Farmville, for real

City spaces like Hayes Valley Farm, Kezar Gardens, and the Free Farm are disappearing. Is there a future for urban agriculture in San Francisco?

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The Hayes Valley Farm is an oasis in the city
PHOTO BY ZOEY KROLL

yael@sfbg.com

In the next few months, San Francisco will lose some of its most beloved urban farms.

The City Hall victory garden is now reduced to dirt. The grants that kept afloat Quesada Gardens Initiative, which creates community gardens in Bayview, were temporary and are now drying up. Kezar Gardens, funded by the Haight Asbury Neighborhood Council recycling center, is facing eviction by the city.

Time is up for Hayes Valley Farm, on the old freeway ramp, where developers are now ready to build condos.

St. Paulus Lutheran Church has also announced that it wants to sell the land that the Free Farm uses at Eddy and Gough.

"There's the old joke about developers," said Antonio Roman-Alcalá, co-founder of Alemany Farm and the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance. "God must be a developer, because they always seem to get their way."

At the same time, new urban agriculture projects have sprung up across San Francisco. Legislation authored by Sup. David Chiu will create a city Urban Agriculture Program, with the goal of coordinating efforts throughout the city.

So is the movement to grow food in the city progressing? It's a tricky question that gets down to one of the oldest conflicts in San Francisco: The best use of scarce, expensive land.

THE VALUE OF FARMING

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association lauds the value of community gardens. An April 2012 SPUR report notes that urban agriculture connects people "to the broader food system, offers open space and recreation, provides hands-on education, presents new and untested business opportunities, and builds community."

According to the report, the city had "nearly 100 gardens and farms on both public and private land (not including school gardens)," two dozen of which started in the past four years.

But that's nowhere near enough for the demand. "The last time waiting lists were surveyed, there were over 550 people waiting," Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager at SPUR, told us. "That likely underrepresents demand because some people who are interested haven't put their name down."

Changes in zoning last year, and the recent ordinance to create the Urban Agriculture Program, show a measure of city support for urban farming and gardening.

"We have one of the most permissive zoning codes for urban agriculture that I know of in the country," said Zigas.

One zoning change from 2011 makes it explicit that community gardens and farms less than one acre in size are welcome anywhere in the city, and that projects on larger plots of land are allowed in certain non-residential districts.

More recent legislation is meant to streamline the process of starting to grow food in the city. Applying to use empty public land for a garden can be an arduous process, and every public agency has a different approach. The hoops to jump through for land owned by the Police Department, for example, are entirely different than what the Public Utilities Commission requires. A new Urban Agriculture Program would coordinate efforts.

"The idea is to create a new program that will serve as the main point of entry. Whether it will be managed by existing agency or nonprofit is to be determined," said Zigas.

If the timeline laid out in the ordinance is followed, the plan will be implemented by Jan.1, 2014.

By then, if all goes according to plan, no San Franciscan looking to garden will wait more than a year for access to a community garden plot.

NO NEW LAND

Roman-Alcalá said that efforts to clear the way for urban agriculture are much less controversial than for affordable housing and other tenets of anti-gentrification. But for all the good the latest legislation does, it doesn't secure a single square foot of land for urban agriculture.

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