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

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.

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2 comments
Robert la Bohème
Robert la Bohème

To bring in new soil in raised beds, because the dirt in San Francisco is full of lead from all the paint that's come off the buildings over the years. Beyond that, to do it wherever you can. I live near that farm and am still not sure what the issue was. Someone owns the land don't they? It's their land, isn't it? If they're building the farm's gotta go, doesn't it?

 
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