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Seeds of Evolution: Hayes Valley Farm Wasn't the End of Urban Agriculture in S.F. 

Friday, Jun 21 2013
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It was about 2 in the morning on June 13 when San Francisco police in riot gear raided the occupier camp in the former Hayes Valley Farm, arrested seven activists, and bulldozed over the newly planted crops. The group had moved into the space, which they rechristened Gezi Gardens in solidarity with protests in Turkey, on June 1 in a bid to keep the 2.2-acre parcel open for growing food instead of becoming a $42 million mixed-use development. Hand-lettered banners and sidewalk chalk slogans touted catchphrases like "Crops not Condos," "Liberate the Land," and "Harvests not Hipsters." It all disappeared overnight.

As tempting as it is to read the events as the end of something, the development of Hayes Valley Farm wasn't the death knell for urban agriculture in San Francisco. Take away the anti-capitalist agenda, and the idealistic vision of Gezi Gardens wasn't so far from that of the city's more established urban agriculture groups, with one notable exception — their methods of making that vision a reality. Instead of barricading themselves on the land and refusing to leave, members of groups like the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, Cultivate SF, and 49 Farms have been working with neighborhood organizations and the city to change zoning laws and generally make S.F. a more amenable place for urban farming.

Hayes Valley Farm captured the public imagination in part because it was the most visible of these projects, thanks both to its size (almost a whole city block) and its location (on Laguna between Fell and Oak, right by where the 101 spits out on Octavia). In 2010, the volunteer-run organization moved into the land after striking an interim-use agreement with the city to use the fallow parcel for farming until it was sold for development. During the three years the farm was open, thousands showed up to help transform the former Central Freeway on-ramp into a working farm and education center. And before the farm moved out on June 1, it disseminated plants, soil, tools, and other resources to more than a dozen farms and countless backyards around the city.

The organizers moved many of the iconic elements of the farm — the bees, the little red schoolhouse, the greenhouse — to another interim-use spot: the 5-month-old Bee Farm (3299 San Bruno), a windy half-acre strip above the 101 freeway where Bayview, Portola, and Visitacion Valley intersect. Volunteers are busily making the strip into a bee's paradise of fruit trees and flowering plants, all under the watchful gaze of a 50-foot King Kong on a Coke Zero advertisement. The billboard is the reason the farm exists in the first place: The land is owned by Clear Channel Communications, which is leasing it to the Bee Farm for a dollar a year as long as no structures are built that would obstruct the billboard's sightlines from the 101 freeway.

The Bee Farm is just one example of the interim-use land agreements that Hayes Valley Farm co-founder Jay Rosenberg's new organization, 49 Farms, is attempting to put into every square mile of San Francisco. Rosenberg has been working with communities and neighborhood organizations to identify other weird corners of the city that have land that could be farmed temporarily in the name of education, community, and better use of urban acres. "Interim use is a viable option for activating space," he says. "There's tremendous opportunity ... That land is fallow and can be activated with minimal resources, by the community."

His vision is a citywide network of farms sharing resources like seed and tool libraries, with varied uses for land ranging from reactivating soil and growing food to raising animals like bees and chickens. Whatever the community needs. He waits for people to come to him with an idea for a spot in their neighborhood, and emphasizes over and over that his job is to facilitate and work with the neighborhood residents, not barge in and demand that empty space be put to use growing crops. It's a quieter sort of revolution than that of the group at Gezi Gardens. Rosenberg and the other founders of Hayes Valley Farm won't comment about the activists, and their unwillingness to be more vocal about their distance from the situation may contribute to the public perception that they are in fact affiliated with the occupiers. The farmers aren't big on self-promotion, which may explain why they're relatively unknown.

But that's the thing about these farms: They're hidden in plain sight, tucked away in odd city parcels. Along with the city's 35 community gardens (land divided into plots tended by individuals, many of which have long waiting lists), there are larger-scale community farms tended by volunteers, like Alemany Farm (700 Alemany Blvd, alemanyfarm.org), a 4.4-acre parcel in Alemany owned by the S.F. Recreation and Park department tucked into a hillside between the entrance to the 280 freeway, low-income housing, and St. Mary's Park. The impressive roster of fruits and vegetables that the farm produces is free to the community, including but not limited to kale, potatoes, squash, peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, beans, beets, avocados, apples, plums, and pineapple guava. There's a pond, a greenhouse, and a windmill. It's a peaceful place, if you can block out the noise from the freeway and focus on birdsong and butterflies.

Extra food from Alemany is taken to the Free Farm at Gough and Eddy (thefreefarm.blogspot.com), which hands out free produce every week — though that 1/3-acre farm is set to close later this year to make room for a new development including a church, community space, and housing units to replace a church that was destroyed in a 1995 fire. Veggie Table at Third and Palou in the Bayview also gives out free produce to the community. And there are small-scale commercial ventures like Little City Gardens in the Mission, which sells salad greens and herbs to restaurants and catering companies, and which is setting up an agriculture distibution program for the community.

City policy is changing to make it easier for would-be urban farmers. In 2011, a change in zoning law made it easier for individuals to sell produce grown on private land, and the passage of the Cottage Food Law in January allows private residents to sell minimally processed foods, like homemade pickles.

Currently, state Assemblyman Phil Ting's bill AB 551 has moved to the Senate. It would give tax incentives to private landowners willing to commit their land for at least 10 years to urban farming. And the city of San Francisco has committed funds for a new Urban Agriculture Program with one full-time employee, potentially to fall under Rec and Park — a one-stop resource for urban agriculture.

Of course, San Francisco will never come close to the urban farming initiatives of cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and even Oakland — the cost of land here is just too high. And pocket farms will never be able to provide enough food for the city's population. But they can educate school groups and individuals about where food comes from, provide fresh produce to communities that need it, serve as neighborhood hubs where volunteers can get their hands dirty outdoors for a few hours a week ... and maybe prove that crops and condos can co-exist.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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