Saturday, April 14, 2012

Do you know the way to Alemany?

Like the song about San Jose (, we’ve got lots of friends in Alemany Farm. It’s been so cool hosting Alemany Farmers at The Free Farm, especially during seed planting marathons these past three months. And they’ve invited us to their Earth Day potluck picnic with farm tour and gardening activities next Sunday (!

I highly recommend making the trip to Alemany Farm, SF’s largest urban farm run by Friends of Alemany Farm, a very hard-working volunteer collective that combines agriculture, food security, ecology and environmental education in an urban setting. It sponsors a highly regarded 11-month Apprenticeship and Ecological Horticulture program.

As I mentioned last week, I had an opportunity to tour “Alemany Farm—An Urban Ecosystem” as part of SF Botanical Garden Society’s Docent Enrichment program. Alemany Farm is involved in food production, based on biointensive farming (like The Free Farm) so they practice double-digging, closely spaced plants, companion planting, crop rotation, growing food for soil as well as people (fava beans, alfalfa, vetch, red clover, etc. as nitrogen-fixing compost crops). In addition, its 4.5 acre lot has many microclimates, including grassland, seeps and wetland—supporting a wide range of native and non-native plants, and animal life (frogs, rodents, snakes, lizards, birds, butterflies and other insects).One can easily miss Alemany Farm (, located along Alemany Boulevard near Interstate 280. The entrance sign actually reads, “St. Mary’s Farm,” which refers to nearby St. Mary’s Park on land owned by SF Rec and Parks. The site had been a dumping ground until 1994 when former SLUG (SF League of Urban Gardeners) obtained grants to develop a farm that thrived until 2003 when SLUG imploded. The Farm lay fallow for two years after that until a group of volunteers resurrected it as Alemany Farm. Like SLUG, it trains at-risk youth. Under its MOU with the City, which gives free water, they can’t sell produce but can give it away; workday harvest is equitably divvied up among volunteers first and then given to the neighboring housing community.Standing next to aerial map of Alemany Farm, garden artist/permaculture designer Brett led a fascinating two-hour tour, thoughtfully answering questions from equally thoughtful questions posed by our docent group. Like The Free Farm, Alemany is a communal garden, which allows it to accommodate more people (versus individual plots in community garden), operate more efficiently because they can collectively plant more on bigger space, and work alongside others to share knowledge/skills, etc. About half of Alemany Farm is on a hill, with an overstory of eucalyptus trees as windbreakers and partly terraced with fruit trees. The other half on flat land is for row crops and entrance.When asked about the presence of heavy metals at the farm located near freeway traffic, Brett said they did extensive soil testing for heavy metals (lead, cadmium) with results below maximum level allowed by federal standards but higher than SF level. He added that there’s a different test for plant uptake of heavy metals, so they adjust pH based on fertility test results and add lots of organic matter to bind metals. They also maintain a 75 foot buffer zone to limit exposure of edibles to freeway pollution.These olive trees, which cast shade to orchards in adjoining lot, do not produce fruit because it’s not hot enough.
Housing Authority development next door to Alemany Farm has greenhouse and raised boxes for root crops (which are more likely to uptake any toxins).This windmill intended to pump groundwater for irrigation.Alemany Farm makes its own compost from materials on-site, horse manure from Daly City, and fertilize with fish emulsion. They’re becoming self-sustaining by limiting external inputs, focusing on perennials that don’t require much care, doing more seed saving, and working with City to allow chickens.Recognize some of your favorite docents from SF Botanical Garden :-)?! Thanks Anna and Keren for organizing this tour, Susan for driving and Denise for sharing knowledge about EIR during carpool ride!Watercress grows near this pondMushroomsTaro patchbrought memories of my childhood eating poi (mashed corms of cooked taro, called kalo in Hawaiian), a staple in the traditional Hawaiian diet.Alemany Farm’s unique features include a man-made pond that provides habitat (for cattails and mallards) and this stream that overflows to Islais Creek watershed.Beehives are hosted by SF Beekeepers and BeeCauseAlemany Farm developed relationships with neighboring schools offering hands-on field experience. During my visit, there were three classes from Lick-Wilmerding High School, which also raised funds for this irrigation system in the terraced area which saves time spent hand-watering.Alemany Farm's undeveloped area: wild thing you make my heart sing!Urban farmer John tending avocado trees with students. Brett explained that they maintain a high-density orchard nothing growing higher than 4 to 5 feet because no ladders are used in harvesting, so they do about 3 to 4 prunings a year. Avocado trees have to be thinned to bring more light to produce more fruit.Looks like avocadoes will ripen in time for Earth Day potluck :-)Wow view from hill. If you're looking for inspiration this upcoming Earth Day, check out Alemany Farm!

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