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A Tomato Grows on Capp Street

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Novella Carpenter's GhostTown Farm in Oakland. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend
Novella Carpenter's GhostTown Farm in Oakland. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend

In 2009, urban farming, like punk in 1991, broke. While San Franciscans have been raising chickens in backyard coops and tending verdant patio gardens for decades, the trend has now sprouted up in the city's mainstream, expanding from the realm of co-ops and collectives to the mayor's cluttered desk: In July, Gavin Newsom issued an executive directive aiming to reshape how city residents make food choices, and now, eight months later, neighborhoods and communities are beginning to taste the (literal) fruits of City Hall's efforts in the form of initiatives like public vegetable gardens and mobile produce markets. In recent years, urban farmers have started seeing their flora and fauna as something more than sustainable, super-local eats. They're hyper-aware of how their work can impact their surroundings, and intrigued by what larger ripples they might make. Thus, their missions are evolving, moving in inspired directions towards a brand of community-conscious agri-activism.

Having a president keen on arugula and a first lady tilling soil outside the White House helps, but the movement has found creative, diverse expression locally. Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway run Little City Gardens, a miniature Mission District farm and salad greens business. The founders see their project as "an experiment in the economic viability of small-scale urban market-gardening," a working model for a career path they'd like to see become more common in America. The greens are fantastic -- as knows anyone who has crunched down on a Bar Tartine salad -- but producing good food for people who care is only a facet of the over-arching goal; it's about the people too -- which probably has something to do with the ongoing success of their Kickstarter-funded expansion campaign. Since 1994, Alemany Farm has gone by a few different handles, but the 4.5 acre South Mission garden, tucked away along the intersection of two major highways, staffed largely by volunteers and neighborhood residents, remains committed to growing food and creating jobs for citizens in low-income communities. Craigslist -- you know, that site we used to use for finding jobs -- is a cornucopia of produce. Its farm and garden classifieds always bristle with city farmers looking to unload excess hauls -- whether they be bunnies, bok choy, or Meyer lemons. Novella Carpenter has raised turkeys, goats, pigs, bees, chickens, geese and rabbits in the backyard of her house in Oakland -- everything "short of a cow," she professed in a February 2009 interview with the aptly named Twilight Greenaway of Culinate. Along the way, Carpenter has never identified her efforts as a model to be followed exactly; her farm comes across like a more personal journey. Nonetheless, she chronicled the tending of her plot and its furred, feathered and winged inhabitants in the acclaimed memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Published over the summer, her book presents the sorts of funny-sad lessons rookie urban ranchers might want to take into account: how to fatten a hog on donated restaurant scraps, for example, or how to scale a barbed-wire fence to try and rescue an errant turkey from bloodthirsty dogs. Note the "try" in that last clause.

Newsom likely won't suffer so many slashes and scrapes. A March 23 S.F. Chronicle article outlined his plan of attack:

"Urban agriculture is about far more than growing vegetables on an empty lot...It's about revitalizing and transforming unused public spaces, connecting city residents with their neighborhoods in a new way and promoting healthier eating and living for everyone."

To this end, he's had all city departments look out for fallow land with garden potential. The Mission and Noe Valley public library branches have planted plots and held gardening classes for kids. Seven more branches may shortly follow suit. Last week, the city began building a new garden at a Department of Public Works-owned steam powerhouse at McAllister and Larkin. The farm's bounty will feed volunteers. The Department of Education-sponsored Urban Gleaning Program will teach interested San Franciscans how to plant fruit trees. While many did already, now all farmers' markets must accept food stamps as payment. Subsequently, food stamp purchases at city farmers' markets increased 85% last year, a sign that people will eat well and responsibly when they can afford to do so. And that's just for starters, it seems.

Say what you will about his no-doughnuts policy at civic meetings; the mayor might be on to something here.


Newsom thinks urban farms make life better for residents of a city's communities because they render our surroundings more beautiful and bring people together in the interest of a common goal -- a grassroots movement with actual roots. Quoted in the story's last paragraph, the mayor's "greening director" Astrid Haryati bridged the gap between Newsom's stance and the sorts of mission statements d.i.y. farmers actually kick around:

"It's not only about feeding mouths...It's about feeding the soul and feeding the pride of San Francisco urban dwellers."

The idea that relationships between gardeners might blossom along with the blighted spaces they plant is a compelling one -- that a vital, green space symbolizes a vibrant community -- but words like "soul" and "pride" carry a complexity their usage only occasionally signifies. Food does nurture us on a variety of levels, providing sustenance and pleasure, conjuring up memories of family, routines and valued moments in time: the tomato salad Mom started making every August, family trips to pick blueberries at a farm outside of town. What can a garden really do? It's true that greenery makes people happy -- whether it takes the form of a full-blown farm, or just a few plants on the windowsill of an apartment kitchen. A week or so ago, a friend posted a picture on Facebook -- a photograph of a shocking chartreuse moss snake swelling up and curling around the bottom of a parking meter. He added a caption: "Among the trash laden sheets of concrete in downtown Oakland, one can still manage to find a hint of beauty."


On the surface, feeding the soul sounds cheesier than a knob of Gorgonzola. It's a cliche you heard in college co-op kitchens, usually when you were about to steal a flat of eggs to take back to your slovenly apartment. Soul-feeding is not for everyone. Characterized as such, it's not for me. I hated gardening when I was a kid. I'd rather shop at Rainbow, Bi Rite, and farmers' markets than sow seeds myself -- much less decapitate a duck in my bathtub, Carpenter-style. I do not have a green thumb, or a desire to initiate intimate attachments to animals I intend to slaughter. A few months ago, my dad gave me a tomato plant and I completely forgot about it. It sat on the back deck, soaking in a handsome view -- the McDonald's at 24th and Mission, that dance studio above the cheap Chinese place, and a few willowy palm trees for inspiration. The pot flooded when the rains came; the plant withered when they did not. Still, despite my negligence, in late March, two very, very small yet well-shaped red heirloom tomatoes appeared on the end of one brown vine. I was outside drinking a beer when I noticed. I yanked them off the plant, and ran into the house, screaming to my girlfriend: "We grew tomatoes, and we didn't even try!"

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