Two longtime friends and tennis buddies, Piedmont resident Linh Becker and Berkeley resident Jane Hammond, found unexpected pleasure digging their hands into dirt during the pandemic. Technically, it was well-composted, nutrient-rich soil in which Becker, Hammond and sometimes third partner Sallie Arens planted and tended the fresh, seasonal flowers grown at the trio’s Boxcar Flower Farm. The business they officially purchased from farmer-florist-manager Jess Myles in October 2020 is located in a parking lot area at Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station. The historic landmark site has not serviced trains since 1994 and has been (and continues to be) on the commercial real estate market long before pandemic.
“Jane was helping out because the previous owner had to leave during the pandemic to help her mother and invited me to join her,” says Becker, about how she came to volunteer and now, with Hammond and Arens, to own the flower farm. “I had started my first vegetable garden at home and I fell in love with watching a tiny seed grow into a peak of a green bud and then produce fruit or a flower. It brought me happiness during the pandemic.”
Boxcar Flower Farm was originally part of the non-profit project WOW Farm and subsequently, GROW Oakland Farm. In 2019 Myles transitioned the farm into a small LLC. Established practices such as using no pesticides or substances that cause harm to the environment or humans continue as does the company’s most popular service during the pandemic; a thriving CSA that delivers fresh bouquets twice a month to clients.
“The pandemic shifted business for us from walk-in shopping because people were working from home and needed something to brighten their days. It’s been a blessing in disguise. People started and have continued with their CSA subscriptions because they found they loved having fresh flowers delivered right to their homes,” says Becker.
Weddings and special events constitute additional sources of revenue, but suffered a serious hit when public gatherings were severely curtailed by the COVID-19 lockdown. What had been a mainstay — large private and commercial celebrations — instantly evaporated and left the farm with more flowers than the team could distribute. Like many other small, local businesses during the pandemic, they shared the wealth.
“Everything came to a halt during the pandemic,” says Becker. “For nine months we had lots of flowers and no events. We donated flowers to schools, recreation centers, to Zoom Make-A-Wish auctions and other virtual fundraisers, to Kaiser Oakland, and others. It made people so happy, just to get free flowers.”
The partners presently draw no salaries, but that doesn’t mean Boxcar, which Becker calls her “passion project,” is a pie-in-the-sky endeavor. She brings project management expertise from a career that continues; Hammond is founder/owner of Jane Hammond Events, a full service catering and event planning company with a more than 40-year history. Arens is mostly a silent partner and Becker says the division of duties is not so much formal as it is natural. “Sallie comes in to weed and plant occasionally. Jane and I talk so often I joke that I talk to her more than I do to my husband.”
Boxcar’s lease on the property is month-to-month, but the trio have little worry about a developer coming in any time soon and kicking them out. Whoever purchases the property will need to comply with requirements to maintain the historic structure and they predict obtaining permits and development project approvals will take years. “There are no guarantees, but maybe they’ll keep us as their garden,” says Becker. “It’s a great area of mixed cultures, with condos, coffee shops, plenty of space for retail and Boxcar, of course.”
With all revenue directed back into the business — except continuing to pay two employees who were at Boxcar when they bought the business originally — Becker says plans for the future include eventually drawing income, but the rewards of ownership are more than monetary. “I get so much satisfaction just playing with dirt. The moment when we decided to buy the farm, we were out there weeding and we knew Jess was leaving. I looked at Jane and said, “What’s going to happen with this farm?” She said someone would probably buy it. Then we said, we should buy it. The timing was just right.”
And when the moment is right again, they consider expansion ideas: hiring more people, purchasing a delivery van, adding a beehive and a worm compost farm, holding more in-person workshops like the one planned for June, tickets to which can be purchased ahead of time as Mother’s Day or wedding shower gifts. Because they are an LLC and not a non-profit, school visits and work-study programs are not options and will have to wait for a side operation to be added. In the meantime, Becker and Hammond look forward to having people visit the farm and say they hope never to grow the company so large they can’t be outdoors, hands in the dirt, coaxing tiny seeds to become beautiful blossoms.