The pacific, California and Planting Justice

I arrived in the Bay area off the back of my 3,924km journey from Chicago. I’m greeted by the vastness of the pacific and a wonder at what’s in store on the west coast. A huge amount of the U.S.’s agricultural production can be found in California (in 2017 California produced 13% of U.S. food (in purchase value)), and it is home to examples of the best and the worse. This is big ag at its craziest, but it’s also a hot bed of resistance to mainstream ag, a breeding ground for alternatives and the Bay area is a central part of that. Those alternatives are much needed with the status quo standing on precarious ground. Labour shortages (in a sector hugely dependent on migrant labour, massively effected by immigration crack downs of the current administration), water shortages (in many places the land is literally sinking as a result of the overuse of underground aquifers) and drought, and reductions in yields as a result. With the ongoing flush of forest fires there’s definitely a climate change apocalyptic feel to the place.

I spend my week in Berkeley and Oakland, only venturing into San Francisco on my last day for a tourist day. San Francisco, home of the tech boom, has seen huge increases in the cost of living as a result of the money coming in from that industry. It’s the same old story that as people get pushed out of that area, the cost of living is rising in adjacent areas with related gentrification of areas and displacement of longer established communities.

Planting Justice, based in Oakland (which sits just over the bay from San Fran), was set up 10 years ago with the goals of educating about food justice, providing a sliding scale (edible permaculture based) landscaping service, making an urban farm and training centre and doing this through grassroots fundraising. The founders had been volunteering on a garden in San Quentin state prison run by the Insight Garden Program, and it felt logical to partner with them to support men as they left incarceration in to meaningful secure work. In the ten years since then PJ has employed 40 ex-incarcerated men. The overarching goals of PJ are of food sovereignty (helping people to grow their own food, working to redress structural inequalities in the food system), economic justice (green jobs which are empowering and provide fair wages), and community healing (holistic health for communities through nutritious affordable food access, jobs, education, green space).

DSC_1678If you’re more of an aural learner you might prefer to listen to two of PJs staff, Andrew and Patrick, talking about what the organisation does and how that has evolved. (Highly recommended!)


I got a sense of PJ as an organisation which has massively grown in the last 3 years – and they’re an organisation that’s dreaming big. I spent my time with them split between their 2 acre nursery in Sobrante Park (Oakland) which has been in PJ’s hands for just 2 ½ years, and their 5 acre mother orchard in El Sobrante which (whilst having been leased for a couple of years before) was only planted up in the winter of 2015/16.

My first day with PJ was spent at their 2 acre nursery, home to the most biodiverse collection of organic edible tree crops in North America (Our equivalent in the UK is probably the Agroforestry Research Trust). The land became available shortly after PJ had been approached to take over the Rolling River Nursery plant stock (as the owners were looking to step back from their business) and was purchased with the support of around 900 community investors. It is now the base of their walk-in and online sales, as well as plant propagation and care. It’s largely staffed by ex-incarcerated men and members of the local (largely latinx) Sobrante Park community. The bay area sits on the land of the Ohlone People, as does much of California. Last year PJ started the process of giving the nursery land over to Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a women led indigenous community organisation which includes members of different indigenous tribes. Sogorea Te works to facilitate the return of Ohlone lands to indigenous stewardship. PJ and Sogorea Te have together been working to grant land access and title over to Sogorea Te so that in the long run PJ will rent the land from them. As PJ say, “our work with Sogorea Te further broadens the scope of what Food Justice means by acknowledging the relationship food growers have to stolen Indigenous land.”

In 2013 PJ signed a $1/yr lease on a 5 acre plot of land in El Sobrante. It’s a sun-baked south facing slope with 700 varieties of fruit trees planted through a complex system of rain capturing swales which make use of the scarce rain coming off the residential areas above. The orchard hosts many of the mother plants for stock for PJ’s nursery, so when pruning time comes, most of the cuttings head there. Only planted in early 2016, production is still pretty limited, but PJ has great plans for when the abundance comes. There are plans for a sliding scale fruit CSA, incubating value-added cooperatives for things like pies and jams, and there were also murmurs whilst I was there of PJ starting it’s own restaurant, again with the emphasis on dignified employment for structurally oppressed groups, providing farm to plate food.

DSC_1688Two areas of PJ’s work that I got to hear about but not experience were it’s landscaping and educational work, both a much longer part of their output than the nursery and orchard. PJ’s landscaping work aims to support communities towards food sovereignty by building edible permaculture gardens. These are offered on a sliding scale which enables them to offer free landscaping to community spaces including schools, prisons – spaces which they build community resilience and aim to increase access to sustainable, healthy food.

The education program aims to activate those most affected by poverty and food injustice into roles in which they themselves can create more food sovereign communities. PJ develop curricula in high schools, prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities to develop “literacy in social justice movements, ecology, and holistic wellness”. This takes place alongside the practical work of growing food and is run by staff from within those communities. PJ partner with Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) to run the Bay Area Farmer Training program. This is described as “a comprehensive learning, mentorship, and employment opportunity for new and beginning farmers to gain skills in agroecology, food justice initiatives, local marketing, and cooperative participation, especially designed for immigrants, refugees, and formerly incarcerated individuals” on the MESA website. The program offers scholarships for individuals from those backgrounds, providing hands-on learning alongside anti-oppression and justice training, and ongoing mentorship.

A final part of the PJ picture is it’s canvassing work. This is another unique thing about PJ. They have an inhouse grassroots fundraising team who secure an average of about $150,000 a year from small individual donations. The interactions are also opportunities to spark conversations about the prison system, about food justice and sovereignty, about employment and so much more.

There are a number of overarching themes and inspirations that I take from my time at PJ. I feel really inspired by the emphasis on dignified jobs at PJ, the understanding that decent livelihoods are central to economic livelihoods and can be a really powerful means of lifting systemically oppressed people up. The holistic nature of community transformation to tackle systemic oppression is really inspiring to me, and something I think we can all learn from. The focus on job provision alongside healthy and affordable food access, food justice education and training of leaders, return of stolen lands is hugely inspiring, the focus being dignity, empowerment, justice and sovereignty.

Their relationship with Sogorea Te’, and the work in redistribution of land into indigenous hands feels hugely important, and potentially very healing of the brutal history of the U.S. and the indigenous people who lived here long before it’s creation.

The work PJ is doing in providing employment to ex-incarcerated men is having huge impacts. According to their website, through their system of holistic re-entry 0% of the men they have worked with have returned to prison, where as 44.6% is the California average. They put this success down to 5 things: starting on the inside (so folks know they have a job when they get out), providing living wage jobs, peer-to-peer support in the workplace, centring health and providing health care and sick leave, and providing not just work but meaningful work and support in to leadership roles.

The funding side of PJ is really interesting. A big chunk of their funding comes from canvassing (staff out on the street taking private donations from individuals whilst also educating and talking to people about food justice and sovereignty) and a kind of subsidising system where by their full paying landscaping jobs contribute to the community ones they do (and in the future a sliding scale CSA). This provides a really interesting model of wealth redistribution to me, be it voluntary. I expect it also gives PJ more autonomy over their finances.

My final thought is a rough incomplete one about growth and how an organisation dreams and grows and does that in a sustainable way. There is something here which my time didn’t quite allow me to get deep in to. But an organisation like PJ, taking and capitalising on the opportunities that come its way, is a real model for the modern times we find ourselves in, times in which we need to make rapid change to the ways in which we operate in society. I think it’s generally easier for smaller organisations to stay adaptable, and there’s something about how as organisations grow, how they stay adaptable (and able to take advantage of change) whilst also staying accountable. This is something Andrew alluded to in the conversation above but not something I managed to delve into in my time at PJ. I do wonder to what extent PJs funding structure feeds in to this. Having internal canvassers who bring in private donations I expect gives a flexibility to the spending of that money that is less likely to be there with foundation grants, something which can facilitate adaptability.

All in all, it’s a hugely inspiring project that is centring the 3 permaculture ethics of environmental change, social change and justice, and having a huge impact. It serves to remind me of the work done at Organic Lea in London, and their similar grounding in permaculture (and the ethics that entails). Check out the PJ website for lots more info.

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