The Faith-Based Urban Farmer

09 Feb, 2012

by Sarah Henry, via

Urban Adamah, a one-acre urban farm on a vacant lot in a gritty stretch of Berkeley, has transformed an area better known for liquor stores and light industry into a thriving community gathering space and food hub.

Adam Berman founded the farm in the summer of 2010 with just such lofty goals. Urban Adamah (for the Hebrew word for “earth”) offers a fellowship program for young adults, dubbed The Jewish Sustainability Corps, that integrates organic farming, social justice outreach, leadership training, environmental education, and progressive Jewish spiritual practice. There’s yoga, meditation, and singing too.

Berman, who directed a Jewish retreat center where he founded a similar fellowship in Connecticut before relocating to Berkeley, got a lucky break when landowner Wareham Development agreed to host the farm rent-free for two years. Hence, the portable feel to the project: The farm has dozens of raised, movable produce pallets, greenhouses, a cob oven, chicken coops on wheels, and large tents that serve as classrooms. Everything on the property could be transported with relative ease, if a new location proves necessary. Raised beds filled with fresh, organic soil also solves the problem of contaminated soil on the property, a former printing press site.

The resident fellows serve as hands-on farm educators for local school children and community members and intern with nearby social justice organizations dedicated to addressing poverty, food security, and environmental stewardship.

The program also seeks to fill a void by distributing healthy food in under-resourced neighborhoods. It provides classes on raising chickens and palate-bed building to budding urban farmers and holds lectures, workshops, film screenings, and farm celebrations that are attended by people of all ages and religious affiliations.

Q. Why Urban Adamah?

A. I think of Urban Adamah as Adamah 2.0. It has the immersive, progressive Jewish and environmental component that we developed in Connecticut [at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center] but adds the social justice and community education piece. The farm in Connecticut is an hour from the closest city. Only a few hundred people visit each year. In our first year in Berkeley, a few thousand people came to our farm for community and environmental education events. In Connecticut all the food we grew we ate ourselves or sold at retail. Urban Adamah is about growing food for those in need. Ninety percent of what we grow we give away.

Q. Why Berkeley?

A. In many ways the Bay Area is the epicenter of the national food movement, and at the same time it’s a microcosm of the disparities of the rich and poor with regards to food access and food justice. You can buy $13 organic fair trade local chocolate bars in Berkeley but can’t find actual tomatoes in neighborhoods in West Oakland, where there isn’t one full-service grocery store. On a personal note, Berkeley feels like home to me.

Q. Can you give a rundown of what the farm has accomplished since it started?

A. Well, we constructed the fully portable farm from start to finish from February through August. We ran two fellowship programs with 24 fellows. We ran joyful programs in partnership with more than 20 local Jewish organizations. We provided four weeks of summer camp for 80 children and one-time educational programs for loads of local students. We celebrated each of the major Jewish holidays with community-wide farm events. And we produced more than 3,000 pounds of produce and distributed it through our free farm stand, food banks, and community groups. It was a busy year.

Q. How important is the spiritual component to the farm’s success?

A. It’s huge: The heart-mind-body trifecta informs everything we do. We believe that real change can’t happen in the world without being personally grounded and clear in each of these areas.

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