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Bay Area Land Is So Expensive. How Do Urban Farms Survive?

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An orange tree is in the foreground and in the background is a four story apartment building.
An orange orchard in an unexpected place caught the attention of a Bay Curious listener. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Read a transcript of this episode here.

Carlos Urbina used to ride the San José light rail every day to work. As he looked out the train window, he’d pass by big buildings, busy intersections, offices and apartment complexes. But there was one part of his daily commute that always caught his attention. Amid all that urban infrastructure, the train would pass by a sprawling orange orchard.

This orchard was striking. It took up a whole block with rows and rows of big, bushy orange trees. It looked like a green-and-orange haven amid the North San José suburban sprawl. People would often stop and take photos of the farm, wondering what it was doing in the middle of Silicon Valley. Carlos would spot tractors on the property and farmworkers tending to the trees.

“It was weird to me to see a farm in the middle of what seems like super-valuable real estate and, you know, like they’re just doing their farming stuff,” said Carlos. “I found it very curious.”

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The orchard struck Carlos for another reason. It reminded him of his favorite place to visit as a child: his grandma’s house. Carlos grew up in Mexico City, and his grandma lived in a small agricultural community in a neighboring state called Tlaxcala. With its bountiful fruit trees and mountains in the distance, the orange orchard bore a striking resemblance to that place.

“I got a little nostalgic for that,” he said.

But Carlos also wondered how a scene like that could exist in the middle of Silicon Valley, with its notoriously high land prices.

“What I’d like to know is, who owns it? What kind of products do they grow there? And, finally, how come they are still the owners of that piece of farm?” he asked.

The orchard

The orange orchard is located in north San José, right across from the River Oaks light-rail station. It’s in a fairly suburban area, sitting amid a sea of tech company headquarters, school campuses and manufacturing facilities.

After some sleuthing, we tracked down one of the current owners of the property: Alice Moitozo.

Moitozo is 93 years old and co-owns the orchard with her sister-in-law. She’s lived in a house in the middle of the orchard for 72 years. Her father-in-law, a Portuguese immigrant, bought the property in 1915 and established a dairy operation on-site. Eventually, with the influx of canneries in the region, the Moitozos switched to growing fruit, specifically pears.

“This whole area here, north San José, was all pear orchards,” said Moitozo. The canneries eventually all moved away, many to the San Joaquin Valley. “So my husband and his brother planted the orange trees.”

That was around the 1960s. At a time when property values in Santa Clara Valley were skyrocketing — convincing many farmers to sell their land — the Moitozos stayed and planted the orange trees.

An orange tree with dozens of large oranges on its branches that look ready to be picked.
When canning was a larger industry in San José, pears were grown on this land. In the 1960s, as canneries were moving away, the owners turned it into an orange orchard. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Moitozo’s husband has since passed away, but their son now manages the orchard, which remains fully operational. They used to sell the oranges, but now they donate them to a local food bank. At this point, it’s essentially an extravagant garden.

Over the years, Moitozo said she’s had many buyers express interest in her approximately 15-acre property.

“I had a fellow come to my door one time … and he offered me a million dollars an acre,” she said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not selling. I’m going to die here.’”

Urban farming today

While Silicon Valley has largely converted from farmland to techland, there are still hundreds of urban farms all over the Bay Area. From small-scale vegetables to rooftop flowers, urban farmers are growing all different kinds of things.

What they all have in common is that it’s hard to make it work financially here.

“It’s incredibly difficult to be a commercially viable urban farm,” said Eli Zigas, food and agriculture policy director at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

To understand how they survive, Zigas divides Bay Area urban farms into two general categories: commercial and noncommercial. Commercial farms are ones that make a living on what they grow.
“They are in it for the business of agriculture,” said Zigas. Perhaps they sell at a local farmers market or have an online shop.

Noncommercial farms, on the other hand, tend to focus more on education.

“Those projects are things like community gardens, school gardens and teaching farms,” Zigas said. “In the Bay Area and most of the country, those are the most common forms of urban farming.”

Nonprofit farms are incredibly important to urban communities, said Zigas, because they help people connect with the land and learn about ecology, seasons and how to grow their own food. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an advisory committee and various grant opportunities targeted specifically at urban farms.

While not all urban farms fall squarely into these two categories, Zigas said it’s a helpful framework for understanding how they survive here.

To understand it even better, we visited some farms.

‘A skill for life’

At Valley Verde, a nonprofit farm in downtown San José, the mission is simple.

“We want people to learn how to grow their own food,” said Lovepreet Kaur, the farm’s executive director. “We want to teach them a skill for life. We don’t want to just provide a vegetable and say, ‘OK, here you go,’ and that’s it.”

Valley Verde was founded in 2012 and currently offers a handful of educational gardening programs specifically for lower-income community members in San José. For example, their Shared Garden program provides participants with the tools and know-how for gardening at home, including a class and materials such as raised beds, soil and seedlings.

A raised garden bed with several small green plants growing. A small greenhouse is in the background.
Native pollinator plants grow at Valley Verde. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Those skills can help alleviate food insecurity — a significant issue in Silicon Valley.

The farm also grows food that is culturally relevant to its participants, including okra, bitter melon and Thai chili peppers. That’s important to Kaur, who immigrated to the U.S. from India when she was 11 years old.

“When I came here to the U.S., there were a lot of vegetables that I grew up eating that were no longer accessible to me,” she said. “I didn’t see them at any stores, or if you did, they were very, very expensive.”

A bespectacled Indian woman with her head completely covered in a black scarf knotted at the nape of her neck, bends over and holds the tip of a leaf of a purple and green plant, growing in a raised bed, between her first finger and thumb.
Lovepreet Kaur looks at a Japanese red mustard plant at Valley Verde. The farm is intentional about growing plants that are culturally relevant to community members and may be hard to find. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But running these programs for free isn’t easy. Like most nonprofits, Valley Verde survives on grants, including from the Health Trust and the Lucile Packard Foundation. But according to Kaur, the biggest challenge is accessing land.

“We want to stay either downtown or on the east side,” said Kaur. “Wherever we serve the community, we want to be in our community. We don’t want to be far away from them.”

There’s plenty of land available in more rural areas or in the hills surrounding Silicon Valley, but Kaur said they need to be accessible to their program participants to maintain their mission.

Valley Verde has moved multiple times over the last few years. Right now, they’re leasing their lot from Google, which is charging them only $1 per month. But with only two years left on that lease, Kaur’s already starting to think about what comes next. She hopes the next move will be permanent.

“It is extremely stressful to be moving from one place to another, especially when you have plants. There’s a high mortality every time we try to move the plants while they’re still in their growing stages,” she said.

A bespectacled Indian woman with her head completely covered in a black scarf knotted at the nape of her neck touches soil in a small container with a just-sprouted plant.
Kaur checks on seedlings in a greenhouse at Valley Verde. She says moving plants to a new location is a tricky process, and not all plants survive. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Farming in the sky

As opposed to nonprofit farms like Valley Verde, commercial operations in the Bay Area are harder to come by, which makes Bluma Farm, a commercial flower farm based in Berkeley, a rarity. In fact, founder and owner Joanna Letz doesn’t know anyone else in the Bay Area operating a for-profit farm in such an urban environment.

Bluma’s situation is unique; the farm is spread across 15 modular apartment rooftops near downtown Berkeley and boasts a spectacular 360-degree view stretching from the Berkeley hills to downtown San Francisco.

Letz started growing flowers here in 2019, just a couple years after the building was built. She grows all kinds of flowers: godetia, nigella, violas, larkspur. The farm looks like a mosaic of raised beds in the sky, punctuated with a rainbow of flowers.

A woman walking through a rooftop garden, holding a gathering of flowers, with apartments and a mountain in the distance.
Bluma Farm founder and owner Joanna Letz runs her business on 15 modular apartment rooftops. (Courtesy of Nicola Parisi)

At first, Letz said it was hard transitioning from farming on the ground to the roof. But now that she’s more used to it, she sees “all the really important benefits of farming on a roof and also just the ability to be growing in the city and showing other people what’s possible.”

As a for-profit business, Bluma has various revenue streams. About half their income comes from weddings, though that changed somewhat during the pandemic, said Letz. She sells some flowers wholesale and some retail, and she has a flower-subscription service.

“Cut flowers are higher profit per square foot than just about any other crop I can think of,” she said.

Still, it’s hard to make it work financially — especially in such a high-priced area.

“I try to keep my prices as high as I can because I want myself and my employees to be able to make enough money to live here,” she said. “And that’s still hard.”

A smiling white woman with long brown hair in a bun, a white-and-gray striped sweater, a tool belt, and brown boots pulls back some opaque plastic to reveal seedlings underneath.
Letz says flowers earn a high return per square foot. (Courtesy of Nicola Parisi)

But it’s important to her to stay in the city, where she hopes more rooftop farms will start to emerge.

“There’s a lot of buildings that have gone up just in the time that I’ve been farming here,” she said, pointing to some buildings in the distance that don’t have rooftop farms. “What could we be doing with them that we’re not?”

Letz said she’s especially passionate about teaching youth about farming and the power of growing your own produce. She currently works with a handful of interns from local high schools.

“That makes me excited … that we can get people up here and experience this,” she said.

That’s why, despite the challenges, we should be fighting to keep urban farms here in the Bay Area, said SPUR’s Zigas.

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“[It’s] not about the number of people we can feed, but the number of people we can reach or touch through education and awareness,” he said. “And for that reason we should try and have more spaces where people can learn about food and how it’s grown.”

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