This report is part of East Bay Nosh’s local produce week, a series of stories about urban farming, growing your own food and dining off the land. You can see all the stories from this package on the Local Produce Week page.
What’s growing at the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue? About 34,000 square feet of luscious lettuce, deep green arugula, rainbow chard, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, cilantro, parsley, fenugreek and 27 different varieties of garlic.
No, we’re not talking about that new Whole Foods, which opened last December on that building’s ground floor. Rooftop Medicine Farm is seven floors above that, on the roof of the newish modular apartment building, called The Logan, which opened last year on what the farm’s founders maintain is still Ohlone land. And none of the vegetables grown at this regenerative, almost one acre farm will be sold at Whole Foods, or anywhere else, as they are meant to be given away to people in need, as part of the larger plan of its donor-supported parent organization, Deep Medicine Circle (DMC).
This isn’t only a super cool farm smack dab in trendy Temescal, but the prototype of a plan to decolonize the land, pay farmers their due as health care workers, and provide nutritious food for people who have been marginalized.
Rupa Marya is DMC’s Founder and Executive Director. She is also a physician, a professor, a writer, a researcher, a composer, a mother and an activist. She recently co-authored a book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice with political economist, professor, activist and author Raj Patel to, (as stated on its jacket) illuminate “the hidden relationships between our biological systems and the profound injustices of our political and economic systems.” DMC and the Rooftop Medicine Farm were established to implement some solutions to those longstanding injustices.
But according to Benjamin Fahrer, the ecological site director for the farm (and Marya’s husband) Rooftop Medicine Farm almost never happened, as the last eight years have been a roller coaster of yesses and nos.
Fahrer’s farming and building experience spans more than three decades, during which he has designed, built, and managed ecologically based farming projects both in rural and urban landscapes. With his company, Top Leaf Farms, he designed Berkeley’s Garden Village rooftop garden for Randy Miller of RAD Urban, an innovative architectural and construction firm, atop a student housing building on Dwight Way in Berkeley that opened in 2016.
That led to his being in on the ground floor, so to speak, when the project at 51st and Telegraph was also envisioned by RAD Urban.
“Originally they were going to do like a Market Hall on the ground floor, with 10 very local different leases” Fahrer said. Then in 2015, when Whole Foods showed interest, that seemed a much simpler solution. “At the end of 2015, they went to Oakland for the entitlement to build and knew it would take about two years to get the permits, so RAD Urban asked me if I would be interested in farming the ground level while we’re waiting.”
Fahrer saw that as a way to create good relations with people in the neighborhood who were very resistant to this “monstrosity of a building.” And since that plot had been a vacant lot for 10 years, not only did planting a garden on the ground with sunflowers and vegetables charm the neighbors, it also created a nursery for future plantings in a proposed rooftop farm at the structure. In 2017, when construction started, they had to move the whole nursery to the acre Fahrer and Marya have elsewhere in Oakland.
In 2019, a new company, Westbrook, took over the project and decided to axe the rooftop farm because the project was already $5 million over budget. Eventually, a new project manager came on, saw what had been cut out and wanted to put the farm back. Again, the owners just looked at bottom line, and said no.
Eventually the farm on the roof was returned to the design by the city of Oakland, as it serves other functions: as storm water management and as open space for the site. “Through the whole permitting process, Oakland said ‘we love this,’” Fahrer said. “They thought the rooftop farm was the best feature.”
Meanwhile, Fahrer said, “we got approached by our Indigenous friends for this RFP with Peninsula Open Space Trust for a farm down the coast. We formed a non-profit, DMC to operate that farm.” Eventually, the DMC would expand to operate Rooftop Medicine Farm, as well.
Where food and medicine meet
Marya said that DMC’S ultimate goal is “to heal the wounds of colonization,” in part through illustrating that food and medicine share the same roots. “Then they were separated,” Marya said. “Food was put over here, medicine was over there and living in that separation has led to a great deal of suffering … We’re trying to create a model that shows what happens if you just do it all another way.”
“Most people laugh off our ideas, even me, sometimes,” Fahrer said. “The scale of implementation, the scale of the food system we are trying to shift is so massive, it’s hard to think you could change it. Colonization and capitalism were built on agriculture. Agriculture is the most destructive thing we are doing on the planet. We need it to survive, but we need to flip the script.”
Marya, who grew up in Mountain View, France and India speaking several languages, has toured 29 countries with her band, Rupa and the April Fishes. She said that her experiences with different Indigenous groups throughout her travels has informed how she approaches the DMC and the Rooftop Medicine Farm, and prompted her to wonder “What happens if you start by giving land back? What happens if you farm under Indigenous sovereignty?”
When asked what she meant by Indigenous sovereignty, Marya explained that every move made at Rooftop Medicine Farm and the DMC’s other farm was made in consultation with Indigenous leaders. “We follow their leadership, inhale and integrate their values on how to live on these territories in ways that uplift everyone,” she said.
“It’s the way you would be if you were in a culture visiting and understanding that you are a guest. How do I be a good guest? I learn the customs … oh, I thank the land, and the water and I acknowledge the living entities around me.” Ultimately, it “means allowing yourself to be open to a different cultural understanding than the one we were raised with as settlers here.”
Alayna Reid, the farm director of the rooftop farm, used ancestral knowledge passed down from her Indigenous Cherokee and Choctaw grandmother and her country farming Jamaican grandmother in her current role. Reid attended nursing school, then switched to naturopathic medicine, but neither offered her the “culture of care” she was after.
“I realized that food was at the root of it,” Reid said, “so I had to go back to school to study agriculture if I wanted to make any kind of an impact “
As she studied, she realized that the answers she was seeking could be found by learning “to grow the food and realize the power the food has. It’s in the herbs, it’s in the veggies.”
Feeding the people
“If we can get that food to the hospital and get them to distribute THAT food to the actual patients, it will do so much for them,” Reid said. “People are hungry. Wouldn’t it be great if every hospital building had one of these on top to grow food for the patients?”
Fahrer said that the DMC is seeking to “aggregate and distribute that food without commodifying it, without capitalizing it, but giving this food as a health service.” To start, Marya said, UCSF’s pediatric clinic, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland will receive the food grown at Rooftop Medicine Farm.
They also “plan to give food to Crystal Wahpepah’s restaurant,” Marya said, referring to Fruitvale’s Native-owned Wahpepah’s Kitchen. “We give her greens so that she can provide an elders’ plate for anyone who walks in for free. This will offset her costs and show that the food system can be non-profit but also support food entrepreneurs who are doing the right thing,” Marya said. Other groups that will distribute the farm’s produce include Moms for Housing and Poor Magazine.
Marya said that they’re “hoping to feed 1000 families a week” from the one-acre farm. “That’s insane,” she said, “but if we can supply a part of their diet that provides the healthy, microbial exposure through food, that will be a win.”
Those health goals have guided what’s planted at Rooftop Medicine Farm “We will try to preference foods to build the gut microbiota, like garlic, artichokes, berries, mustard greens,” Marya said, as she believes those do the best to “fight inflammatory disease.”
In future seasons, Marya said that they hope to build a greenhouse to allow them to plant with greater diversity. That’s how we keep the progression,” she said. “Transplanting, harvesting, starting…like a little engine.”
In addition to the actual planting, Marya said that DMC wants to make sure the farm feels accessible to all. “I want it to feel safe for people of color because there are so few farming spaces in the middle of gentrified spaces, that feel safe,” Marya said. “So, we prioritize bringing in youth of color, students of color and women of color, so they can learn, participate and benefit.”
Fahrer echoes Marya’s commitment to equity and inclusion. “I have a huge amount of privilege, as a man and a white person,” he said. “It’s using that privilege to shift the awareness, promote ideas.” But in the end, “we need women of color leading this, because it’s their time.”
Those ideas of equity spread to how workers at the farm are compensated. “We are paying our farmers $80,000 a year,” Fahrer said. “Everyone in the organization gets paid the same, from the executive director to the farmers to part-time workers…I have 25 years’ experience and make $30/hour just like a new hire does.”
Thinking about the DMC, Marya said that she’s been “incubating these ideas for probably 20 years,” and that after a certain point, “I thought ‘I can’t go back to just working in the hospital.’”
Instead, she embarked on this project, in hopes that it could be a model for the world. “This farm exemplifies the way in which we can groom the health back into the cities,” she said. “Our space is intentionally creating biodiversity, enhancing soil microbial biodiversity, with insects, birds, habitat, we’re creating an ecosystem up here that brings the ecological engine back to life in the city. That will bring a vitality to the food grown here, that’s different compared to organic food grown 100 miles away.”
“This food is ultra-fresh,” Marya said. “When we deliver it next door, it is alive and living. How can we help our community fall in love with food that will nourish them and help them stay healthy? It’s anti-inflammatory medicine. That’s why we called it Rooftop Medicine Farm.”