Agriculture Lingers in West Contra Costa
By: Jason Tilley
El Sobrante Homeowner, Gardener, and a Member of Citizens for a Greener El Sborante
My wife and I were married in 1990 at a charming, privately-owned event venue called the Rockefeller Lodge. It’s located about a block from San Pablo City Hall, and was once owned by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller for use as a hunting lodge.
If the phrases “hunting lodge” and “a block from San Pablo City Hall” don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence, that illustrates just how much western Contra Costa County has changed in the past century or so. Ironically, Rockerfeller himself played a large role in industrializing the area, since his Standard Oil Company (the predecessor of Chevron) built the refinery that is still Richmond’s largest employer. Most of the area remained wilderness and farmland, however, until the second World War.
Thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, there’s still plenty of wilderness area, though the flora now features many introduced species. Agriculture, however, is hard to find in west Contra Costa these days. Hard, but not impossible. Little reminders of the area’s farming past are still around, if you know where to look.
Though the process started early in the twentieth century, urbanization was supercharged by World War II. The Kaiser shipyards sprung up as part of the war effort and attracted thousands of workers from the south and other economically deprived regions. At the end of the war, most of them stayed, seeing better opportunities in the Bay Area than in the places they’d left. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines who’d served in the Pacific theater streamed back through Treasure Island, and some of them looked around and decided to stay, too. All this created a huge demand for housing, and with the support of the federal government and GI bill, developers built it. The City of Richmond, in particular, grew dramatically in the postwar decades. What was once farmland was annexed and converted to suburban subdivisions.
This was hardly unique to Richmond, of course. The conversion of farmland to suburban housing occurred on a massive scale all across America in the last half of the previous century. What distinguishes Richmond is the weird, haphazard way it was done. Look at the city on a map sometime. The outline of Richmond looks like a giant crab which crawled out of the bay to attack a ferret that was devouring a lizard. The city limits splay out seemingly at random, subsuming territory with odd tentacles and appendages.
Consider my daughter’s good friend Madison, whose family has a home in Richmond’s Carriage Hills neighborhood, the city’s most far flung outpost. If Madison wants to visit the main library at Richmond’s civic center, he must travel down Castro Ranch Road, leaving the city and entering unincorporated Contra Costa. Turning right on San Pablo Dam Road, he’ll then re-enter Richmond, leave it again for another unincorporated neighborhood, then pass briefly through the City of San Pablo before emerging in Richmond for the final time. If you weren’t counting, that’s five municipal boundaries that he has to cross to visit his own city library. There is, in fact, no possible way to make this journey without leaving the city limits. A couple of years ago he might have been able to make the trek partially on foot through Sobrante Ridge Regional Park, but since heavy rain washed out sections of trail a couple of winters ago, even that isn’t possible.
This geographic absurdity has some real life ramifications. Law enforcement for the El Sobrante Valley (basically, the area on either side of San Pablo Dam Road) is divided between two police forces, the county sheriff, and the Highway Patrol. If you’re planning to murder someone, I recommend shooting them as they’re driving along Dam Road. With luck, their vehicle will continue to roll for a while, making it difficult to determine which agency has jurisdiction, complicating the investigation.
The places that Richmond swallowed in its scattershot growth pattern, however, are of less interest than the ones it bypassed (at least for the purposes of this article). Drive up Santa Rita Road from DeAnza HIgh School, for example, and you’ll pass blocks and blocks of standard-issue suburban bungalows, until you suddenly encounter horse trailers and other artifacts of our agricultural past. These neighborhoods - the ones left behind in Richmond’s expansion - have large, deep lots, which have lately attracted a breed known as the Urban Homesteader.
Aside from a small vegetable patch in my back yard, my own gardening has an aesthetic focus, but I’ve made many friends who are very serious about growing their own food. These folks not only grow much of their own produce, but keep chickens (primarily for eggs), rabbits (for meat), goats (for milk), and bees (for honey). There’s apparently enough animal husbandry for the area to support its own rural feed store, El Sobrante Feed on Appian Way. In the past, county government kind of ignored all of this, but the board of supervisors recently passed an ordinance to codify lot size requirements for types and numbers of animals. To the dismay of many in the homesteading community, this has been followed by stepped-up enforcement, forcing many to reduce their flocks or herds.
There are even a few commercial agricultural enterprises within minutes of most readers.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these is Cloverfield Organic Farm, located at 501 La Paloma Road in El Sobrante. Cloverfield occupies a roughly five-acre parcel that became available in the wake of the Great Recession, and was purchased by owner Susan Truscott and her husband in 2011. Susan has a degree in plant science from UC Davis, and took workshops with John Jeavons of Ecology Action, a semi-legendary figure in the field of organic farming. (Check out growbiointensive.org for more on his innovations.) The timing was serendipitous for more reasons than the depressed real estate values. Because the land had been vacant for several years, Susan was able to obtain organic certification with just a few soils samples, something that would have typically required a multi-year wait.
Conventional wisdom says that organic farming is less efficient than using conventional modern practices, which is why organic produce costs more. In reality, contemporary industrial agriculture gets most of its price advantage from mechanization, not productivity of the land. A single farmer with a tractor and a combine harvester can farm a vast acreage all by himself, as long as he’s only growing a single crop. Unfortunately, growing large monocultures depletes the soil of nutrients while concentrating pests and pathogens, requiring large inputs of often-toxic chemicals to compensate. Organic farming practices can produce at least as much food per acre, but require more labor.
You can see this for yourself when you visit Cloverfield. The main field, which is only about a acre, is divided into hundred-square foot beds of fantastic productivity. Each individual bed contains four to six different crops, so that at any given time the entire field offers between one and two hundred different varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers (all of which are also edible). Crops are in constant rotation, with new varieties planted and old ones are harvested on a weekly basis. Don’t like vegetables? Then come for the fruits. Cloverfield also has a orchard with over fifty different types, as well as a small vineyard with several grape varieties you’ve probably never heard of. (If you’ve been tempted to experiment with home winemaking, this is a great place to start).
The disparate plantings fit Cloverfield’s business model. Like many locals, I’ve occasionally made the trek out to Brentwood to pick fruit in the summer, which is fun and rewarding but the distance makes it impractical to do very often. Cloverfield is also a pick-it-yourself farm, but It’s intended to serve the immediate surrounding community. Susan’s goal is to always have lots of different stuff available, year-round. If one plum tree is finished producing, hey, there’s a different variety next to it where the fruits just beginning to ripen. Thus, you can literally come every weekend, do most of your produce shopping, and take home different stuff every time. Prices are also quite competitive (particularly compared to the local natural grocery stores). Susan sells by volume, charging only $30 for a large basket (which is a lot of produce).
Cloverfield also has a small selection of herb and vegetable starts for the home garden (basically extras of whatever stuff they were planting recently) and usually some seeds and dried herbs. And, time permitting, Susan or her staff farmer, Michael, are happy to give tours of the place. The farm is open from noon to 5:00 pm Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and is also available to host school field trips and other events.
Just up the road a bit, off Hilltop Drive at Marin Road, is another farm owned by a nonprofit organization called Planting Justice. It’s not open for business per se, though they do host volunteer workdays each Thursday and the first Saturday of each month.
Compared to Cloverfield, the operation doesn’t look impressive, though it’s actually larger. Indeed, you could be forgiven for not realizing there’s a farm there at all. It occupies four acres of moderately sloping hillside covered with waist-high weeds – though young fruit trees can be seen peeking up here and there. Don’t be deceived by superficial appearances: Planting Justice’s farm is a product of much hard work, considerable ambition, and suprising ingenuity.
Explaining this requires briefly talking about the organization itself (for the less-brief version I suggest perusing plantingjustice.org). It was started in Oakland with the twin goals of growing healthy, organic food while creating living-wage jobs for disadvantaged communities. In 2015 the organization acquired Rolling River Nursery, a mail order nursery which claims to offer the widest selection of heirloom fruit trees and perennial food plants in the America. Earlier this year, in cooperation with the Mira Vista United Church of Christ, they also acquired the former Adachi’s Nursery property at the corner of Appian Way and Valley View in El Sobrante, which is slated to become a combination nursery and cafe. The El Sobrante farm, the mail order nursery, and the planned cafe/nursery (which will probably be the subject of a future article) will work together in a clever synergy.
Gavin Raders, one of the founders of Planting Justice, recently gave me a tour of the farm and explained its design. The slope of the property, which would traditionally be viewed as a handicap for farming, has been turned into an advantage. Their first project (after clearing thistles and poison oak) was to dig swales (basically, ditches), horizontally across the hillside every eight to ten feet or so. The soil from the ditches was piled up onto berms in front of each swale, and the swales were then filled with wood chips. This turned the entire slope into a water catchment system. When it rains, the water seeps into those mulch-filled swales instead of running off. Fruit trees and bushes were then planted along the berms. A drip irrigation system currently nourishes the young plants, but when mature they should require little or no water beyond what nature provides.
And those unsightly weeds I mentioned? They actually have been cleared – but only directly around the drip line of the trees. Elsewhere they aren’t really a problem. They help stabilize the soil until the trees are big enough to do it themselves, and they probably help reduce soil evaporation, further lessening the need for water.
This extensive orchard contains more than 800 kinds of fruit trees and bushes, including obscure varieties such as paw-paw and seaberry, as well as 90 different types of grape. One advantage of this diversity (similar to Cloverfield’s strategy) is that fruits will ripen at different times. Instead of the familar paradigm where an orchard produces lots of the same thing at once, requiring a cadre of (poorly paid) migrant workers to do the picking and then move on, a small team of regular employees will work continuously, picking whatever is ripe, and pruning the trees when they’re done producing.
Much of what is picked - and they anticpate producing literally tons of fruit each year - will make its way to the Good Table Cafe – the one to be built at the former Adachi Nursery. Even the wood that’s pruned from the trees will have a use. Almost all fruit trees today are the product of grafting, where so-called scion wood is taken from the desired fruit-producing variety and attached to a rootstock - usually a closely-related speciman chosen for health, vigor, and size, but whose own fruit is less desirable. Thus, the El Sobrante farm will become the “mother nursery” supplying the mail order nursery in Oakland, whose products will also be sold at the nursery adjacent to the cafe.
These aren’t the only food-growing enterprises in our neighborhood, but a description of the others must wait until a future issue.