Pollinate Farm & Garden Thrives

An Oakland-Alameda twosome starts an old timey general store in a flinty ’hood.


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Yolanda Burrell, left, and Birgit Evans.

Rick Saez

 

Ethnic and cultural diversity prevail in Oakland. Take the Fruitvale and Dimond districts, where hip apparel store Oaklandish recently opened next to an old-fashioned butcher shop that’s been there for decades. In the same vicinity, an authentic Filipino restaurant operates near a grocery store that sells almost exclusively imported Mexican goods. That’s Oakland.

Still, the area, especially Fruitvale Avenue and East 27th Street, is urban and, like the rest of Oakland, has its share of inner-city ills. So a shop like Pollinate Farm & Garden feels slightly out of sync. It’s a locally owned general store designed to fully supply the area’s chicken stewards, beekeepers, gardeners, and folks who partake in other forms of urban homesteading with the full scope of their needs, from sowing seeds to canning veggies. Yolanda Burrell of Oakland and Birgitt Evans of Alameda brought Pollinate Farm & Garden, located at 2727 Fruitvale Ave. midway between Interstate 580 and Foothill Boulevard, to life in May 2013.

One of the biggest reasons they started their store, they say, was based upon their own experience as gardeners as well as the difficulty they had finding a place that stocked everything urban homesteaders need. “I’ve been growing food since the 1980s, and it used to be that you had to get everything you needed through mail orders,” Evans says. “You might be able to find mason jars at Walgreens off-season, and seeds were always hard to come by. Most of the equipment here—the seed-starting mats, the trays, the mulch, the fertilizer—they were all things you had to order.”

Evans and Burrell formed Pollinate to bridge that gap and give Oakland’s urban homesteaders a chance to buy their supplies locally, Burrell says. For the pair, who have remained friends for more than 30 years, founding such a business was something of a lifelong dream.

In its first year, the store has managed to thrive. Burrell and Evans must know the city of Oakland better than most, since they’re practically the only people around who weren’t shocked at the business’s success.

“People will come in all the time, just to stick their head in, look around, and say, ‘Why did you do this here? Don’t you know this neigh-borhood?’ ” Burrell says. “We’re like, ‘Yes, we know this neighborhood. It’s so beautiful.’ ”

For Pollinate to be successful, Burrell and Evans work more than 40 hours a week at the store, do additional clerical work at home, and make trips to the store on their days off. Both say that transitioning to a life with little time to spend with loved ones has been a much bigger personal challenge than anything associated with Pollinate’s neighborhood.

Pollinate is closed Monday and Tuesday, which makes sense from a business standpoint but isn’t exactly ideal for Burrell, whose children attend school during the week, or Evans, whose husband, Chuck Millar, works full time.

Burrell’s children have become “shop children,” she says, with a bittersweet laugh, before recollecting how her younger one, a 7-year-old boy, is starting to take after his mom when he visits her at work on weekends.

“He’s here all the time, and he’ll greet people at the door, and he’ll go: ‘We have a really good variety of seeds, and we have seed starters over here, and we have just lovely compost ...’ He’ll just start taking them around,” Burrell says. “It’s a great education for them.”

In addition to the shop time and administrative tasks, Burrell and Evans prepare newsletters and plan classes and events at the store. All the while they maintain their own gardens at home, and Burrell tends her flock of chickens (taken care of mutually with a neighbor who shares the eggs). When the store stocks baby chicks, which it has on more than a half-dozen different occasions in the past year, the shopkeepers take turns visiting on their days off to ensure the chicks’ health.

One of their biggest challenges for their general supply store has been working with a multitude of nationwide distributors, Burrell says. It’s difficult and time-consuming but also necessary to ensure that the “all-purpose” part of their store remains intact. Other than hiring a lawyer to help negotiate their shop lease at the beginning, they haven’t needed to turn to anyone else for bookkeeping. And aside from a Kiva Zip loan for $5,000, they haven’t taken any outside money.

“We won’t share how much we’ve put in, but we’ve basically funded it all by ourselves from our savings,” Burrell says. “It was a huge leap of faith on our part.”

But their success isn’t merely the result of faith and hard work; in addition to being a master gardener, Evans worked as an accountant previously, and Burrell, a lifelong gardener, has a business degree and a retail background.

“I loved my clients very, very much, but the work itself? I was very, very bored,” Evans says of her time as an accountant. “But here, for better or for worse, I am never bored.”

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