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.