Salads from Concrete
Mark Major – aka "Markos" – is bounding between rows of lettuce and kale in a little Castro hat with an embroidered whale on it. His brown shirt has a silkscreen of a pitchfork and shovel with the simple phrase, "Like that," written underneath.
I like Markos. He is sprightly, hip, and has an awesome beard. He must be a wizard. He certainly knows his lettuce varietals; and for me, somebody who can barely identify a fern, anyone who knows plant names also wields magic powers.
"This is Oak Leaf," Markos says. "Go ahead, take some." I take a handful of the light green leaves and – "What the?! There is a freaking huge snake under that lettuce."
"Oh that's just a Garter," Markos says calmly. He picks up the striped serpent, starts petting it like a bunny, then gives it to me. Suddenly there's a snake writhing around my wrist. "They can bite."
I might have expected this sort of thing had I chosen to spend my volunteer farm day on a permaculture plot in Bolinas. But this is Alemany Farm in San Francisco, 30 meters from the 280 Freeway and smack dab next to the Alemany housing project, where a rap concert is in progress and low-riders are cruising the strip.
With a windmill, a natural spring, a fish pond, and dozens of burgeoning vegetables and fruit trees, Alemany Farm is impressive. And hearing the regular volunteers discuss how kids from the housing project excitedly planted 300 new strawberry plants last week, I'm beginning to get the vision: a world where the Hunter's Point is constantly ripe with fruit trees and greens, kids help grow their own organic school lunches, and gang members fight turf wars with rotten tomatoes.
A bit utopian perhaps, but since most low-income neighborhoods lack even a decent supermarket – and the age of high carbon footprint imported foods is hopefully on the wane – nobody can deny that urban farms don't have a chance of revolutionizing the urban space.
Welcome to the urban farming movement, one that's in full swing in San Francisco. Mayor Gavin Newsom's office is in the middle of a six-month audit to convert empty lots into community gardens and farms like this one, a thriving 4.5 acre organic plot that functions 100 percent through the love of volunteers like Markos.
Jason Mark, a flannelled character who reminds me of a lumberjack from Men in Trees, is our fearless leader. He's running around clipping greens and guiding us in everything from compost turning to how to pull a weed. Frankly, I'm not sure I'm helping or just slowing the farm down.
Jason helped resurrect Alemany Farm from the ashes about five years ago. "The place was a mess," he remembers. Self-proclaimed guerilla gardeners started farming the lot in 2005. Now, with 10-15 volunteers every weekend, the Alemany Farm hosts an after-school gardening program for teens, around 30 field trips per-year, and provides a free CSA that delivers fresh vegetables to 25 low-income families.
"We're just trying to show what's possible," says Jason. He envisions a San Francisco where open spaces like McLaren Park, the Panhandle, and some of those financially troubled golf courses could all be converted into farms. "No pun intended," he laughs, "but San Francisco has a lot of low hanging fruit for urban farming."
The San Francisco Department of Public Works estimates that there are more than 400 acres of public land that could be used to grow veggies and who knows what else – raise chickens? milk goats? make honey? I'm picturing Mayor Newsom sheering sheep for a photo-op in front of City Hall.
Add about 108 acres in unused private lots and about 1,800 acres of backyard land that could be converted to veggie factories through companies like MyFarm – a new for-profit program that will whip your backyard into an organic garden for around a couple grand – and suddenly you're talking about real food production right in the city you thought couldn't spare an inch for bike lanes.
Jason says San Francisco will never be able to sustain itself completely through city farming, but the more time you spend with the Alemany Farm crew, the more convinced you become that the city needs farms even more than it needs new parking.
Some facts I learn on my urban farming adventure:
1. The average piece of food travels 1500 miles to get from farm to plate, and in a world where scientists say we have around 30-50 years of oil left, urban farms could be more than a novelty – they could be a necessity.
2. Current food distribution is beyond wasteful. In the United States, we export 1.1 million tons of potatoes, while we also import 1.4 million tons.
3. There are about 4.5 billion pounds of petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides sprayed on industrial US farms per-year, much of which goes into our waterways.
4. Contrary to popular belief, small, organic farms are both more profitable and more productive per-acre.
5. Farming is actually good for you.
That last bit I get from Chris Chimenti, a volunteer who hasn't missed a single weekend of work at Alemany Farm in all of 2009. "It feeds the soul," Chris says, and since he works in advertising during the week, the statement makes even more sense. A clean cut guy who you can picture being just as comfortable in the financial district, Chris references studies that have tried to figure out why people like gardening so much.
After all, it's just dirty hard work. The studies, he says, show that the microbes and bacteria in the soil – the same little things that put nutrients in the veggies and are killed by industrial farming methods – may help release beneficial "happy" chemicals in the brain. I like learning all this, but to be honest, I'm not quite sure I'm feeling any happy chemicals.
As I tug at spiky plants, I'm remembering how I was lured to work in my parents' gardens by being told there were fairies in them. Instead of working, my sister and I cut out fairy decoys, taped them to flowers, and imagined we were catching real fairies in jars. Then we'd tell my mom that our army of fairies would do our share of the work. They had the green thumbs.
It's starting to rain by afternoon and, even though I like farming fine, I'm wondering if Chris will go for the old "my captured fairy army will finish this" line. Turns out there's no need. Our bosses start to wrap up an hour early because of the rain. Apparently, I'm not the only wimpy urbanite here.
"What are we going to do with all this lettuce we've clipped?" I ask Markos.
"Oh, this is for you guys to take home."
"What?!" I had no idea I was getting paid for this. I suddenly feel the happy chemical release. I load up a huge plastic bag of Oak Leaf, along with squash, white pumpkins, rosemary, and more chard then I usually eat in a year. No need to shop for the potluck tonight! "These aren't, like, full of gross car exhaust particles?"
Chris assures me that the soil and veggies have been tested and they're actually very healthy and chemical free – impressive considering the land used to be a make-shift junkyard for the neighborhood. I suddenly feel like I could come back to the farm tomorrow. I'll be here every weekend – saving the planet.
I bring my salad to the potluck party and explain to my friends that I've been down on the farm harvesting for their dinner. No biggie. "Santa Cruz? Occidental?" they ask. "Nope," I say, "This salad was raised right here in San Francisco." "Wow. Ooooh."
Needless to say, this makes me the most popular guy at the party. And the salad is damn good.
Craving some dirt under your fingernails? Alemany Farm welcomes volunteers every other Saturday and Sunday and every Monday from 1 to 5 PM. Bring water, sturdy shoes, work clothes, and something to snack on, unless you want to graze while you work. If you like it, the farm also offers apprenticeships for $125. Nobody's turned away for lack of funds.
Design: Kari Stevens