By Constance Taylor
What’s a city to do with abandoned lots? If you ask Steve DiCaprio, CEO and founder of Land Action, he’ll probably tell you they should be turned into microfarms with tiny homes on them. We had gathered to see the first of the microfarms Land Action created, a corner lot on 37th and West street.
Many years ago, this land had a single-family house on it. After the original owned passed away the title was handed over to a family member, who promptly stopped paying the property tax or doing any maintenance. The house remained neglected for many years, with the city imposing fine after fine on the owner for blight. The city eventually became responsible for the property and tried to sell it at auction multiple times, but couldn’t start the bids at any less than $650,000, which was what was owed on the property in back taxes and fines. Needless to say, no one was interested in paying over a half million dollars for a dilapidated structure in a neighborhood that was having serious troubles with the drug epidemic of the 1980’s.
About 15 years ago, the city tore down the house and sent the owner a bill for $100,000. After that the city would contract people to “mow and blow” the area once a year, which meant that someone would come in once a year to chop down the chest-high weeds that had sprung up. Unfortunately, this clear-cutting would send the many rats living in the tall vegetation scurrying for cover, often finding their way into the surrounding houses! The area had also become a trash dumping ground, littered with everything from syringes to mattresses.
Nearly 5 years ago, Steve and a friend breached the fence surrounding the property and started gardening. Since then they’ve made a deal with the City of Oakland to maintain the property- the city no longer has to pay contractors to come in and mow the lot, and Land Action was able to start their microfarm.
The lot has a number of fruit trees, raised bed gardens, chickens, and ducks. Urban farming, of course, has it’s challenges- “We were given some chickens that had gentle tempers, but unfortunately, raccoons managed to get into their coop and ate them,” Steve explained. “Since then, we ended up getting some Rhode Island Reds [a breed of chicken] that some folks didn’t want because they’re far more aggressive than most other chickens. But for us, that’s perfect! We’ve made the coop more raccoon-proof, but if something happens we’re hoping these chickens will be able to fight back.”
Steve also mentioned how they work within the limits of their environment, especially with the drought. “There was some push and pull within the collective this year about whether or not we should even plant anything because of the water shortage.” Since people don’t necessarily depend on this particular garden for produce, they decided to scale back this year to save water. “Right now the only water we use for the plants is from the duck pond when it needs to be cleaned, which is why it’s looking a little brown around here.”
Currently, Land Action is pushing for 100 microfarms in Oakland in the next 5 years. They’re currently fundraising to cover their administrative costs- to learn more about Land Action, the microfarm movement, and how you can get involved, visit their website!