Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of visiting 4 of San Francisco’s farms and gardens with 5 other Mission Pie staff – Debbie, David, Camille, Maya, and Sharon. This city tour included The Garden for the Environment, Little City Gardens, the Visitacion Valley Greenway, and Alemany Farm and was part of a series of field trips we’ve been taking in small groups to boost our collective understanding of where our pie ingredients come from and what it takes to grow good food. Several of us have also gone on the Sunset Scavenger tour of garbage and recycling facilities, to get a comprehensive view of the flow from farm to table to waste stream (ideally with a high proportion of waste making its way back into the field as compost.)
The comments and enthusiasm of staff who were on the previous farm tour to Good Humus Produce, Fully Belly Farm, and Dixon Ridge Farm at the end of May motivated me to get the Urban Ag tour on the calendar. While there is only one farm in the City that we regularly source from, San Francisco is rich in resources for home gardeners and ag enthusiasts. I wanted to be able to introduce these amazing businesses and organizations to colleagues who are looking for support in their home gardens or are looking to increase their hands-in-the-dirt time.
Our tour started at the Garden for the Environment where Nicole Brisebois welcomed us with the same enthusiasm that she lavishes on young people when they participate in the Summer Sprouts program and field trips that she oversees. We were also fortunate to have some time with Blair Randall, the very eloquent Executive Director of the GFE, who has a rare ability to speak at once on the micro and macro scale, and to help his audience take note of the relevance of our individual actions to the health of the larger community and world. Blair walked us around the garden and shared some personal favorites: the smell of mint geranium and the GFE apple orchard which includes a number of demo trees that feature several varieties on each tree – in our group, David was particularly fascinated to learn about grafting. Maya was taking notes the whole time for her new garden, and I’m hoping to take a GFE fruit tree grafting workshop this fall or winter.
One of the nice things about city farm touring is that we only had a 10 or 15 minute drive between stops. From the GFE, we drove to Mission Terrace, a quiet residential neighborhood between San Jose Avenue and Alemany Blvd., to visit Little City Gardens. There are many remarkable things about Little City Gardens, not the least of which is the surprise of coming upon it while driving down a typical San Francisco residential street. The topographically sensitive might note that something is unique about this block as it gently inclines down from the 45 mile-an-hour asphalt-covered remove of San Jose Avenue. The incline denotes the historic Cayuga Creek bed, which is one of the many undergrounded creeks of San Francisco. Three-quarters of a block and a quick drop in elevation to the East of San Jose Ave, an unobtrusive cyclone fence with a simple gate and a lovely small signboard mark the site of Little City Gardens. But what a walking or driving passer-by notices first is the startling beauty of a well-tended small-scale production farm, stretching back through the center of the entire block, an entire contiguous ¾ acre piece of land right in the middle of a dense residential community.
Caitlyn Galloway and Brooke Budner are partners in San Francisco’s only farming business. They intentionally are exploring the viability of operating a small-scale farm as a socially-responsible small-business in a city, and I, for one, feel very lucky that they chose San Francisco as their experimental context. Not yet 2 years old as a business on this site, they have already had a much bigger impact than they expected in our City’s policy arena. Their business experiment illuminated a disjointed zoning code as it pertains to urban gardens and farms when they were stalled by the discovery that, in 2010, it was still not legal to sell produce grown in the City. While other emerging small business people might have been thwarted, Brooke and Caitlyn found that their circumstances drew interest and support, much from the City itself, to change the zoning code. In less than a year, a time-period that was lightning-quick in government-time, the code was amended. Still, this was painfully slow for Brooke and Caitlyn, as the budding Little City Gardens missed an entire season of sales, a hard hit for a young business. Visiting the farm, it is evident that that time was not squandered; the farm is a beautiful and meticulously-cared for landscape generating produce for a growing Community-Supported Agriculture clientele (currently at 25 members) and several restaurant and catering customers (including Mission Pie.)
We felt fortunate that Caitlyn and Brooke were both able to spend time sharing their story and lessons learned. Our visit was well-timed to overlap with lunchtime, so we enjoyed a lovely picnic, including salad made with their signature salad mix – Little City intelligently focuses on crops that do well in our climate and with an emphasis on a few (salad mix, herbs, flowers) that translate into a higher value, which is critical to an urban farming business on this small scale. As we spend each of our days in a small business striving to express our value for better food access, quality, economic and environmental health, our group felt a particular admiration for these colleagues operating another small business according to similar principles. Camille said it best when she remarked that Brooke and Caitlyn’s effort to demonstrate the viability of a small urban farming business is really brave.
Despite the short distance between our stops, it took us more than 15 minutes to reach the base of the Visitacion Valley Greenway, where we were to meet 2 of the heavy-lifters of that project, Fran Martin and Anne Seaman. This might be because Visitacion Valley, like other Southern neighborhoods of San Francisco, is rarely on a City map. The neglect felt by residents of neighborhoods like the Bayview and Visitacion Valley where parks are few and supermarkets fewer, coupled with a love of gardens and outdoor space, a strong spirit of neighborhood and volunteerism, and a wealth of artistic ingenuity fueled Fran and her community to persistently advocate for and design of the greenway. Accomplished one park at a time, the 6 individually-themed gardens that combine as the diagonal swath from Leland Avenue up the hill to Tioga Avenue trace a Public Utility Commission easement. We walked up through all 6 gardens with Fran, Anne, and Jim Growden, hearing the story of negotiating for six years to get the Greenway project underway, and the additional ten or so years to complete the 6 gardens. Fran and colleagues give a lot of credit to their supportive partners, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, the Trust for Public Lands, and the SF Parks Trust. They take pride in the thriving beauty of the Greenway – Debbie loved the attention to detail in the 6 gardens – and its catalytic influence in the neighborhood.
We finished our day at Alemany Farm, one of the longest established community-oriented farms in San Francisco. Sited on the southern slope of Bernal hill with its driveway on Alemany Blvd and the traffic constantly rushing by on the 280 freeway, it is impossible to forget that Alemany is an urban farm. Still, with many years of stewarding in its current incarnation, and a decade before that as the SLUG farm, the site is recognizably a farm well on its way to maturity. Both from the plant and human ecologies at Alemany are unique and full of thoughtfulness. As a farm that relies entirely on volunteer commitment, and with a full 4 acres to manage, the “friends of Alemany Farm” community has had to cultivate itself toward a sustainable configuration that can support both the farming and community-serving commitments, like the Wednesday community harvest. Despite the recent zoning change, because they sit on SF Rec and Park land, Alemany Farm still can’t sell any of the thousands of pounds of produce they generate each year, but it is well-channeled in the neighboring Alemany Housing and other community food needs.
According to Jason Mark, who with Antonio Roman-Acala resurrected Alemany Farm beginning in 2006, their core community has grown considerably in farming experience and knowledge and they function effectively as a consensus-based volunteer team. Hanging out with Jason at Alemany can be transformative; I think several folks in our groups were having their culminating “another world is possible” moment while at Alemany. Jason accepted our pie gift with classic Alemany graciousness and an offer to barter for some fresh self-picked green beans. Sharon noted his and all our hosts’ generosity, and marveled at the amount of food being produced on undeveloped land in our dense city. A measure of success of our trip: Debbie put in for Wednesday off this week so she could go back and volunteer at Alemany Farm.