Pioneers! O Urban Pioneers!

Pub date April 21, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

By Robyn Johnson

People are returning to land like it’s the 1970s all over again, but they’re not packing up for Vermont, letting their hair go au naturel, and unplugging from the grid to do it. Urban agriculture is sprouting up like, well, sprouts. And while we all feel strongly about sustainability and pay a lot of lip service to higher ideals, the majority of us probably aren’t willing to adopt the radical homemaker lifestyle and sacrifice cell phone coverage, The Colbert Report, or regular social interactions. The following cursory guide highlights a few urban farms in SF and immediate environs where you can volunteer or access food, as well as resources for cultivating your space in the concrete tangle (even if you live in a third-story apartment) and options for the time-honored tradition of gleaning.



Community farms offer support not always available for the individual plots of community gardens (which typically have astronomically long wait-lists anyway), or even your own cramped Bay Area backyard. And for 60-hour-work-weekers, it might be taxing to grow more than a bit of basil or mold on that cheese in the back of the fridge. If you don’t have the time, energy, space, or inclination to follow famed urban farmer Novella Carpenter’s fantastic example (, consider volunteering at the following places to satisfy your green thumb’s bidding.

As Chris Burley, the director of Hayes Valley Farm ( told me, “People are looking for a tangible way to get their hands dirty and address the impacts of our ecologically destructive, industrialized food system while doing something meaningful and connecting with their community.” And that’s exactly the goal that the farm, located off Laguna and Fell steets, has been aiming to fulfill since its inception as a way to revitalize an unused lot, once a freeway onramp, into a shared space.

Although the farm is still taking root, so to speak, the plan is to eventually grow enough fresh and organic food to feed the neediest nearby members plus the volunteers working to cultivate the space. Education also plays a major part in the function of the project, with Thursday and Sunday “work parties” where people can get that hand-dirtying experience, as well as regular classes on urban gardening and permaculture.

Altho Quesada Gardens Initiative ( primarily operates as a community-directed organization that seeks to strengthen the social systems of Bayview-Hunters Point, local food production has become one of the top concerns of the neighborhood. The resident-led nonprofit connects and maintain backyard farms and free food-producing community gardens throughout the area. In one of the neater facets of its food justice work, the group also helps maintain the kitchen garden of roving supper club Old Skool Café (, which employs at-risk or previously incarcerated youth. With such kick-ass people, it’s no wonder that urban farm hero Will Allen adopted one of the satellite gardens on his visit to the Bayview. Community volunteer meetings and gardening days tend to be informal, so e-mail for specific opportunities.

Sometimes the best things in life really are free. Located at Gough and Eddy on land kindly lent by the Lutheran Church, The Free Farm ( intends to give away 100 percent of its produce. Still in its initial development stages, the fledgling project welcomes volunteers every Saturday and Wednesday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. to help with the launch. Working in tandem with its sister organization, The Free Farm Stand in the Mission also offers fresh fruits and vegetables donated by other local urban farmers. Although places like Little City Gardens ( and folks who glean from public land contribute, the bulk of the produce comes from the 18th Street and Rhode Island ( farm maintained by the SF Permaculture Guild, which offers volunteer opportunities as well. With a goal to sextuple the farm’s output within the next five years, it could probably use a little bit more help. Work days are on Friday.

For West Oakland residents, two nonprofits have been power-housing to combat the food desert that plagues the area. City Slickers Farms ( operates several all volunteer-run farms throughout the neighborhood that could always use a few extra work hands. Collectively these six lots cultivate ducks and chickens, bee hives, veggies, fruit trees, and medicinal herbs, the produce of which are distributed through the Saturday Farm Stand on a sliding scale or work-trade basis — no one’s turned away. And if you still have a mighty urge for some composting, weeding, planting, and mulching, People’s Grocery ( runs three farms that constantly need tending. The 55st Street location tends fruit trees, culinary herbs, and vegetables; 59th Street is a slightly less cultivated space in collaboration with Berkeley’s Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project (, which runs its own food garden off Oregon and Sacramento streets for you West Berkeleyites. People’s Grocery’s newest land acquisition, the plot behind the California Hotel off of 35th and Chestnut streets, hosts a greenhouse and a biointensive microfarm that replaced its 3.5 acre Sunol site last January.



If you have access to private land to cultivate, or even if you don’t, the following resources will set you on the path to food freedom. These classes, demonstration sites, and professional landscaping services will help you turn backyards, rooftops, and even windows into humming generators of small-scale urban agriculture.

Before you even think to take a shovel to your virgin backyard or start a worm bin, visit Garden for the Environment ( A one-acre demonstration garden in the heart of Golden Gate Heights that also teaches organic food production and sustainable landscaping with weekly workshops, you can see how it’s done before trial-and-erroring on that graywater irrigation system or chicken coop. The resource directory on its Web site also serves as an invaluable aid for at-home troubleshooting. Hotlines for gardening and composting issues, where to find recycled lumber, how to test your soil, manure suppliers, wasp removal companies — it’s all there.

DIY food production classes abound everywhere in the Bay Area but the one-stop shopper won’t find a better resource than the Institute of Urban Homesteading ( in Oakland. It offers a comprehensive curriculum ranging from beekeeping, butchery, goat farming, brewcraft, herbal medicine, bread making, fermentation, berry patches, and other topics of the same ilk. It’s a real crash course in manifesting your inner Laura Ingalls Wilder. With no central location, classes are taught in the teachers’ homes, which presents a neat opportunity to see real-time urban homesteading and the different ways people create sustainable places in an urban setting. Also consider Urban Kitchen SF ( and BioFuel Oasis ( in Berkeley for supplementary courses.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and green behind the ears, several services will landscape your yard into a cornucopia of organic delectables and even continue the maintenance if you just can’t do anything with that black thumb of death. Star Apple Edible Gardens ( provides a range of services throughout the Bay Area, the simplest being consultations and composting tutorials. You also can order ready-made kitchen gardens or go whole kit and caboodle and have customized “garden design and installation, pathway and hardscape installation, irrigation design and installation, planting, plant feeding and cultivation, regular harvesting of your garden crops, and design, installation, and maintenance of composting systems.” Other similar businesses include All Edibles (, which specifically works with East Bay dwellers, and Chris Sein of Wildheart Gardens (, who also consults on backyard chickens and mushrooms.

For a lot of us in the Bay Area, the dream of having a backyard is about as likely as Glenn Beck admitting that Obama is not a herald of an impending Orwellian dictatorship. So what can the more dispossessed among us do to return to the soil? Popular in Europe and becoming more so here, rooftop gardens are a great solution to space issues. Graze the Roof (, the community vegetable patch on top of Glide Memorial Church, hosts rooftop gardening workshops. You can also gain experience by volunteering on work days every Thursday or first Saturdays. For those feeling less than philanthropic or sociable, pop over to your local bookstore to pick up the Use Your Roof Guidebook by Bay Area Localize ( Seven bucks and four easy chapters gets you on your way to a more edible roof.

For balcony-less apartment dwellers, and maybe those with vaulted ceilings, window farms have become the new rooftop gardens. An open-source project that’s evolved over the past year, Windowfarms ( gives how-tos for its innovatively cheap and space-conscious hydroponics system — jerry-rigged from repurposed plastic water bottles, tubing, and fish tank pumps that hangs in vertical columns in the window — as free PDFs on its Web site. It also hosts community boards where members share improvements to the system, which is constantly being updated. Alas, window farms can only really successfully raise leafy greens, but having a homegrown salad in a studio apartment is still pretty darn amazing.

If you already have your urban farm bustling along — or even just a prolific citrus tree — then yard-sharing is a great way to spread the fruit of your labor throughout the community. Neighborhood Fruit (, SF Glean (, and Produce to the People ( will gladly help you to unload the excess bounty and distribute it to the hungry.