Urban farm Planting Justice adds East Oakland site, hires ex-offenders
By Lou Fancher
With hands that previously fingered drug money or guns, Gordon Limbrick coaxes organic soil into a pot to buttress a tender plant.
The 33-year-old former inmate and Sobrante Park resident who once glorified street life today pushes a different kind of dirt and revels in peach trees at nonprofit Planting Justice's new 2-acre nursery in East Oakland.
Planting Justice co-founder and director Gavin Raders says the project on 105th Avenue brings together all aspects of the Oakland-based organization: food sovereignty, permaculture farm education and social justice that reverses multigenerational poverty and trauma by helping people stay out of prison.
When complete, the Sobrante Park farm in an East Oakland area known for high unemployment and crime rates will feature an aquaponic farm and training center, four greenhouses, a produce market, and cuttings for sale from 1,100 varieties of trees.
But mostly, the sliding-scale market and nursery will stand as models Raders hopes to replicate in abandoned urban spaces across the country.
"Its first purpose is the dignity of employment," Raders said. "The folks who've come out of prison onto our staff, not a single person has gone back. We have a zero recidivism rate. We give them the tools to stay free, to be who they want to be for their children. It's open source technology, training and making jobs happen in underserved communities."
Of the nursery's 11 full-time workers earning $17.50 an hour with benefits after three months, six were formerly incarcerated.
Raders and Haleh Zandi founded Planting Justice in 2009.
It boasts 21 former inmates in its 37-member workforce, which in addition to the nursery operates a 5-acre farm in El Sobrante; a Transform Your Yard program that has inmates building Bay Area gardens; and education initiatives at two Oakland high schools, an affordable housing complex and San Quentin.
The expanding nonprofit recently acquired Rolling River Nursery's inventory in Humboldt County. The organic nursery sells fruit trees, tree seedlings, shrubs, herbs and ground covers.
"We're anticipating $250,000 annually from Rolling River's online sales," Raders said. "They developed a robust mail order business with customers in 48 states that we'll continue."
An arduous process brought 30,000 potted trees, each weighing up to 60 pounds, and countless drought-tolerant plants to the El Cerrito and Sobrante Park nurseries.
"We had to carry trees by hand down a narrow gravel road," Raders said.
"We loaded plants onto the small trucks, reloaded onto semis, then drove 400 miles. It was insane; I don't think anyone's ever tried this before," he said.
"I never thought I'd be into anything agricultural," Limbrick said, offering his own never-before experience. "I was in state prison for possession and sale of narcotics and firearm by felon. To fall into this as a calling, it surprised me.
"I never thought I'd be a part of something that's going to help people," he said.
When Chris Lockett was walking through the neighborhood he has called home since childhood, the father of three saw people working in the garbage-lined plot of land near the Nimitz Freeway. He asked questions.
"They told me a guy named Gavin hired parolees. I applied; boom, I was hired. A white man who didn't know me from a can of paint hired me. I've got medical benefits, my kids have health care and we eat kale smoothies, no B.S.," the 40-year-old said.
Lockett committed credit card fraud and spent 21 months in prisons.
"I served my debt. Now I'm in a place where I belong," he said.
Make no mistake, the labor is hard, Lockett said, but the work "brings out glimmers of goodness."
Much of the $150,000 down payment to buy the land came in May from a Kickstarter campaign that raised $104,705. An Alameda County grant supports hiring former inmates.
A $600,000 loan from Northern California Community Loan Fund paid for land acquisition. Foundations and ongoing donations support the build-out of an aquaponic system that uses fish to produce nitrate-rich water that fertilizes the plants and uses 90 percent less water than in-ground farms.
The ecological/job creation project will take about four years to break even, Raders said.
"Once we have the data about crop yields, we'll start incubating worker-owned cooperatives. We'll replicate across the country. Desecrated soil, urban spaces sitting idle will provide healthy food and jobs leading to right living," he said.