it is clean, professional and your attitude about it truthful.

  6. hey kathlin;
    i totally get what you are saying. i am actually the queen of self-evaluation. i realized that qc made me angry because he said i wasn’t a “real” farmer, and then i realized that i shouldn’t criticize other people and their farms because they might have the same reaction (why is this bitch criticizing me?). so that’s why i changed the blog post.
    as to the definition, that wiki defined farms as places of food production. which ardenwood is not. i did go to ardenwood to learn something. i wanted to learn how a serious rabbit operation is carried out–how the pens look, what they do with the manure, etc. however, because they were just pet, spayed rabbits, i couldn’t learn anything about that. similarly with the goats. i wanted to see how they were managing weaning and breeding and milking. they were not doing any of that. similarly, the milk cow: but she wasn’t being milked. however, if i had arrived on the right day, i would have learned how to shear a sheep (which would be neat), how to brew beer (cool!) or how to make a horse shoe. hence, i realized the place is a demonstration site, not really a farm.
    With Doug Perry, I was really impressed. We talked about his prop schedule, and I was really inspired to get more seedlings started and try growing in coconut coir and using fertigation. so it was a study in contrasts: and that is fine! Ira can educate people, and Doug can grow the food–awesome!
    I’m not sure why you are attacking how my farm looks. i’m too poor to afford land, the vegetable garden is on squatted land so i can’t make changes or spend real money on it, and i’m a renter so my house is falling down and i can’t really do anything about it. your aesthetic is different than mine: fine. but, if you visit my farm, you would see that i’ve done as much as i can with the space that i have and by scrapping together materials. my animals are all healthy and happy. i do sell food to restaurants and neighbors (and give food away too). it’s true that the majority of my income comes not from selling farm stuff but from writing (meager as that is) but lots of “real” farmers have second, and sometimes even third jobs.
    but that’s just my self-delusional attitude, right? i’m wondering, though, if anyone who came to the tour last weekend wants to chime in about their impressions of my farm so we can have a dialogue.

  7. I guess QC gets to use his (narrow) definition of a farm and therefore, for some reason, exclude Novella. And Kathlin can demand that “with a heart” fit her definition: “neat and clean and have in general an organized attitude about their hobby or occupation”; though that seems more anal than heart-focused to me. I could go on, but mostly I want to say: What’s with all the hostility towards Novella and her farm? What’s up with that?

    I’m glad Novella is writing about her farm and what she learns. I think she does so with wit and honesty (great book!). She even seems open to criticism, judging from her response to QC’s and Kathlin’s comments. I just hope the inevitable hostility that seems to come with being well-known doesn’t dampen Novella’s joy and initiative. I really like reading about what she’s up to and how she sees it. I mean, I don’t want to be a blindly-admiring fan. But do keep writing, Novella. Clearly a lot of us appreciate it.

  8. My family farms 3,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. They are farmers. Novella farms an urban lot in Oakland. She’s a farmer.

    I love what Novella is doing and I hope her style of farming spreads through every urban lot in the country.

  9. Novella,
    I do not intent to “discuss” here with your friends and fans. As my post above states, I am against calling someone a farmer, who is not. Some are “hobby-farmers”, that is fine, that does not make their work less enjoyable.

    I do not think, what I said has to do with being poor. I live in Europe and maybe as an information of interest I mention here, that most of Central and Eastern Europe – where people rarely earn more than $5-10/day in average while costs for food, household, transport, fuel etc. are higher than in US – is full of what you call “Urban Farms” (even locally not called such) which are kept very neat. Without much money. People have backyards, lots etc. in most (even larger) towns, with vegetables, fruit trees and husbandry. This idea is not new. It is true, that these people fight absolute ridiculous European Union regulations but they still try to manage their subsistence-garden/lot.

    My point is not to criticize what you do and how you do it, but to point out that it is important to call things by their true name and to do things right, especially when going public. However, that was not the core. Like I said, I am not going to “argue” with the fan club. I intended to point out what effects this all might have on you personally.

    The core of my post is more connected to a thought I would like to share: I came across the first chapter of your book, read it and discovered some gems: I think the way you describe Ghost Town and it’s people is your real talent. You or your friends might disagree, I am simply sharing my opinion.

    I do not live near Ghost Town, I do not know this area, but I developed an interest in it and in it’s inhabitants through reading. And not because of the farming. The people are already truly interesting, but you brought them closer, because you show them as what they are: entirely human. People who are able to do this, are writers, if called so or not.

    Having discovered this is why I talked in my post above about self-evaluation and re-inventing.

    I believe, you can be a true writer, if you recognize your own inner strength. You can observe. Possibly also through being trained as a biologist or journalist you added to this natural skill. However, your descriptions of people awake interest. I am for sure not the first to say this. Now if I was your publisher, I would say, forget the foodie-crowd and “urban farming” and just write about Ghost Town or the places and people you know. Anything else waists your time. Don’t be “nice”, and journalistically correct, just honest and just write about the people.

    You could bring a lot of good things forward in Ghost Town. Like when your landlord painted your house. He probable did it, because you went public and people focussed on the place. Other things like this may happen. There are good examples everywhere of people taking interest through truthful voices. You can help VITALIZE a ghostly, socially, economically forgotten part of the world. This are great things to achieve.

    I do not say you should stop farming (and keeping the farm-friends), as it is a healthy thing to do. But, in my opinion, you could “lift your incognito” and say: I am a writer and my hobby is farming. That is just me. I am for simple approaches. I think, for you, this might be a very challenging situation at this time, as what might happen is that “the ghosts you called you can’t get rid of now”. Well, it is up to you.

    I for my part can already say, that I will not read all the following posts criticizing mine. Also a time issue. They will most likely try to talk you out of my “suggestion” and I won’t blame them doing so. I think, you understand, that it was “my job” to speak this out. Why? I came across your work by chance and as I mentioned above: I do like things done well and right and people doing what they are good at. (Less damage for the planet. šŸ˜‰ ) You were 10 years an “Urban Farmer”, maybe it is time to spiritually move on.

    So maybe we will see your next book “Farm City II” or a “new Novella” with “Ghost Town – The Education of an Urban Writer”. Than we know, what path you took. If stories run out, you can still write about “The Ghostly Crowd of wannabe Urban Farmers” šŸ˜‰

    Whatever the path might be: good luck to you and keep your guards up!

  10. hi antonio: no worries, i can take it!
    martha ann: thank you, i am honored.
    kathlin: thank you for your compliment about my writing. i am working on a new book–not about urban farming per se, but about mountain men and hermits and modern primitives. before i moved to oakland, i wrote fiction. i definitely acknowledge that i’m a writer first, farmer second. there’s a rich history in america of farming *and* writing–and i’m glad to be part of that long tradition.

    since you haven’t been to my farm, you can’t really say my place is one way or another. i consider myself the anti-martha: i don’t want people to feel bad about their gardens because they don’t look perfect. being perfect makes other people feel disempowered or lower in status. since i approach most things with a diy punk aesthetic, i don’t want things to look what you call “clean” or nice. i like rough edges and graffiti. that, to me, is authentic because let’s not kid ourselves: this world is seriously fucked up. washing everything down with white paint is not going to change that, is it?
    okay, i enjoyed sparring with you, my sweet little euro-lady.

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