Name: Willow Rosenthal
Position: Farm manager at Urban Adamah
J.: You grew up in a farming community in Sonoma County. Is that how you became interested in farming?
Willow Rosenthal: My parents were back-to-the-land hippies when I was growing up. I was raised in a very DIY [do-it-yourself] environment, and we made everything from scratch and always had a garden. I began gardening with my dad when I was a little kid. But in high school, I worked on a market farm, which is where I started to learn about market farming [small-scale farming]. I was always interested in food and everyone having enough of it.
J.: So you were into health food and farming when you were quite young. Didn’t you ever want to rebel?
WR: I felt that way in grammar school, but in high school I gave up and accepted that I was from an alternative background. I often say I didn’t grow up in America; I grew up in a subculture that is just different enough that I don’t quite understand some cultural references. Because my parents were raised with conventional American values, they were simply “trying on” the less conventional. For me, it was my whole existence — eating brown rice and vegetables is normal and I consider it comfort food.
J.: What about being named Willow?
WR: I always say my name dates my parents to a particular generation.
J.: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
WR: My mother is not Jewish, so according to some I am not a Jew. But my dad was very important in my upbringing. He was typical from his generation where he rebelled a little. He didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer and felt like, “Get your laws off my body.” He’s a therapist now, so he didn’t deviate too much.
My mother grew up in India, so they were interested in Eastern philosophies, being good hippies. We would celebrate the Sabbath, but what they chose was the alternative version. We went to synagogue occasionally.
J.: What about these days?
WR: Being in the Bay Area, I’ve enjoyed going to different denominations of congregations. The last couple of years, I’ve been going to Beth El [in Berkeley] for the High Holidays. I also married a Jew, so he has kind of brought me back to Judaism. Culturally I am very Jewish and it has made a big impact on my life. We’ve always been encouraged to be artistic and to give back to our community and to be of service. The whole Jewish tradition of doing good work and contributing to the community was very prominent in our upbringing, even from a more secular perspective.
J.: In 2000, you were instrumental in establishing a garden in an urban Oakland community, with prices on a sliding scale. How did you launch your career as an urban farmer?
WR: After graduating from the University of Oregon, I moved into a house in West Oakland and noticed there was a lot of empty land. Since it was a bit of a downtrodden area, I thought, “There’s some land. I wonder what we can do.” One thing led to another and I was able to purchase an empty lot and started the first community market farm in 2001. That grew and eventually we called our project City Slicker Farms. Eventually, I quit my day job and started doing urban farming full time.
J.: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
WR: That’s hard to answer because I love everything and it’s all connected. As a farmer, you can’t name one thing. What I’m really enjoying now is early spring and all the leaf crops that are just starting to perk up and pop out delicious succulent leaves. Parsley, arugula, escarole, frisee … they’re so succulent and crunchy this time of year.
Farming is based on seasons and there’s a time for everything. For instance, the time to eat tomatoes is in August and September. When that time comes, you just revel in it.
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