Oakland's Urban Farm Crackdown

Maybe it’s my desire for efficiency, but every time I pass by an empty lot in the city, without fail, I start strategizing about what I want to plant there. I’ve seen people in my own neighborhood start mini-farms on empty lots that were otherwise filled with concrete rubble and crabgrass, broken bottles, hypodermic needles, and plastic bags. Innovative people are transforming these between-spaces with raised beds for vegetables, chicken coops, compost piles—and, in the case of one Oakland urban farmer, meat rabbits, goats, ducks, and even bees. That farmer- Novella Carpenter, author of the memoir Farm City, is now under fire from the City of Oakland. Your support and action are urgent.

In the beginning, Novella was a squatter. She saw an empty lot next to her Oakland home, and just started planting there. She was so good at what she was doing, that eventually she had too many vegetables, and wanted to share. In the vein of ever-popular food trucks and pop-up shops, she opened up a “pop-up farmstand.” With a pay-what-you-can ethos, the farmstand offered a donation-based model for sharing homegrown, fresh vegetables with her neighbors.

Novella eventually bought the plot of land from the owner, and now runs a thriving urban farm, with chickens, ducks, and rabbits. She was recently approached by the City of Oakland for “illegal agricultural activities” and is facing a possible fine of $5,000, and a Conditional Use Permit fee of $2,500 for the livestock.

“After 8 years of flouting laws by squat gardening in the lot, I lost my punk renegade status when I bought the lot, but now, paradoxically, my outlaw status was regained by buying it and continuing to be a farmer,” she writes on her blog. Her neighbors, incidentally, have never complained about the farm. In fact they are joining Novella, in droves, to support Ghost Town Farms.

What this imminent fine speaks to is the lack of laws governing the use of land in the City of Oakland. It’s not that she can’t apply for a Conditional Use Permit; it’s that this disheartening process is a major barrier to communities who decide to rehabilitate their neighborhoods with a farm, and are then punished for doing so.

Gardens and urban farms have taken the place of expensive community centers- They offer an opportunity for people to meet their neighbors, share with their neighbors, and work collaboratively towards sustainability and a people-based market. This, in addition to re-learning that our food comes from the ground and not a cardboard package, is part of a greater movement towards rekindling the Soul of the City.

Tell the City of Oakland that you support urban farming by writing to hklein@oaklandnet.com. To support the broader urban farming movement locally, visit City Slickers Farms and People’s Grocery and discover ways in which Oakland is moving towards viable, accessible, and healthy food sources.