Q&A: Urban Farmer Abeni Ramsey
Abeni Ramsey began growing food in her backyard so that she could feed her kids better fare than the Top Ramen sold at the corner store near her home in West Oakland, California, one of the nation’s largest food deserts. To buy fresh fruits and vegetables, the young, single mother had to travel to another town. But proximity was just the first hurdle. Produce didn’t come cheap — especially compared to a five-dollar case of instant noodles.
While biking through Oakland, Ramsey stumbled on City Slicker Farms, whose Backyard Garden Program gave her the tools she needed to begin growing her own produce. Today, Ramsey, who studied agricultural development at UC Davis, feeds her kids and her community, selling produce from her private farm, City Girl Farms, to local restaurants. In April, she opened Township, a farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Oakland, and relocated the City Girl Farmstore just next door.
Sierra magazine spoke to Ramsey about farming for apartment-dwellers, the real reason people don’t eat their veggies, and the need for diversity in the food movement.
Q. How much of your own food do you grow?
A. Now that I live in East Oakland, I would say I probably grow most of the vegetables that we eat and we happen to live in produce-heavy household, so I would say maybe 30 percent. But all the produce is from fruit trees that are around our house, so I grow a significant amount of the fruit, and we collect significant amount of fruit. And we do have chickens in the winter. Before, when I was living in West Oakland, I had oats and chickens, as well as vegetables, and I didn‘t go to the grocery store. I only went for the meat. Actually we produced a decent amount of food. It was 50 percent then, and now it’s about 30 percent.
Q. Wait—you own chickens?
A. I do still have chickens. I had a rooster at one point, but I had a neighbor who complained about it. I had to get rid of it. And I had people complain about the goats, about the noise. It was too much farm for people to take. It’s weird. It’s just this fear around farm animals. We live in a neighborhood where dogs bark constantly. Almost every house keeps a dog. That’s really interesting to me — how people have become so unaccustomed to having livestock in the world. It’s not about noise in general. It’s about them not being used to that particular noise.
Q. You’re a single mother who’s managed to farm while raising kids, working, and attending college. Are you human?
A. Well, I stopped for about a year because I couldn’t when I was pregnant, and I couldn’t really do it with a newborn. It was just too much. That was one of the reasons I opened the farm store. It was still something I could do that I loved. As far as farming at home, I could put [my daughter] in the walker, and she eats handfuls of dirt. But with farming for production, I’m not as carefree. If I want to plant a certain number of plants, and if she’s ripping them out, that’s a problem. You have to be realistic. Things change when you have kids. In college, I did a lot of work at night. When they went to bed, I would write my papers. You just do what you have to do. Just know that you have to get things done. That was my approach. It was hard, and I got through it. [Now] there are some days when I have this plot of land I’ve been trying to get cleared, and it’s still not done. There’s only so much I can do.
Q. As if your life wasn’t hectic enough, you recently opened a restaurant.
A. We’re focusing on a restaurant from locals and local producers. For me, I just love food and all aspects of food. I partnered with a chef. I’m going to stick with what I do best, which is food production. I think it’s really fun to find out what crazy new vegetables are out there. I found this thing on the menu called lollipop cucumbers. There’s all this weird stuff out in the world, and I want to give it to him to make beautiful food with.
Q. What does urban farming mean to you?
A. To me, urban farming means to do things sustainably for consumption, for yourself or the public in general, using food products within the geographical area of the city. And that could be anything from fruit and vegetable production to raising animals.
Q. Any advice for starting my own urban farm?
A. Find a piece of land where you have some kind of land security. You’re going to need two years just to get land. You need a reliable network of people. Get a small plot so it’s manageable just for you. If you don’t feel like you’re making progress, it becomes very daunting. It’s just not fun. Get yourself a good planting calendar. Know when to start planting and what to plant when. And if you’re going to add animals, realize that the animals cannot take care of themselves. Be conservative of the type of animals you want to keep. Just take it slow and have fun with it. It doesn’t have to look like the farm you saw in the movies when you were a kid. It can look like whatever. I have a friend from Jamaica, and she would just throw seeds in the area. There would be chard over there, broccoli over there. I have to have my rows evenly spaced. There was food produced in both. Garden with your heart — whatever, however you want to do it, that’s how you do it.
Q. I live in an apartment. What are my options?
A. You can always grow food. You can think of your house like a greenhouse. You can grow things out of season in your apartment. You can have herbs, and just water them when you’re doing the dishes. If you have a window or patio, you can have any kind of leafy greens. You can grow all kinds of things.
Q. What if I don’t have a green thumb?
A. One thing is to let go. People who aren’t good at growing things are overly attentive, so they overwater or overfertilize and do too much. Or people aren’t really committed to something, and they’ll decide to grow this, that, and the other, and it’s too much, and things don’t get watered. So I would say, find one or two things. Do you drink mint tea everyday? Do you really like a salad with your meal? Find something that is part of your life already. Put a little pot of mint on your patio, and have success with that. Lettuce is pretty easy. Put the seeds in dirt, and only water to the top of the soil. Give it enough sunlight.
Q. Have you always had a green thumb? Have any of your crops failed?
A. Oh gosh, I put in a crop in my mother’s backyard. I put it in late, and she really wanted it, and I didn’t want to tell her you have to wait until April. The ground was already too cold, and the air was too cold, and it wasn’t going to do well. I knew better, and I know no amount of fertilizer is going to make the soil warmer. There’s a time to do all of this stuff. It’s not just random. There are conditions that they need to flourish, so if you don’t go with the flow, and you just do it your own way, it’s not going to work out for you. Tomatoes need to be a minimum of 70 degrees for the seeds to germinate. So if you plant tomatoes in the middle of winter, then it’s not going to work. They’ll get root rot, and they’ll die.
Q. You obviously eat healthy. Does farming help you stay fit, too?
A. It’s kind of like yoga, where it’s strength through the subtle force versus the strong force. You do a lot of bending, a lot of lifting, a lot of squatting. I’ve become strong hauling big bags of compost. I shovel compost for hours. But it’s also a calming thing where you sit there with the sun on your back, the sound of the birds in your ears, and you’re just weeding, and you’re planting and seeding. It’s just like meditation. And you feel still moments. Just being in the garden and pulling weeds and noticing one plant needs something different form another plant and just noticing and being very much in the moment all the time.
Q. What else do you like to do in your farm besides farm?
A. I have a hammock out there. There’s one garden plot that I’m getting back into order, and I’m working on a building a hut. I like to be out of the managed care of civilized society. Sometimes I like to be somewhere that’s wild, so it provides that for me.
Q. Do you listen to music while farming?
A. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If I’ve got a really long, arduous task, I will. I like to listen to jazz in the garden, classical in the garden, but a lot of times if I’m by myself, I don’t listen to any music. I listen to air. Usually if I’m working with other people, I’m not big on chit chatting in the garden. I like farming and gardening because I like the fact that plants don’t talk and don’t move. It’s a really peaceful place and a stress-free environment for me. It’s like a little escape.
Q. What do you say to people who think veggies taste bland and gross?
A. The people I know, they have a very limited experience with only a few vegetables, so I think that’s when the cooking demonstrations really come in. If you can show people that it’s quick and easy and tasty, then they’re willing to do it without a whole ton of bacon, fat, salt, and other stuff. You learn vegetables are usually nasty in the lunchroom, so people have early negative experiences with vegetables. Brussels sprouts are some of the best vegetables. I feed my daughter Brussels sprouts. And I taught a cooking class at a church for a couple of years, and I would have the kids pick a place on the globe, and we would cook a dish form there. They really loved it. If we want to make a real impact on our young people, we have to give them these experiences.
Q. So, do your kids actually like eating veggies?
A. They do. One of my daughters doesn’t like meat. But I’m not one of the mothers that’s like “pick and choose.” Whatever food’s on the table, you eat it, because that’s what I cooked. This idea of eating solely for pleasure — I’m not down with it.
Q. What’s your favorite dish made from the food you grow?
A. A thick tomato sauce, or pasta with red sauce. Tomatoes are my favorite summer vegetable.
Q. You’re involved in efforts to help feed your community. Last year a study disputed the food desert theory, reporting that low-income areas actually have more supermarkets and grocery stores than higher income areas. How much do these results reflect West Oakland, labeled as one of the Bay Area’s biggest food deserts?
A. I don’t know what they’re talking about because my parents and mother-in-law live in an affluent area. Within walking distance of her house is a Trader Joe’s, three small grocery stores, and a Safeway. Within driving distance you have a Whole Foods. When I lived in West Oakland, there was one grocery store. I live in Fruitvale now, and it’s still mostly corner stores. There’s one Mi Pueblo. It’s not within walking distance. There’s a Food Maxx, and it’s closer to the affluent area. In my neighborhood, there’s one grocery store. If you drive across the bridge on Highway 13, you have two Safeways. There’s a health food store up there. You have a whole shopping district. I can think of any low-income area in the East Bay that’s like that. There’s a reason for that, you know. There was a Lucky’s that was abandoned in the Lowell District, and it was replaced by a beauty supply. So it’s also these large companies’ desire to invest in these areas.
Q. Why do you think Whole Foods and other grocery companies tend not to invest in low-income areas?
A. I think it’s an assumption about risk — how much staff, how much money the patron has to make to sustain the store. There’s a good amount of people on government assistance and EBT benefits. I was on food stamps — we were a family of three — and I got $300 a month. Businesses are in business to make money. At the end of the day, it’s motivated by profit and risk, so they must feel like it’s too much risk and not enough profit to invest. Grocery stores are not philanthropic organizations.
At some level, everyone has the right to good food. How does amount of money you have for food determine the quality of food you get? It’s just not right. And it makes it more difficult for subsequent generations to compete and be in a better place so one day they can have disposable income to buy good, healthy food. You want to fill your kids’ bellies. You want them to not be hungry. You could make a gallon of juice out of Kool-Aid, versus a half gallon of orange juice, which is going to cost you $4.99, and you have only $300 to last until the end of month. You’re going to do whatever the hell you can.
Q. What needs to happen to improve food access in West Oakland?
A. I think we have to be honest about how people now get their food, and people get their food form large grocery stores. But in West Oakland, because the large grocery store is lacking, people go to the liquor store. I think it’s going to be important to meet people where they are and not try to automatically convince them they need to be somewhere else — put up a farm stand at the liquor store or connect the urban farms with a liquor store so there is a produce section and do a survey of what people would buy if it were available. All parents have to pick up their kids from school. A Friday farmers’ market at school would be great. A Sunday farmers’ market at churches would be great. You have to meet people where they are and acculturate them to a certain way of seeing food and give them resources to eat and prepare food that way. I’m working with the City of Oakland to build edible food gardens at city parks, where kids come to play. We’re building one garden near the basketball court, which is at Lowell Park between two major schools. My hope is that if we have the farmers’ market on Saturday, while kids are out playing on Friday, parents can come in and garden and do cooking classes. It’s another way to meet people in a relaxed environment, where you can just talk and share.
Q. How important is it to bring diversity to the food movement?
A. I think it’s huge. I think it’s important to bring diversity to every movement. At UC Davis, we had a discussion about going out in the world, helping with food insecurity, and bringing something to people who don’t have anything. I think that’s just a flawed perspective. We’re looking at disadvantaged communities. It’s people living in the community who know the strengths and weaknesses of that community rather than people coming and establishing themselves in the community saying, “This is what you need.” You can do studies, and you can survey 500 families and describe what those shared experiences are from one or two families, but at the end of the day, the knowledge lies in the community. It’s more important to provide tools and access. At City Slicker Farms, the most successful program was the backyard program. They build you boxes and give you a start, there’s a place you can go if you need training, and they just let the people do it themselves. They give them the tools and trust that they have know-how and intelligence.
We need a variety of voices. The people providing services should look like the community they’re serving, individuals who share experiences or types of experiences. What I noticed when I was working for the urban farming nonprofit in West Oakland, and it was me and one other person of color in that organization, they were constantly talking about what the community needed. But they didn’t know what it was like to try to feed kids on $300 — they didn’t have kids. Otherwise you need to sit back and do a whole lot of listening. There is a thread of elitism that runs through the urban farming and organic and sustainable movements. I think diversity helps to rebalance and reshuffle the deck so it’s not slanted toward the opinion of the group that dominates.
Photos by Stephanie Essig
Melissa Pandika is an editorial intern at Sierra and a graduate journalism student at Stanford University. Her interests include environmental health and justice, urban environmental issues, and conservation biology. She has a soft spot for cetaceans.