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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lights, camera, action! Starring The Free Farm!

2010 GCETP graduate Stanley sent this report and photos of yesterday’s workday and filming at The Free Farm:

Hello, This is Stanley, a SF Garden for the Environment GCETP volunteer transplant to the Free Farm!

Today, 17 volunteers showed up to help harvest over 35 pounds of tree collards, mint, kale, rainbow chard, snap peas, salad greens and favas. The stand hosted 18 customers, many of whom were interviewed about their experiences at the Free Farm by Isabel Santis and Sarah Swymeler from the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Claudia Medina and Leah Temper, independent documentarians making a film about emerging economies based on sharing communities.

Claudia Medina and Leah Temper are making a documentary about alternative economies Leaf of the day: RAINBOW CHARD, beauty constantly revealed at the Free Farm!

Isabel Santis and Sarah Swymeler from CIIS--film for a class project Harvesters, led by Hannah, cut down a full bed of favas for the stand and the compost pile. Wondering about the mechanics of nitrogen fixing crops, I came across an excellent explanation by Wiley of City Sown:

Our beautiful tree collards were given support by Ricardo and Pancho, who dug holes and secured the plants to metal posts with bamboo cross bars.

Public service announcement:

Dear friends,

On Monday the 28th of March we are screening our short documentary Life After Growth at the Noisebridge Hacker Space, 2169 Mission St, San Francisco at 9 pm. Please join us for the 25 minute screening and a talk after about how we can rethink/reshape/reclaim the economy. Here is a short description of the film, which is a work in progress. We have been filming in the Bay area this week for the next phase of our project, which aims to document the diversity of new economic cultures emerging. After the screening we hope to share input and ideas on how this is happening. Hope to see you there.

Leah Temper & Claudia Medina

IT'S TIME TO RECLAIM THE ECONOMY The economic crash of 2008 revealed not only the frailty and vulnerability of the economic system, it also showed the false basis that the growth economy is built on – the financial bubble grows bigger and crashes bigger, but we don't seem to be getting any happier. To the contrary, we suffer from greater job insecurity and environmental chaos threatens. The prescription from the mainstream economists is more growth – but is this just taking more of what ails us?

Has growth become uneconomic? Is there another way? This film is part of an ongoing project to document the rise of a new movement – calling not for more economic growth, but LESS. The degrowth movement, or "mouvement por le decroissance", argues that through a voluntary reduction of the economy we can work less, consume less and live better, fuller lives. Many have been pointing out that our current economic system is leading us to an environmental and social catastrophe. "Life After Growth" begins to point to the people and communities who are looking for ways out. These are the pioneers who are rethinking the role of economics in our lives, and are engaging in different types of economic activity, right now. The D word is still taboo in many circles – politicians are loath to go against the growth orthodoxy that our society is based on. But everywhere people are engaging in degrowth type activity - the beginning of a wave that is laying the groundwork for a post-capitalist future... Because it's not the size of the economy that counts, it's how you use it!


Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Free Farmers at GFE Party where Finn wins!

After volunteering at The Free Farm yesterday, Getup grads Finn, Stanley and I went over to GFE’s membership launch party. Due to heavy rains, the planned garden party moved to an indoors studio location in the Mission District. There we met up with Zoe and other classmates, graduates and friends, including our awesome Getup instructors (Blair, Suzi, Hilary and Nicole).

We didn’t have time to enter the Kale Cook-off contest, but I’m happy to report that our very own fashionable urban free farmer Finn sashayed down the catwalk (in the same outfit she wore at The Free Farm) . . . and was named a winner at the Garden Chic Fashion Show!

Finn carries dog down catwalk
Side view of Finn's outfit
Contestants wait to hear if they've won
Finn receives congrats from fellow contestant
Stanley at compostable hair salon
Zoe tells Stanley that she's not ready for haircut

Lest you think there are only female Getup grads (we gals just have the good taste to select The Free Farm as our project site!), here are some notable male Getup grads at the party:
Getup classmate & urban agri zoning advocate Eli of
Filmmaker Antonio of
Permaculture designer Kevin of

Kevin was Lynn’s neighbor until she moved closer to The Free Farm this year. See this video of SF renter Kevin in his urban farm at
Executive Director Blair busy processing GFE memberships

If you missed the party, you can sign up online to become a GFE member at

And you can apply for the 2011 Getup class at After you complete 80 hours of training at GFE, choose to do your 40 hours of community service at The Free Farm, where we practice generosity, hospitality and cultivation of land . . . plus, the latest award-winning Garden Chic fashion :-)!

GFE mantra: Grow Food! Make Compost! Rot On!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Please don't stop the rain, but let's end hunger

"But we’ve got no control over what happens anyway
And if it’s going to be a rainy day
There’s nothing we can do to make the change
We can pray for sunny weather
But that won’t stop the rain.”
– James Morrison’s Please Don’t Stop the Rain

Dartmouth students take spring break with us!

Today, an interfaith group of 12 students and their chaplain from Dartmouth College (N.H.) came out to The Free Farm, as part of their 10-day spring break trip to volunteer and reflect on homelessness and poverty in the Bay Area. Some of them visited last year when The Free Farm was covered mostly in manure rather than today’s foliage. They are staying at a hostel in the Tenderloin District, among the homeless and impoverished, as well as the many health and social services organizations that serve this population. Follow them at

Homelessness and poverty contribute to hunger. In addition to volunteering at The Free Farm, the students will volunteer at a local church to serve meals to the homeless. Many years ago, I visited the church to find mostly white food like turkey, mashed potatoes and white bread—mainly calories to keep people alive. I suggested that they check out Project Open Hand (POH), which serves meals to people with chronic diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS, as well as seniors, so good nutrition is essential to their survival. As a POH volunteer, I eat the same colorful, delicious and nutrient-dense “meals with love” that are served to clients! POH is located just 4 blocks away (other side of Van Ness in the Tenderloin) from The Free Farm so consider volunteering at!

Hunger poster on MUNI #31 bus shelter on Eddy St. across from The Free Farm

How can we end hunger?
Last month, The Economist’s special report on feeding the world concluded that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed 9 billion people in 2050, and that “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”

The Gates Foundation, one of the sources acknowledged at, attempts to address malnutrition by “fortifying the world one meal at a time” through its Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). But do corporate food giants really need incentives, in the form of lobbying for favorable tax and regulatory breaks offered by GAIN, to peddle fortified processed foods to poor countries? In addition, the Gates Foundation has been promoting a new “Green Revolution” in Africa, using modern technology like genetic engineering, to address poverty and hunger. Many have wondered whether fortification programs are just a step away from genetically modified foods, and a duplicitous way for multi-national corporations to gain easy access to poor markets?

When it comes to food, scientists already know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—that breaking down a whole food into its component products is no longer in a synergistic context that includes other balancing nutrients. Since whole grains, fruits (including legumes) and vegetables already contain naturally occurring nutrients (carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, water) and phytochemicals (non-nutritive components in plant foods that may play a role in fighting chronic diseases), why not focus on teaching local people to grow edible plants the old-fashioned (natural) way?

To paraphrase a Chinese proverb (originally about fish): “Give a man kale and feed him for a day; teach a man to grow kale and he will eat for a lifetime!” Though we’re giving away produce at our Free Farm stand each week, we also hope to inspire visitors to volunteer and/or grow their own using sustainable farming methods.

Here come the links :-)

Read Food First’s excellent policy brief examining 10 reasons why another Green Revolution will not solve poverty and hunger at
The UN’s agroecology report suggests that attempts to end hunger will come from local, small-scale efforts that build soil quality and biodiversity.
Get inspired by reading Jill Richardson’s article about how biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide the range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition at

Stanley & Sophie harvest purple tree collards

Cutting chicken wire for trellis in greenhouse

Alena brings soil over to planting group

Seed propagation log
Labeling from seed packets
Thumbs up to rainwater collection
Sophie checks on lettuce & radish planted 4 weeks ago Mixed greens ready for harvest
Taking much deserved break in greenhouse
Gratitude circle in greenhouse
Tree's wild rice, Alena's butternut squash curry & Kris' chili quinoa
for lunchOrganizing tool shed
Megan's masterpiece
Securing post
Weaving bamboo through chicken wire
Tying knots
Securing bamboo to chicken wire
From container to ground
Planting in the rain
Tree joins students planting in the greenhouse

We thank the Dartmouth group’s work in alleviating hunger, and we always welcome groups and individuals with similar motives to join us at The Free Farm on any of our workdays. Hope to see you real soon!

Public Service Announcements:

March is National Nutrition Month: “Eat Right with Color”
Eating a variety of foods supplies different nutrients, so to maximize the nutritional value of each meal, include healthful choices in a wide range of colors.
Sun., Mar. 20, 2011: Meatout
Meatout is an international observance helping individuals evolve to a wholesome, compassionate diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains. The purpose is to expose the public to the joys and benefits of a plant-based diet. "Kicking the meat habit" holds lasting benefits for consumer health, world hunger, resource conservation, environmental quality, and animal protection. More information at &

Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Presidents Wilson, Truman and Roosevelt galvanized the nation with voluntary meatless days during both world wars. By cutting out meat once a week, we can improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint and lead the world in the race to reduce climate change.

Tues., Mar. 22, 2011 at 6-9 pm: Water Matters discussion & party
Project One, 251 Rhode Island St., San Francisco
March 22 is World Water Day. Participate in the conversation and party afterwards at the launch of the new book, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Join Water Matters editor and AlterNet staffer Tara Lohan in conversation with leading environmental thinkers including: Water Matters contributor Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch; Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club; Debbie Davis, policy director for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water; Jacques Leslie, Water Matters contributor and author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment; Francesca Vietor, president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and interim program officer for the Environment at the San Francisco Foundation.
Conversation will run from 6:15pm-7pm and then we'll have time to eat, drink and be merry. Expect delicious light food and a cash bar. RSVP by emailing

Wed., Mar. 23, 2011 at 6-7:30 pm: Climate change discussion
San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., (at Grove), San Francisco
Healy Hamilton, the director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences talks with freelance science journalist Mark Hertsgaard about his latest book titled Hot: The Next 50 Years on Earth. In this conversation you will hear about how climate change is altering weather patterns around the world and how it will impact localized weather related events in unique and unexpected ways. Hertsgaard's book takes an optimistic look at how we can adapt to the altered state of life that comes with climatic changes. Learn about how plants and animals, including humans, are already beginning to shift in response to the changing world around them.