A farm in Hayes Valley works to create sustainable agriculture in the middle of San Francisco.
March 16, 2010 9:07 PM
On a bright and beautiful sunny day in Hayes Valley, 8-year-old Dash Peters stomps up and down on the fresh dirt he just created. Inches below his feet are layers of cardboard and wood chips; he and other volunteers are creating feet of topsoil to create space in which will grow healthy plants. The wet cardboard, wood chips, and manure fill the air with a heady aroma--the intoxicating smell of creation. Other volunteers outfitted in hats, gloves, and boots are scattered around the plot bordered by Oak, Fell, Laguna, and Octavia Streets. They shovel mulch and wood clippings into wheelbarrows and onto tarps, wheeling, dragging, and lugging from one pile to the next. The results of the sweat and hard work are taking shape. One of the hills that used to be entirely covered in ivy has been transformed into berms of "made" dirt. This site is the new home for the Hayes Valley Farm.
Cars zoom and motorcycles roar up and down the hills of Fell and Oak Streets, making their way to the freeway onramps that will take them all over the Bay Area. The traffic that plagues the Hayes Valley neighborhood is nothing new. Today, the city streets are clogged with commuters heading towards the freeways. The traffic, however, used to be much more invasive. Hayes Valley residents would look out their windows onto the Central Freeway onramp. Giant pillars of cement supported the massive freeway that ran feet from their front door.
In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Central Freeway was severely damaged causing Caltrans to remove a majority of the freeway while leaving the unsightly Y-shaped onramps for neighbors to view. The deserted blocks of freeway became crime havens, bringing problems to an otherwise pleasant neighborhood of family homes.
Volunteer and long-time Hayes Valley resident, Vladimir Vlad, moved from Romania to San Francisco right after the '89 earthquake. "The whole area was basically divided, Octavia was not a nice street," explains Vlad. "People would be turning tricks down [by the freeway]."
The neighborhood residents began a campaign to demolish the onramps that were now sitting unused. After many failed ballot initiatives, the neighborhood finally succeeded in 1998 when San Francisco voters chose to have the unsightly freeway torn down for good.
The city did as promised, fully removing any signs of the main thoroughfare. The result: unused plots of land, some with odd shapes and layouts. Those that were convenient were quickly snatched up by developers and new houses popped up. But for the plots that required more work, the city simply repaved them, planted some trees, put up chain link fences, and left the details to be dealt with later.
The soon-to-be Hayes Valley Farm plot sat empty and neglected for years. What the residents had worked so hard for had again become a haven for crime, a dumping ground for unwanted trash and debris, and an eyesore.
The lots are currently owned by San Francisco's Build Inc., a development agency. However, in order to capitalize on the lull in the housing market, Rich Hillis, a project director in San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, wanted to answer the Hayes Valley resident's question: Why are these parcels of land still empty? Hillis, and the San Francisco Parks Trust, approached the now defunct My Farm, a garden installation company to design and fill the plot of land with a community garden project.
Chris Burley, now Project Director for the farm was then working with My Farm. "I separated the two, I felt like [Hayes Valley Farm] had a very different aim and style of project then what My Farm was doing," says Burley. "This is more community building so it became its own project."
In addition to contacting My Farm, the city also wanted to involve the San Francisco Permaculture Guild, a group concerned with a sustainable and smart way of farming. With the Permaculture Guild came David Cody, the site manager/garden educator, as well as community organizer Jay Rosenberg.
After many different attempts, the city finally accepted their current proposal. The city agreed to give them fifty thousand dollars to build a community garden. "Our first proposal did not include salaries, but the city didn't like that," says Cody. "They wanted some responsible parties to push things forward."
The designers of the Hayes Valley Farm have their sights set high, with a food forest, a fruit tree nursery, a farmers market and a public plaza all in the works. However, their greatest goal is building a sense of community. "I just want to see people having a really good time, and connecting with food and each other," says Burley. "We have access to this site, I want to pass that access on to as many people as possible."
The city gave Hayes Valley Farm a time limit, Build Inc. is supposed to start building in two to five years depending on the cash flow of the economy. Hillis noted that the beauty of the Hayes Valley Farm Project is that everything is "being designed to be transported." The nurseries will be broken down and the food will be grown in pots so it will have the ability to be moved off site. "They get it," says Hillis, noting that the designers are aware of the interim nature of their site.
After months of waiting, Hayes Valley Farm finally broke ground January 24, 2010, the first volunteer work day. Many of the volunteers had been waiting as long as the farm staff had to get their hands dirty. Like most San Francisco January days, the weather was gray and bleak as clouds covered the sky. Despite the rain, over one hundred curious neighbors and volunteers wandered over to the site to discover what was behind the chain link fence and what was in store for the garden. The staff led tours around the site, explaining the exciting and arduous task they had before them.
Not only did people turn out for tours of the site, but to do some work as well. The hills of the plot are covered in ivy. Years and years of neglect led to the proliferation and total claim of land by this creeping evergreen. The destruction of ivy and the re-shaping of the dirt is the most important part of the first phase of the project.
The initial priorities of phase one include sheet mulching nearly the entire site, nitrogen fixing the soil, building a nursery, and ensuring the education portion is up and running by the spring.
Walking through the gates to the site, there is a flat, paved portion of land. To the left is Parcel O, the curved portion of the off-ramp, and to the right is Parcel P, the on-ramp itself. On each side of the ramps are hills littered with nutrient sucking plants, trash and the occasional tree. The first necessity of the farm is to sheet mulch each of those hills--a process utilizing cardboard, mulch, and manure to create topsoil. Most gardens around the United States use soil or fertilizer purchased at stores like Home Depot, but by using those the gardens would be taking soil from another farm elsewhere.
The newly created berms will not only create topsoil for the site, but also aid in irrigation and water storage. "If we want to surround [the farm] with healthy plants, we need to sheet mulch quickly because when the rain stops, [the ground] is going to store all of the water, and help the decomposition process," explains Rosenberg.
Because the dirt on the site was once part of a freeway and consequently neglected for so many years, it is necessary to create a healthy environment for the farm. The staff decided to use nitrogen fixing, a process where they plant fava beans--the plant naturally creates nitrogen to enrich the soil.
"If you kill the plant just as it starts to flower, the roots will die off and the nitrogen will be released into soil," notes Rosenberg. "Imagine if you had your fingers in the mud and you pulled them out, you would have five little holes, and if you poured water over it, all the holes would get full." Each of those holes represents a channel created in the dirt in which nitrogen is then stored.
Nitrogen fixing takes quite some time before its effects can be seen, but it is vital in facilitating a healthy atmosphere for the plants. For Cody, it is not about the time it takes. "It will take two to three years for this mulch to get really fertile," says Cody. "But that is still really rapid when you think it takes the forest thousands of years to make inches of topsoil--and the fertility will constantly be increasing."
When the city repaved the site after renovation, the cement was thought to initially cause a problem. "All the pavement will stay," says Cody. "We look at it as part of our infrastructure. Imagine if we wanted this pavement here and we had to pay to have it put in, why would we have wanted it?"
To utilize the pavement on Parcel P, they plan to make a farm forest. "There will be one hundred and fifty fruit trees in a pattern that will look like a checkerboard, just far enough apart that they will be nice looking when they bloom and then in between them in smaller pots we're going to have flowers, beneficials, and bee attractors," says Rosenberg excitedly.
Burley, Cody, and Rosenberg are all incredibly passionate about food and community but none of them have a background in farming. Burley may not be a farmer, but he does have a firm connection to the earth and to growing food. During his study in graduate school, he took a social entrepreneurship class and designed a business model involving students growing and profiting from a community garden. This project piqued his interest in community gardening, which led him to My Farm. He appreciates building this community, but says he definitely would not choose farming as a career.
"My father was a farmer and it's a shitty career, I will tell everyone that," explains Burley. "It's not well supported and it's not well paid for. [Farmers] are driven by the wills of the pesticide industry, the seed industry, and they are slaves to the land in so many ways. I don't envy farmers at all. What I envy are people who are growing food and getting compensated well for it and who are creating a sense of community that does support that."
The Hayes Valley community is a strong one, and it shows at the Hayes Valley Farm. Since the gates opened on January 24, volunteers have been shoveling dirt nearly every day. They march to the site prepared to work in boots, jackets, and gloves, armed with shovels and rakes. Regardless of the weather, people are at the site working. On February 21, it was pouring rain. Even in the dreadful weather, more than ten volunteers were bent over the berms planting seeds.
Most of the volunteers are adult residents who have lived in the neighborhood for years, but many of the volunteers are children too. Dash Peters, who attends the French American International School on Oak Street, and his father, David, scooter by the Hayes Valley Farm every weekday on their way to school. They noticed the progress starting at the farm and decided to come and take a look, but it was the smell that really drew them in. "The smell alone is so great, it's like perfume," exclaims David. "It's what the world should smell like, and doesn't. Even if we just walked by and smelled, I would be happy."
Not only are David and Dash giving their olfactory senses a workout, but they are building community experiences as well. "What makes this really significant for us is that children are really an underutilized energy in the city, they have nothing to do," says David. "There are no drives to shovel snow, there are no lawns to mow, there are no trees to pick, there is nowhere for them to put their energy."
David is working with the French American School to become a partner with the Hayes Valley Farm and create a learning experience for the students. Not just to garden and to learn the process of growing food, but to share in a curriculum opportunity.
For a minute, Burley puts down his shovel and observes the opportunities he and his team create. He and the Hayes Valley staff are bringing people, neighbors, and friends together to build a community.
"People are getting to know their neighbors more today than in the last six years," explains Burley. "If something were to happen, and you looked outside, saw the guy you worked with last week and said 'Hey, you have the beans and I have the rice, can we work together to feed ourselves tonight?' That would be a joy for me." [X]
POST A COMMENT
|BACK TO TOP|| |
Copyright © 2008 [X]press | Journalism Department - San Francisco State University