Don Wiepert hasn’t always enjoyed the view out his bedroom window as much as he does now. An eight year resident of Oak Street, the senior citizen has a wonderful vantage point of the highway on-ramp covered in potted fruit trees and fava beans by Hayes Valley Farm, where he volunteers on a weekly basis. Before the community farming effort, he says, the parcel of land’s only crops were slightly less savory.
“This was a place for homeless living,” he tells me on my recent trip to see the fruits of the exciting new neighborhood project. “It was fenced off, ugly, inaccessible. Now it’s wonderful.”
His enthusiasm seems to be shared by everyone who enters into the Hayes Valley lot. On this windy Thursday afternoon, volunteers are collaborating on the various steps needed to make this exercise in urban farming a success. In one corner, a greenhouse is being erected. Over there, fellow volunteers plant the seedlings nutured in Wiepert’s own living room. Small hills that were once home to nothing but trees languishing under ivy covered, and oil soaked ground support rows of fava beans, and young lettuce.
Organizer Jay Rosenberg explains the process to me as we tour the fields he helped to envision. Back in 1964, neighborhood activists, including the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association organized to stop the progress of the central freeway that would connect US-101 to the Golden Gate. The show of community force was impressive, but it stranded the planned highway on and off-ramps on a block of land between Octavia and Laguna Streets. “They left them here standing like ruins,” Rosenberg tells me. “This was a 2.2 acre forgotten space.”
The blocks, designated parcels “P” and “O” by the city, devolved into a gothic, ivy covered problem for the neighborhood. They were claimed by drug users and homeless tent communities -- until Rosenberg, Christopher Burley, and David Cody, three young men with experience in sustainable entrepreneurship and permaculture, identified the land as yhe ideal spot to bring a self-sustaining food system into the neighborhood.
At first meeting weekly with community members at nearby Suppenkuche, the three formulated a plan to start an urban farming education and research center. On January 22nd, 2010, after months of permit-wrangling with the city and work with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, they had the keys to the cyclone fences that surround the property.
Which really, was just the beginning. The trees on the lot were slowly being choked by the insidious ivy that had infiltrated the area, and the soil itself was highly toxic from years of brake dust, lead-based oils, and carbon monoxide emissions from cars. Even what crops to plant was at issue. Due to it’s heavy winds, chilly summer nights and minimal rainfall “San Francisco is a cool, Mediterranean-like, foggy desert,” says Rosenberg, making for unique agricultural conditions.
All sizable challenges, but they’re no match for the combined brain power of the Hayes Valley Farm team. The three, and an ever-growing army of neighborhood volunteers, got to work planting fava beans; natural nitrogen producers whose very shoots enrich the soil around them, as well as producing food. They’re adding the chopped down ivy to 80,000 pounds of donated cardboard, and mulch from the city’s regular landscaping program to turbo-fertilize their new farm.
They've also found ways to kickstart the harvest while the soil repairs itself. Rosenberg proudly walks me down the rows of what volunteers like to call “San Francisco’s largest patio garden,” over 150 sapling fruit trees and 1,500 plants that sit happily on Parcel P’s old freeway on-ramp. The “freeway food forest,” as Rosenberg calls it, is already helping to feed the 1,000 community members who have already put in 4,000 hours of volunteer time on the farm since January.
It’s merely the beginning for the farm. Although organizers have heard rumors that the city intends on building condos on their land in the next three to five years, Rosenberg says “We championed to be here in a temporary fashion.” An interactive classroom is in the works, one wall to be formed by a mural painted by students at the Chrissy Field Center. Although someday Rosenberg envisions produce and fruit tree sales, he hopes to continue offering the volunteers that help the farm flourish fruits and veggies to take home with them.
For Wiepert, though, the farm is more than just an outdoor larder. “I appreciate the opportunity to hang out with the younger people and their energy here,” the man tells me, moments before flinging a stick for one of the farm’s part-time dogs to chase after. “I think this place facilitates a feeling for a lot of people that they’re doing something meaningful,”
To welcome the farm into the neighborhood, organizers are planning a series of outdoor screenings of films that educate on soil depletion and other environmental topics. Popcorn and live entertainment included.