Urban Farmer Willow Rosenthal Plants Seeds in Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on March 4, 2011 · 26 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,community gardens,food security,growing greens,urban farming

Willow Rosenthal harvests a Berkeley backyard garden./Photo: Sarah Henry

The aptly named Willow Rosenthal grew up around trees in Sonoma County, California, in a community that farmed its own food. Raised by hippies who didn’t have a lot of money, she nonetheless ate well. She also learned how to grow her own food by working on an organic farm and for a local nursery.

She came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997 knowing she wanted to do social-justice work; an internship with Food First and volunteering with the Organic Consumers Association followed.

When she moved to West Oakland, Rosenthal was immediately struck by the absence of greenery, how much vacant, unused land there was, and the lack of grocery stores. She had landed in a community bounded by three major freeways that is also home to a busy port and extensive industrial pollution. People in this predominantly low-income, African American and Latino neighborhood had nowhere close by to buy healthy, affordable food. The area had plenty of corner liquor stores and fast-food joints, but not a single full-service supermarket.

An idea took root. Rosenthal decided to put her farming skills to good use and began gathering community support for a produce plot. In 2000, Rosenthal founded the non-profit food security project City Slicker Farms, after scraping together enough funds to purchase what would come to be called Center Street Farm.

Willow Rosenthal (rear, second from left) with West Oakland residents. Photo: Anne Hamersky.

Today, City Slicker Farms has seven urban farm gardens, produces more than 7,000 pounds of produce a year, and has built over 100 backyard gardens for residents of this neighborhood, which has struggled for decades. City Slicker also operates a weekly farm stand where people pay on a sliding scale under the inspired categories “free spirit,” “just getting by” and “sugar mama/daddy.”

After eight years running City Slicker on a shoe-string, Rosenthal, who suffered serious injury from police at a 2003 anti-war demonstration, stepped aside as the director of the group, though she remains on the organization’s board. In November, City Slicker was awarded $4 million in state bond funds for a community market farm and park at a 1.4 acre vacant lot in West Oakland, greatly increasing the group’s ability to grow and distribute food in the community; plans call for a large edible garden and orchard, a chicken coop, beehive, dog run, tot lot, and open space.

A pioneer of the urban farming movement, Rosenthal is featured in the recent Farm Together Now, which last December Michael Pollan called “his favorite book of the season”.

The 39-year-old has joined forces with her friend and fellow urban gardener Novella Carpenter to write a how-to guide, The Essential Urban Farmer, due out next year. Rosenthal works one day a week in the backyard produce garden she built for North Berkeley resident Sophie Hahn, a former City Council candidate active in community affairs, who is working on an edible garden initiative.

When not tending gardens, Rosenthal works as a teaching assistant at the Berkeley Rose School and is earning a teaching credential from the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training.

We spoke this week at Hahn’s garden, which features root vegetables, leafy greens, herbs, and chickens, and is in walking distance from Rosenthal’s own Berkeley home.

Was it hard to give up the reigns at City Slicker Farms?

I never thought about it in those terms. It wasn’t “mine,” it has always been a collaborative effort. City Slicker belongs to the community and I’m glad I was able to shepherd it through to its next phase and knew when to leave with grace. The day-to-day management of running a non-profit is exhausting. I’m grateful that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do and that the work continues.



Fellow farmer Laurel Sharp tends a Berkeley produce plot with Rosenthal./Photo: Sarah Henry

In the past you’ve said you didn’t want to just grow food for wealthy people, and now you are. How do you feel about that?

Well, we all end up doing things we say we’ll never do, right? My point really is that everybody should have access to healthy organic food. I  needed a job while I’m back in school. And I know how to farm. So I put up a flyer near where I live and Sophie saw it and hired me. The beauty of what she’s doing is she gets it, she really walks the talk. And while it’s not cost-effective for her, she’s doing this garden and paying fair wages to farmers because she believes it’s the right thing to do from a health and environmental point of view.

What do you like about living in Berkeley?

I like that I can walk into Berkeley Natural Grocery and I don’t even have to ask, I know all the produce there is organic. Same thing at the Thursday Farmers’ Market. And what an innovator and trailblazer The Ecology Center is; the place acts out of the highest good. Its programs and people are impeccable.

I love the natural beauty here. When I lived in West Oakland I would come to Live Oak Park just to see trees. I find being in a beautiful tree-filled place is good for my health, energy, and mood.

And I love the food at Saul’s — I used to come to Berkeley just to eat there — I’m Jewish, so it’s familiar comfort food for me.

Who are your local heroes?

Daniel Miller at Spiral Gardens was really my first inspiration for farming in an urban setting. I reached out to him early on. Joy Moore is another person I’ve crossed paths with and her energy and integrity is something else. She’s sheer, well, joy. And selfless. And, of course, my good friend Novella Carpenter: She’s just out there showing people what can be done — growing food and raising farm animals in an urban setting, which isn’t easy.

What’s next?

I want to inspire the younger generation through farming and garden education.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow
Urban Farmer Jim Montgomery of Green Faerie Farm
Spiral Gardens Helps Needy Feed Themselves
Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal
The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra March 4, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I love that she wants to inspire the younger generation. Wish we had more people like Willow on the East Coast!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Moratorium!!


Sarah Henry March 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

She’s quite something, Sandy, I think you would enjoy spending time with her.


Jane Boursaw March 5, 2011 at 9:43 am

Love reading stories like this. Reminds me of ‘Green Card,’ the movie with Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu where she plays an urban gardener who creates green spaces in the city so children can learn how to garden and appreciate the results.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..65 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2011


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi March 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I think it is fantastic when people create something, then let it move on to the next pair of hands to grow. Well done.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Bee’s Knees Honey and Beeswax


Sarah Henry March 7, 2011 at 6:26 am

I agree, Melanie. And not everybody has the foresight or grace to know when to go.


Donna Hull March 7, 2011 at 7:08 am

This is certainly an inspiring story. How wonderful that her gardening inspires all economic levels of the community.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Talking Travel on the Radio


Sarah Henry March 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Exactly the point, Donna, everyone should have access to organic, locally grown food.


Ruth Pennebaker March 7, 2011 at 8:53 am

Great post — made me feel better just reading it and knowing there are people who strive to change their worlds for the better.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Even More Teetering for Men- Part 2


Sarah Henry March 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I felt the same way when I met Willow (and made a mental note to start planning my sad looking planter box asap.)


sheryl March 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I love reading stories of how someone identified a need and worked hard to make something happen from the ground up. Willow deserves a lot of credit. Very impressive.


Sarah Henry March 8, 2011 at 6:54 am

Yep, literally from the ground up, Sheryl. Impressive indeed. And yet Willow is very modest about her work.


Steph Auteri March 8, 2011 at 5:28 am

I love this. As Sheryl said, I love that she identified a need and then created something incredible (and multifaceted)! And I love that it continues to grow. I’m all the way on the east coast, but it makes me want to be involved.
Steph Auteri´s last [type] ..Having Trouble Defining Your Specialty How To Determine What Makes You An Original


Sarah Henry March 8, 2011 at 6:55 am

Or start/seek out something similar in your neck of the woods, Steph?


Jennifer Margulis March 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

I’m so impressed by all the hardworking people dedicated to local sustainably grown food where you live Sarah. Like Ruth, I find this story totally inspiring.


Sarah Henry March 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm

It’s hard not to, isn’t it, Jennifer?


merr March 9, 2011 at 7:35 am

I am not much of a foodie but am so impressed and awed by the amazing people you interview here who have dedicated their vision to making a difference with food in one way or another.


Sarah Henry March 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I spent the early part of my journalism career focusing on corruption, wrong doing, and basic “bad guys.” It’s so refreshing to shine a light on folks who are truly doing good in the world.


Melanie Haiken March 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for telling us about this local hero. I can’t wait until her manual comes out; so many people have this vision but have no idea how to get started.


Sarah Henry March 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I think a lot of people will welcome Willow and Novella’s how-to guide.


shilpa March 10, 2011 at 6:28 am

I was lucky to hear Willow speak on a panel during the fabulous GCETP course at Garden for the Environment in SF. She is such an inspiration! Thanks for the post!


Sarah Henry March 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Glad to hear that, shilpa. Now what, pray tell, is “the fabulous GCETP course”?


MyKidsEatSquid March 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Such an interesting story. I heard an interview on NPR this morning that reminded me of your blog–it was about winter gardeners in Maryland (or maybe Virginia) but right now they’re selling kale.


Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Thanks for thinking of me, MKES, am sure it was the kale reference that reminded you of this site.


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