Happy Lot Farm and Garden takes root, sprouts hope for urban nutrition

Andromeda Brooks said her sister wants to grow a banana tree in the adobe greenhouse. Right now the urban farm has 23 fruit trees, five active food beds and three active flower beds. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Andromeda Brooks said her sister wants to grow a banana tree in the adobe greenhouse. Right now the urban farm has 23 fruit trees, five active food beds and three active flower beds. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Talk about bang for your buck—14,000 square feet for a dollar a year ain’t bad. In terms of food production, that could mean a whole lot of apples, and whatever else will take root on the corner of 1st Street and Chanslor Avenue.

The nearly half-acre lot sits just one block east of the Iron Triangle and used to be a popular spot for drug dealing and a dumping ground for trash. Now thanks to the daringness of one resident, a non-profit and the city of Richmond, the abandoned fenced-in area is turning into Mother Nature’s supermarket. Linda Schneider and Self-Sustaining Communities rent the land from the city. And once Happy Lot Farm and Garden is fully operational it will house an adobe greenhouse, chicken coop, apiary, small orchard and aquaponic harvesting system—the use of a fishpond and its circulating water to grow vegetables.

Marin Academy students Max Weiss, from left to right, Shayan Shoosh and Greig Stein, hammer nails and help construct the roof the green house Tuesday morning. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Andromeda Brooks said having to view garbage outside her home every day motivated her to start the urban farm project. "Just don't litter," said Brooks. "And if you see someone else littering tell them no. Because I'm not going to get in your business, but once you litter I'm in your business. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

The idea of turning the lot into something helpful for the community came from resident Andromeda Brooks.

“I live next door and I couldn’t look out two of my windows in my home, so I wanted to change that,” said Andromeda Brooks about the blighted lot. So last September the first thing she did was email city officials and let them know that she was organizing a three-day block cleanup. 60 people attended, including the mayor.

The success of the cleanup gave Brooks more momentum. So the self-proclaimed country girl who grew up in Vallejo decided she wanted to bring a little country to the city and create an urban farm. “We’re in a food desert so why not put in a farm?” she said.

The community farm will work like a public space. Residents can plant and harvest, or just relax in the new green patch. The land will be tended by Brooks, but said she welcomes all volunteers.

Massey Burke said mud mixed with a lot of straw stores a lot of heat, perfect for a green house. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

In stepped Linda Schneider, founder of Self-Sustaining Communities. Schneider and her Richmond organization work with low-income residents to create sustainable food production in distressed neighborhoods. “This project is about people participating cooperatively so that hunger becomes less of an issue and not based on who has a job or who has income,” she said.

In the past three years, Schneider said her group has distributed more than 9,450 fruit, nut and olive trees and has projects in four different city lots.

To help get things rolling, Schneider contacted Marin Academy in San Rafael. The school is known for doing projects that are eco-sustainable. High school seniors there have to do an end-of-the-year project, so the urban farm project was a perfect fit. In all, 11 students and two instructors participated. For the past several days they built wooden frames and constructed an adobe greenhouse all from recycled materials and mud.

“It’s nice to do something for the surrounding community,” student Max Weiss, 18, said Tuesday as he helped construct the roof for the 120 square foot adobe greenhouse. “I especially like to work outside and build something that otherwise wouldn’t get built.”

Classmate Joseph Kind’s hands were muddy all day. He helped build a mud wall for the greenhouse. “It’s going to be really cool to have a place for people to relax, eat food and enjoy the space a garden and greenhouse can provide,” he said.

Spanish teacher Glenn Stanfield helped supervise the construction of the roof. He said because he’s not so great with math, the students double-checked the numbers as they put the frames together. “To see them struggle a little bit with the geometry of the framing, I love that,” Stanfield said. “They’ve got the math up in their heads yet to put it right down here and say, ‘That isn’t going to work, that is going to work’—that’s worth a million bucks.”

Massey Burke, who is helping lead the adobe greenhouse project and collaborates with Marin Academy and the University of San Francisco’s Department of Architecture and Community Design said ecological design methods are an evolving field. “If the mud is off the ground in a temperate climate, and with a roof over it, it will last forever.”

Brooks said she is trying to show her neighbors that one person can make a difference and that people can make reality the way they want it to be. Pretty soon people will be showing up at the farm to pluck fruit off apricot, plum, peach, pear, nectarine, apple and lemon trees. That’s okay by Brooks, as long as they’re not dealing drugs or throwing trash on the ground.

“I’m not asking them to provide dirt or materials for the [garden] boxes,” she said. “I’m not asking them to provide seeds. Just show up. All you got to do is show up and be outside.”

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