East Bay CSA delivers fresh, organic flowers to your door

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While many of her peers are hunched over computers in sleek offices replete with dining rooms, lounges and big-screen TVs, Joanna Letz is enjoying the good life at her own startup, in her own way.

Her business, Bluma Farm, offers locally grown, freshly harvested organic flowers delivered straight to the customer’s door. Using the increasingly popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model — in which consumers buy seasonal produce directly from farmers — Letz signs up members who pay a fee to receive weekly deliveries during the growing season, from the end of June through October.

Letz is Bluma’s CEO and sole employee. The 31-year-old Oakland resident literally planted the seeds for her business — and tilled the earth that blossomed into her first harvest this spring. She is also chief weeder, drip-irrigation installer, pest-control expert, delivery person and business manager.

Joanna Letz tends her one-acre plot in Sunol. photos/liz harris

In other words, she does it all.

On an ordinary workday (and that usually means six days a week), you’ll find Letz tending the one-acre plot she rents at the Sunol Water Temple AgPark. She works alongside small farmers trying to make a go of it in an industry dominated by big agriculture. The 18-acre park in the Sunol Valley just off Highway 680 promotes sustainable farming and public education in a partnership of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the nonprofit SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education).

Unlike her urban jeans-and-T-shirt-clad contemporaries, Letz sports a battered straw hat, bandana, stained khaki work shirt and pants, and dusty boots –- even in the blazing heat of a summer day. Her face is smeared with dirt, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.

She’s a farmer — just like her immigrant grandparents on both sides of the family who fled from the Nazis and tried to make a living as chicken ranchers in the United States. As small family farmers, they eventually found they couldn’t compete in the egg business, so they turned to other livelihoods. But they never lost their taste for gardening, and Letz still holds fond memories of her grandparents and their farming ways.

“We’re a tight-knit family,” says Letz, who grew up in Oakland and Berkeley and often visited her grandparents in Southern California. “We don’t have much family because they were all killed in Europe.”

She especially remembers her maternal grandfather’s large garden: the zucchini plants, the compost, the bees that produced sticky-sweet honey and the cucumbers that became pickles. “I started farming just after he passed away,” she says, thoughtfully.

Letz also recalls her grandparents’ conversations in Yiddish — a language she hopes to learn one day — and pays tribute to her heritage using the Yiddish word for flower (bluma) as the name of her farm.

Though her parents grew up on chicken ranches, they never caught the farming bug; both are medical professionals. Even so, they’re supportive of their daughter’s career choice, she says, even helping her on the farm and with deliveries.

Both family and friends have pitched in, she adds.

Letz grows and delivers organic flowers.

Letz wasn’t always set on being a farmer. But a 2004 trip during her college junior year abroad made Letz give it serious thought. She and other students traveled to five countries over eight months, studying the effects of globalization on small farmers. Letz was “disheartened” by what she saw, and recognized the importance of small, diversified organic farms.

“I was always somewhat interested in agriculture, and I think that trip tipped me over the edge,” says Letz, who completed the U.C. Santa Cruz Farm and Garden Program and apprenticed at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center in Muir Beach. She also served as garden manager at Slide Ranch, an environmental education farm in West Marin, growing 100 varieties of vegetables and flowers.

The trip abroad also affirmed her commitment to social justice, says Letz, who studied history and human rights at Bard College in New York. She also thrived at Habonim Gilboa in Southern California, which she calls “Jewish socialist camp,” where she spent some 10 summers, graduating from camper to counselor.

In the future, Letz would like to offer a CSA model for low-income households, or even give away some of her flowers. But for now, she’s concentrating on working the land and growing her business, figuring she needs 40 to 50 CSA members to be economically viable.

“I don’t think people realize that by buying organic local flowers, you’re supporting small, local agriculture,” she adds.

Letz also hopes to establish drop-off distribution locations, including one at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.

While growing up, she attended Kehilla Community Synagogue in Peidmont, and still goes there for High Holy Day services. But these days Letz has little time to spare. “For a long time I would try to at least mentally practice Shabbat,” she says.

Letz makes it clear that she appreciates her Jewish heritage and culture, and that farming, too, is part of “my family story.“

And that story continues, with long days planting and harvesting and rotating crops on a dusty parcel surrounded by golden hills. With a rotation of 60 varieties of flowers, along with some vegetables for her kitchen, it seems an endless process.

“I’ve got 87 beds, almost all planted, and 10 to go,” she says. “It’s not an easy life, but it’s really rewarding and I love it.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.