Urban Farmer

By Andy Campbell / May/June 2013
April 25th, 2013

It took Adam Berman ’94 eight years to realize that all he ever wanted was to become an urban farmer. Over that time he tried changing careers, he experienced a spiritual breakdown, and he spent a lonely year and a half alone in the woods. His search ended three years ago when he built Urban Adamah, a farm in Berkeley, California. Named for the Hebrew word for earth, Urban Adamah practices sustainable agriculture to provide healthful food to low-income Berkeley residents.

After graduating with a degree in environmental studies, Berman spent a year in South America learning Spanish before studying at a Buddhist monastery in Northern California and working for an environmental education center. He enrolled at the UC Berkeley law school with the intention of becoming an environmental attorney, but he dropped out after a year. “I knew since my teen years that I was interested in environmental work,” he says. “But law wasn’t for me. I took some time off and never went back.”

His next stop was the Berkshires, where he worked at a Falls Village, Connecticut, environmental education center and farm called the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. The center, which, according to its website, aims to “integrate ecological awareness, vibrant Jewish spirituality and social justice,” was almost everything Berman wanted: “the intimacy of the setting, the educational and environmental opportunities, and the friends who are still a part of my life. It was a great experience,” he says.

Berman worked there for eight years, but he eventually “had the classic nonprofit burnout syndrome,” he says. “The center was amazing, but I was totally stressed out, and I knew I needed to take some time off in a serious way before making a decision about what to do next.”

In 2009, he left everything behind and spent a year and a half at retreat centers and living alone in the woods. At one point, he went into complete isolation near Crestone, Colorado, meditating and practicing the Chinese meditative exercise Qi Gong. One day, he realized he’d almost found what he wanted at the Freedman center. But he thought he could do it even better.

Urban Adamah is now a bustling produce farm that offers free food to low-income neighbors and year-round environmental education services. The farm’s one-acre plot raises up to 12,000 pounds of food a year and has chicken coops and greenhouses. Tents serve as classrooms where fellows offer hands-on classes to the public. And there’s a Jewish Shabbat service once a month, which is open to everyone.

Berman wants to expand his operation, though his lease ends next year and he’s not sure if he’ll stay or relocate. But if he can keep going, he hopes to expand his mission to other parts of the country. “We’ve created something that could—and should—be replicated in other cities,” he says.

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May/June 2013