Thursday, March 31, 2011

Si se puede (yes, it can be done)!

“The end of all education should surely be service to others.” ~ César E. Chávez

Today is the 10th annual Cesar Chavez Day of Learning and Service. I recognized Chavez’ legacy by doing my learning and service at The Free Farm yesterday, on its usual Wednesday volunteer workday —when there’s no farm stand; so instead of harvesting, we focused on planting and composting. The sun was out so several passersby came to tour the farm.

Tree declares compost ready to use for planting so Byron prepares to make new compost pile

Our Giving Farm & homelessness

After reading Tree’s “Almost Speechless” posting on Monday at, I reflected on his remarks about “I had to keep reminding myself that we are mainly trying to promote a network of produce sharing among gardeners and that we are not just a food give away program. . . . It is hard for me though, something in my wiring, that I just want to help everyone that needs food get it.”

Caring persons like Tree who make up The Free Farm community keep me returning as a volunteer. Food is such a basic need like clean air, water and sleep – that we all should be looking after one another to give what we can to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met.

When I’m at The Free Farm stand on Saturdays, I enjoy conversations with visitors to find out where they’re coming from and to share my enthusiasm about the joys of growing and eating your own food. Based on my experience, the poor and homeless take only what they can carry and eat within the same day. Some visitors come from neighboring Tenderloin District’s single-room occupancy (SRO) units without any facilities for cooking and refrigeration. I usually suggest ways to prepare raw salads with our fresh herbs and lemon juice. (Tenderloin neighborhood made national news this week after PETA suggested renaming it Tempeh District at Many District residents probably don’t even eat much tenderloin or tempeh.)

Unfortunately, I once encountered a woman who ran up to our farm stand to stuff her large shopping bag with our entire harvest of chard for the day, without even a word of “hello” or “thank you”; when I politely requested that she please leave some chard for others to enjoy, she ran away while shouting, “I’m stealing!” Instead of leaving me speechless, I asked out loud to the other visitors, Is it possible to steal food that’s free? But I silently wondered if she was taking so much to feed a large family for dinner or was she hoarding for a week’s supply? Well, never a dull moment here at The Free Farm!

Tree also mentioned the City’s intention to sell a portion of Hayes Valley Farm, once-vacant land since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the former freeway onramp, which broke ground at about the same time as The Free Farm last year. When I learned details about this from my SF Permaculture Guild friends, I thought how vulnerable we –even a farm community —are to homelessness, and then immediately felt the utmost gratitude to the St. Paulus community for each day that they are generously sharing their former Church space with The Free Farm. I often think of The Free Farm as The Giving Farm based on Luke 12:48: “Indeed, everyone to whom much was given, much will be demanded of him.” My Getup classmate Stanley mentioned that she feels like The Free Farm is her congregation, which she religiously attends on Saturdays to harvest and manage our farm stand.

2 out of 3 Sisters: Tree explains planting squash spaced 15” apart in the rows of last Saturday’s harvested fava plants. The ancient Maya planted corn + beans + squash as companion crops, also known as 3 Sisters. Corn (a heavy feeder that takes a lot of nitrogen out of the soil) is planted first; beans (which fix nitrogen in the soil) grow up the corn stalks; squash (which have large leaves and vines) provide ground cover (to stop weeds) & shade over the soil (to retain moisture). 3 Sister crops are nutritionally complementary: corn lacks amino acids lysine & tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins & niacin; beans have both lysine & tryptophan; & squashes provide an array of vitamins. We're missing corn sister in this bed. Evan & Byron chop up materials to speed up decomposition in building new compost pile. That's horse manure mixed with sawdust in wheelbarrow.

Filmmaker Isabel continues shooting interviews for her documentary. Byron tells camera that farming's natural for him because he's originally from Hawaii.

Shoveling finished compost for planting

Growing potato tower

Evan holds up mushroom & coffee grounds ("urban manure") -- parallel to mural hands -- wow, just noticed this after uploading photo. I didn't even stage this shot, which looks so cool & artistic!
Evan breaks open mushroom for close-up shot
Building community so everyone enjoys the highest quality of life

Mark Bittman, who eats for a living as The NY Times food writer, is fasting this week to protest Congressional budget proposals that pick on the poor and hungry who are already suffering. In, he makes the following moral argument: “We can take care of the deficit and rebuild our infrastructure and strengthen our safety net by reducing military spending and eliminating corporate subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich. Or we can sink further into debt and amoral individualism by demonizing and starving the poor. Which side are you on?. . . we need to gather and insist that our collective resources be used for our collective welfare, not for the wealthiest thousand or even million Americans but for a vast majority of us in the United States and, indeed, for citizens of the world who have difficulty making ends meet. Or feeding their kids.”

To put the issue of inequality as a barrier to community building in perspective, Richmond, CA cardiologist Jeff Ritterman, M.D., notes that the U.S. has become the 2nd least equal of the rich countries in terms of income distribution, and describes the consequences of this growing income gap at “As income inequality increases, we trust one another less. We become more individualistic and less community-minded. We are less likely to ask for help. People’s interests diverge, and we become less willing to vote for other people’s interests. Many people experience frequent feelings of disrespect. As community cohesion erodes, we all suffer.” He then notes: “The leading countries in life expectancy are Sweden and Japan—the most income equal of the rich nations.” Countries that distribute their income the most equally have the longest life expectancy and the highest quality of life.

Spacing plants in hot greenhouse

Watering in hot greenhouse

These plant whisperers caught my attention so I interrupt their planting to get permission for this photo

Planting with care

Reflecting on farmers & farm workers who feed us

Incidentally, Japan has been encouraging its underemployed youth to work in rural farms, with many responsive youth showing a growing interest in farming to appreciate where their food comes from. ( One Tokyo company CEO believes city slickers, who are sent to rural areas to start a farm, are more likely to avoid depression. (

How do Americans value farmers and farm workers who feed us? With the nation’s high unemployment rate, why did only 7 Americans and Stephen Colbert respond to last year’s Take Our Jobs! offer by the United Farm Workers, the union co-founded by Chavez? (See Why doesn’t the prospect of getting paid to work for a commercial farm in America, with its growing inequality, appeal to its own unemployed citizens? Yikes, what does this mean for the future of our local food supply if we can’t attract farm labor?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (, farming and ranching are among the top 4 most dangerous jobs in America. Chavez noted, “In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners. Farmworkers are society’s canaries.” SF Bay Guardian writer Caitlin Donohue wrote that those who work on small or organic farms often face the same exploitative working conditions as those in conventional agriculture. (

In “Cheap Food: Workers Pay the Price,” Arturo Rodriguez with Alexa Delwiche & Sheheryar (from Chapter 7 of Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter & Poorer—and What You Can Do About It, edited by Karl Weber, 2009) state “The integrity of the food system begins with just conditions for workers.” They also recommend supporting organic—though organic production may not provide workers with any additional wages, benefits or respect, they are spared the detrimental effects associated with pesticides.

Measured out 15" to dig hole with trowel for planting squash. We uprooted any fava plants in the way, tossing them as greens (nitrogen) into compost pile after each layer of browns (carbon) & manure. Flipped squash plant upside down from container & sprinkled mycorrhizae on roots Placed plant right side up in dugged out hole

Mixed in compost teeming with mesophilic bacteria, fungi & earthworms!

Ready to water & grow squash

Blue tarp covers new compost pile
Completed bed of newly planted squash & ol' fava plants
What’s the future for urban agriculture in SF?

According to GFE Executive Director Blair Randall, over 100 applications were received for 36 spots in my 2010 GCETP class; due to overwhelming interest, they opened additional spots as enrollment is usually capped at 30. Blair explained that GCETP has evolved over its 20 years, always providing training specific to the interests of SF residents. Since 2007, along with the Slow Food and do-it-yourself movements, GCETP’s curriculum has emphasized growing food in the City and its graduates even started a weekly CSA box of seasonal produce that’s donated to Larkin Street Youth. He estimates about 25% of students enrolled in GCETP want a career change and after graduating, many more actually pursue careers in agriculture.

Blair also explained that, in the minds of many, there is a difference between a farm worker (usually seasonal worker with little control over working conditions) and a farmer (usually farm owner/employer). Can SF residents make a livelihood as farmers in our expensive City? Over 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, but will we see an exodus of aspiring farmers to cheaper rural areas and a return of raising large families (as farmhands) or back-to-land communes of the 1960s and 1970s? Blair thinks it’s more likely that we’ll see more small, local organic farms in the City, which play a unique and different role than rural farms; an urban farm would still be a business, while also serving an educational role, connecting people to the seasons and growing local food.

Dropping in to volunteer at The Free Farm on our workdays is a great way to do some “career shadowing” to see if you’d like to pursue organic farming for your livelihood and/or community building. Unlike farm workers who often can’t even afford to eat organic produce from commercial farms where they toil and sweat, the prophecy of Isaiah 65:21-22 applies on this former Church site so volunteers “will certainly plant vineyards and eat their fruitage . . . they will not plant and someone else do the eating.” Si se puede!

Sprinklers automatically turn on in greenhouse at noon when church bells ring
Windows & doors open to cool greenhouse
Tree tosses salad Tree signals lunchtime Evan slices bread
Plant whisperers continue working through lunch -- here they appear to be archaeologists at an excavation site!

Public Service Announcements:

Check out NEN’s video on Growing Communities One Garden at a Time, featuring an interview with GFE’s Blair Randall at

Wed., April 6, 2011 at 1:30-3:30 pm SF Food Security Task Force Meeting
City Hall - 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Rm. 278, San Francisco, CA 94102

1 comment:

  1. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, permaculturalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” "locavorism," etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.