During my visit to Angel Cakes a few weeks ago, I was drawn to the lovely arrangement of flowers sitting on the coffee table. Rustic and colorful in a mason jar, just as I would do at home, I couldn’t resist taking photos of the mix of pink, orange, and purple blooms. When owner Jen Angel told me that they had come from a local non-profit called WOW Farm, a program teaching Oakland youth about small business management and sustainable gardening, I was intrigued. When I heard the flower farm was located in front of the historic 16th street train station in West Oakland, the appeal of Oakland history coming together with a great cause within the community took hold. I knew I had to learn more. On an overcast Saturday morning just over a week ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with these hardworking teens. As an added bonus, I got to spend some time inside the historic station. Once again, my appreciation for Oakland and its beauty, in the form of a empty shell of what once was and rows of blooms offering hope to its future, grew.
WOW Farm is rooted in the urban farm movement in West Oakland, focused on the supply of sustainable, organic produce to the local community. Started in 1999, the produce farm for WOW, an acronym for “West Oakland Woods”, is located in the South Prescott neighborhood of West Oakland. Going through evolutions over the past 17 years that have included summer kids programs, on-site farmers markets, and a partnership with City Slicker Farms for 6 years, the farm started their current youth business program in 2012. Now partnered with Game Theory Academy, a non-profit aimed at giving low-income and at-risk youth better opportunity through a set of foundational skills in money and small business management, WOW Farm and its youth interns supply organic produce to local restaurants and for wholesale purchase. In 2014, they added a second farm location dedicated to flowers.
I arrived on a Saturday morning at 9:00am, just in time for the start of the morning meeting. While some interns were at the ready with breakfast being enjoyed at the table, a few others straggled in as the start of the meeting was underway. As farm manager Jess Myles reviewed the list of farm tasks for the morning, she reminded everyone of the importance of being on time and quickly moved on to discuss the first task on the list, picking the colorful blooms of ranunculus and anemones in the rows behind us. She challenged the group with questions about how to determine if a flower should be categorized as viable for sale, a bit too open and therefore to be taken home, or too far gone and deemed for compost. As I watched the start of the harvest, it was clear to me that this small group of teens, while uniform in the pairs of Carhartt overalls that they all donned, were actually a perfect sampling of a high school population. From the jovial goofball to the vibrant personality with a singing voice to match, to the quiet and hardworking girl with the sweet smile, the diverse group came together in a display of teamwork as they moved from aisle to aisle. When asking questions of their boss, Jess was always quick to throw the question back out to the group, challenging the teens to brainstorm and consult as a team.
While the farm has standing orders for locations such as Mandela Marketplace and vase arrangements for Kilovolt Coffee, they also offer a monthly CSA program, and take individual pre-orders from time to time based on what they have available. Special arrangements for weddings or events can be made, from completed arrangements to bulk flowers for DIY. Current seasonal blooms come in the form of ranunculus, anemones, scented geranium and others such as flax, nigella, and heuchera. Summer and fall will bring an assortment of dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, snapdragons, zinnias, and herb varieties.
Interns are selected for three seasonal programs in spring, summer, and fall. Each paid intern must be willing to commit eight hours a week to the farm and its ongoing maintenance. Six hours are spent on-site at the farm on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. An additional two hours are spent at the Game Theory Academy office on Monday’s, where a curriculum of basic, yet critical, economic and business skills are learned, and competence in good decision making and critical thinking is developed. The farm is used as a model business to put these skills into practice, such as understanding the correlation between customer relations and business growth. The importance of something as simple as eye contact when making a delivery is stressed.
Once the blooms were stacked to the edges of the tables, the group assessed the rows as Jess questioned them about what they saw, what still needed attention, and what they could expect for the next harvest. The second part of the morning was discussed, and farm tasks such as compost turning and screening as well as the application of a fish emulsion spray to plants were divided up. Making sure that each member of the team was taking on a new task not yet learned, the group decided on this morning that it was time for the two boys in the group to try their hand at arranging bouquets, while three of the girls grabbed their shovels and attacked the compost pile. Two others were introduced to the odor infused fish emulsion :o)
It was at this point of the morning that I stepped away for a bit to tour the grand 16th Street Station in the farms backdrop, but I returned less than an hour later to see the final bouquets readied for delivery to the farm’s clientele. As I watched the boys’ focused intensity as they worked to perfect their arrangements, I had no idea that the tall and quiet Raphael was about to hand me his to take home. With a proud and shy smile, he gave me a lovely arrangement that I can say lasted a week on my dining room table.
Oakland is burgeoning with urban farm movements in all corners. As terms such as local, sustainable, organic and farm-to-table become more commonplace in our vocabulary, WOW Farm is taking it to the next level by using these plots of land to teach the next generation not only about how to grow and create for their own families and community, but giving them lifelong skills to grow their own independence, sustainability, and future…one bouquet at a time.
Be sure to check out my visit inside the historic 16th Street station here. The history of this amazing building seen in the backdrop is an important part of our city and I am hopeful that it will one day be brought back to life.
Fore more information about WOW Farm please visit their website at www.wowfarm.biz
You can sign up for the WOW Farm Bouquet CSA here
For more information about Game Theory Academy please visit their website at www.gametheoryacademy.org
Edible East Bay did a wonderful piece about the produce side of WOW Farm in their Winter 2015 Issue, you can read the article here
All photos by Adrienne Schell