Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Free Farm at Green Festival!

At today’s Green Festival, The Free Farm was represented by our award-winning Garden Chic farmer Finn (remember ) in a thought-provoking panel discussion on GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY IN URBAN FARMING! Finn Cunningham joined Alemany Farm’s Antonio Roman-Alcala, Hayes Valley Farm’s Jay Rosenberg and SF Supervisor/Land Use Committee Chair Eric Mar on stage at the Sustainable Home & Garden Pavilion.

Alemany Farm (4 acres in Alemany/Bernal Heights), Hayes Valley Farm (2.2 acres near Civic Center) and The Free Farm (1/3 acre in Western Addition, near Tenderloin) are SF’s three largest farms on lands that sat vacant for many years until enterprising community members transformed them into all-volunteer urban farms that distribute their local produce to those in need, especially from the neighborhood.

Antonio, Finn & Eric Musical chairs when Jay arrives with dog Callie

But these thriving urban farms do more than grow local, organic food.

Antonio talked about Alemany Farm’s role in educating people about organic farming and connecting to their food source, including conditions that show how hard it can be to grow food such as dealing with pests. These all-volunteer urban farms, which are different from community garden plots owned by individuals, provide collective engagement—particularly after the 2008 economic downturn, when people suddenly unemployed wanted to find something to do.

Finn talked about The Free Farm, created by individuals committed to food justice, offering a habitat in a City where there’s not much greenery and a place where we can get dirty! While we quantify our output of food (e.g., The Free Farm sits on 1/3 acre, but only ½ of it was used in production so 2,500 pounds were harvested on 1/6 acre during our 1st year), she said it’s also important to recognize that The Free Farm creates a more livable community for interaction outside consumerism, such as enjoying a day of active, physical labor outdoors in nature.

Jay talked about building community (“get people to do what they do well”) and making compost to take materials out of the waste stream.

Finn narrates The Free Farm slide show Musical chairs as Eric takes Antonio's seat for Jay's slide show

Land for urban farms

Finn mentioned The Free Farm has no official agreement with St. Paulus, which is charitably allowing use of its land while also covering electricity and water costs. Jay said that Hayes Valley Farm has an interim use agreement with the City, which he said is analogous to operating a lemonade stand on someone’s driveway. Last month, the City gave a one-year notice of its intent to sell half of Hayes Valley Farm to condominium developers. Finn acknowledged this has been the “heartbreaking” and “tenuous” situation of SF’s urban farms.

(My GCETP class visited Little City Farms, which entered a temporary lease for $1 per year plus liability insurance policy, with a private landowner who has not been able to develop his “odd” lot. It’s challenging for farmers to invest in capital improvements when they don’t know how long they’ll be able to use the land.)

Eric, who advocated school gardens during his 8-year tenure on the SF Board of Education, said he applauds the grassroots efforts of activists who create urban farms in our City. As Land Use Chair, Eric said he supports the expansion of urban farms ordinance, which is scheduled for a second vote on Tuesday (see agenda item 3 at and Op-Ed piece by SF PUC President Francesca Vietor and SF Supervisor/Land Use Vice Chair Malia Cohen at Eric said that food security includes access to grow food for all.

Eric chairs Land Use Committee Audience question

Coming soon to a screening near you!

Antonio showed a trailer from his new documentary, “In Search of Good Food,” featuring Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s Dave Henson talking about corporations redefining organic into an industrial model (transporting organic food from Chile so we can eat what’s out-of-season in our local area); it’s not enough to vote with our dollars, which is blaming the victim or making the individual responsible to make change, because we can’t consume our way out of this problem; instead, we need to address the structural problem in which for-profit corporations have privileges with respect to taxes and subsidies to control our food system; we need to go beyond organic and support sustainable, local food systems—including do-it-yourself, grow your own—that address food security, the environment, green jobs, etc. WOO-HOO! Check out screening dates at
Antonio invites audience to film screening Finn invites audience to April 16 SF Refresh

Money, time & freedom to get dirty in urban farming!

Antonio and Finn mentioned a few paid positions at their respective farms funded with grant money. Jay said he believed in diversification ("can't get everything met in one way") and urged us to look into Bay Area Community Exchange (, where currency is our time instead of money (e.g., work-trade arrangements like farming time in exchange for produce).

In Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money (, author Dolly Freed offers these words of wisdom in her Afterword (more than three decades after she originally published her classic homesteading book as a teenager): “Wanting to do a lot in life taught me how little amounts of time add up. Getting rid of extraneous things not only saves money, it also saves time, and time is one thing you can never make more of.” According to Dolly, one needs very few physical things in order to be happy—water, food, shelter, good health, security and liberty—everything else is mental; and being happy may not be the end goal of a worthwhile life, but “often being engaged and interested is just as satisfying.”

I was both engaged and interested in today’s afternoon panel discussion—just as I often am during our workdays at The Free Farm!

Finn concluded the discussion with an invitation to receive “free whole body care” at our SF Refresh event on Saturday (details at Please join us!

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SCIENCE LITERACY with Barbara Ann Lewis (Ph.D., Soil Science)
Mondays 4-6 pm, April 11-May 9, 2011 Greenhouse Cafe, 1722 Taraval St.@ 27th Ave, SF This course offers the basic vocabulary and description of science required to understand current environmental concerns, toxicology and safety in relation to food and water quality, climate and climate change, agriculture and population, energy alternatives, or other topics of interest to the students. Topics discussed will be generated by student questions and participation. No previous math or science background required. Mathematical concepts will be taught as necessary to some understanding of the scientific concepts discussed.
Barbara Ann Lewis is a retired professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering who loves to teach and loves science, and hopes to pass on that love to others who have been brainwashed at an early age to fear math and science. Contact email:

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