Sunday, August 28, 2011

If I can dream: The Free Farm everywhere!

Pia, Fran & Joyce aka "The 3 Graces" per Joyce ("My family calls me Branch.")
Kris signals lunchtime
Rafael & BFF Wesker
Stanley weighs in harvest that included carrots, zucchini, kale, collards, runner & purple beans, strawberries, lavender mint & basil.
Jessica & Mary are first-time volunteers who plan to return!
Plant whisperer Rafael harvests greens
Jessica holds up carrot with triple taproots. In 17th century, patriotic Dutch crossbred red & yellow carrots to produce orange carrots, which were adopted by the House of Orange royal family.
Hannah washes greens
Tom at busy produce stand which included offerings from gleaning efforts off-site: pears from Bernal Heights & plums from Vacaville.
Rafael picks up purple carrots
Tree, Brittany & Pia listen to Getup classmate Susan who does outreach for Food & Water Watch

Hecka local: growing space, trained gardeners & time

Tree, who started Free Farm Stand in the Mission District, told me he wanted to grow our Hecka Local produce in his neighborhood but couldn’t get enough growing space in the Mission’s Sun Belt microclimate, so he decided to help start The Free Farm when St. Paulus made space available 2 miles away from his home. So glad he did because look at us today!

While several volunteers live within walking distance from The Free Farm, other regular volunteers come from Berkeley/Oakland and Palo Alto/Mountain View. I live about 3.5 miles away from The Free Farm, but like leaving the Fog Belt on Saturday mornings for the Western Addition’s Transition Zone microclimate. (I love listening to our foghorn lullaby when I return in the evening!) And of course, we’ve had volunteers visiting from out-of-state to experience our precious community.

I wish/dream that The Free Farm were an amoeba so our community could multiply and start The Free Farm in every neighborhood . . . after all, “free farm” is almost everywhere in cyberspace: When I invite people to check out The Free Farm website to learn more about our activities, they sometimes come back to me asking why I’m involved with a peasant union of farmers in the Philippines? (well, I’m a member of Slow Food, which had its roots in the Italian communist party) a UK-based browser game? another online virtual game (“play the next level of virtual farming”)? – among the 2.12 million results if one searches for “free farm” without prefacing article “the” in URL.

Are we ready to build/sustain The Free Farm in every neighborhood? In, Tree writes about the need for more people to be gardening, especially to help manage a garden. In the summer issue of Edible SF (, Twilight Greenaway writes an article “Hot Plots,” about the long waitlist for community gardens, but the challenge of “sustaining” volunteer coordinators.

There’s just so much going on in the Bay Area, especially during our long summer days. For example, Roger participated in Saturday’s Giant Race benefiting Project Open Hand before joining us in the afternoon to volunteer. The Fillmore Reggae Festival took place just a few blocks away from The Free Farm, but I waited until after our volunteer day ended to attend because I’d already missed volunteering the past 2 weeks due to my nutrition education outreach work at local festivals—my other food-related passion (grow plants, eat plants!). At one health festival, free lunch included grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on white bread – with only potato chips for veggies, not even lettuce and tomato offered (most commonly eaten vegetables in U.S., though tomato is technically a fruit but classified as veg by 1893 U.S. Supreme Court ruling); the other festival offered free ribs in one booth, but fresh watermelon slice for $1.
Free Farm Stand hummus maker Michael visits The Free Farm for the 1st time before going to Burning Man for his 14th year
Kris & Eric shuck sunflowers to create sunflower chains
Rick using hose to water while Tree & Page work on installing drip irrigation system.
Kris does grateful deadheading spent flowers
Sunflower chains hanging in tool shed
Workday leader Alen got haircut for Indian summer

Eat your veggies: access & taste

Though physically away from The Free Farm, my thoughts kept returning to what we do at The Free Farm. As much as I do outreach to encourage the public to eat more nutrient-dense vegetables, I also understand access is limited by location, affordability (food prices have increased by an average of almost 100% since the end of 2005) and increasing demand. This summer, I helped administer the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which distributed 1,600 farmers’ market coupon booklets (each valued at $20) to low-income seniors in SF on a first-come, first-serve basis – lines formed hours before the distribution time so that many who showed up at the designated time left empty-handed. SF Food Bank’s struggles made front page news last week at

Outside of The Free Farm/Free Farm Stand and others who grow their own, the reality is fruits and veggies are not cheap calories because they’re not subsidized. The larger problem appears to be the U.S. farm bill that provides huge subsidies to meat and dairy, making them a cheap source of calories. Federal subsidies also apply to plants like corn, wheat and soybean – cheap enough for low-nutrient, processed fast food.

Like Tree, I would like to see more people grow their own produce locally if possible – instead of transporting unripened produce that's later gassed with ethylene to artificially ripen, which is why some produce taste so terrible (especially tomatoes from Florida). I loved eating homegrown produce while growing up, so I was surprised to learn others didn’t enjoy fruits and veggies as much as I did – until they told me they ate them canned/frozen. It’s so cool to hear from visitors who taste our produce at The Free Farm that they can't believe how delicious locally grown, freshly harvested organic food is. It would be even cooler if more visitors would get their hands dirty to help grow food to share with the community!

Hanging out at The Free Farm brings out my inner hippie and wish/dream for another Great Society. Last weekend, I also managed to attend my first hackathon: Friday evening featured speakers and then multi-disciplinary teams were formed to tackle Urban Innovation Weekend on Public Health, Food and Nutrition (! Urban agriculture is one solution that addresses this trinity of issues. Due to other commitments, I was present for only Friday and just one hour on Sunday.

But I’ll save my report with exclusive photos for an upcoming blog so stay tuned! In the meantime, in recognition of today’s anniversary of MLK, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, let’s sing my favorite Elvis song (played at the end of Graceland audio tour):

There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can't my dream come true

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away
All the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won't that sun appear

We're lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We're trapped in a world
That's troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Deep in my heart there's a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there's a beckoning candle
And while I can think, while I can talk
While I can stand, while I can walk
While I can dream, please let my dream
Come true, right now
Let it come true right now
Oh yeah
“If I Can Dream” lyrics by Walter Earl Brown

Public Service Announcement:

Tues., Aug. 30, 2011 at 10:30 am -12:30 pm Make Our Garden Grow!
The Dining Room, 1280 Laguna St., betw. Ellis & Eddy, SF
The Free Farm workshop & talk. Bring all growing & eating questions.

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