WHAT is an URBAN FARM?

So many of the people I meet at Hayes Valley Farm have said, “in designing this space, we get to design the world we want to live in.” What a great perspective!

For a brief period of time, we have been granted the opportunity to research, educate and demonstrate what an Urban Farm could be. Recently, as the city has come to an agreement to sell a portion of the farm for development, we have been engaged in a series of meetings at City Hall to scout locations for future farms.

At the same time, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance realized a tremendous success when Mayor Ed Lee signed the “Salad Bill,” further advancing the city’s priority on urban agriculture. This has been a very exciting time!

And once again the question is being asked, “what is an urban farm?,” and I am glad to report back on some of what we’ve learned…

So What is an Urban Farm?
Seed Library at Hayes Valley Farm
At first glance, a farm is a big space where food is grown, so, an urban farm might be a big space in a city where food is grown. That has seemed to be the generally accepted definition. The 2.2 acre vacant former freeway fit that description well enough, and many were quite excited when the idea of a farm in Hayes Valley was first proposed.

Since 2010, as Hayes Valley Farm has continued to grow, our understanding of what an Urban Farm could be has also grown. Here are some of the elements that currently make up our Urban Farm.
The Greenhouse – for raising plants from seed to baby plants and seedlings

The Plant Nursery
– for raising baby plants into stronger, healthier plants ready for the outside world

The Seed Library – for providing seeds to community members as a resource, and through participation, advancing research in what grows best in the city, built from materials rescued from the landfill

The Beds
– for perennial and annual food crops planted close together along with other beneficial plants. The beds are built atop the freeway with cardboard, manure, much and compost, and not laid out in traditional rows and sections, but rather are placed on the landscape to save water and avoid typical pest problems

The Freeway Food Forest
– for raising dwarf fruit trees, providing beauty, habitat for birds and pollinators, and demonstration of growing food without removing the pavement

Carla and Petunia visit The Blue Tape CafeThe Tool Library – for lending and providing of tools for local farm and garden projects

The Compost Freeway
– collecting cubic yards of organic kitchen scraps from local kitchens and community centers, mixed with landscaper clipping and organic matter from the waste stream, organized by a dedicated group of volunteers

The Beehive Exhibit
– for demonstration and pollination, as well as unique hands-on education opportunities

The Time Machine
– the first retail branch of the Timebank, a local currency, also built from materials rescued from the landfill

The Little Red Schoolhouse
– converted out of a parking lot attendant shed, provides a secure, dry space for storage of educational materials and equipment

The Center for Youth Education
– also converted out of a parking lot attendant shed, provides a secure, dry space for storage of youth educational materials and equipment

The Blue Tape Cafe
– an outdoor gathering space for coffee, tea, and snacks
The Cob Beehive Oven at Hayes Valley Farm by Miguel Elliot
The Cob Oven – an earthen stove and outdoor gathering space built from sand, straw, broken pieces of old sidewalk

The Reading Room
– an indoor gathering space for reading, researching and relaxing, also built from materials rescued from the landfill

The Resource Center
– a truck-accessible drop site for large deliveries of materials, and a series of storage bays built from old palettes for storing and sharing materials and supplies.

The Solar Pump
– a solar panel array and battery for education and demonstration of alternative, off-the-grid, energy solutions

The Bird Cage
– a garden area planted to encourage bird and pollinator habitat

The Invisible Classroom
– an indoor classroom space fashioned out of three portable greenhouses

The Cob Colosseum
– an outdoor classroom and gathering space built from sand, straw, and broken pieces of old sidewalk

The list of elements that make up an Urban Farm is longer that just what can be found at Hayes Valley Farm. Some of these elements may be found at other Urban Farms in San Francisco. There’s the The Project Homeless Connect Community Garden at Growing Home with the Department of Public Health, The Free Farm Stand at El Parque Ninos de Unidos, The Food Processing & Preserving Workshops at Baker’s Alley with ECO-SF and The Compost Toilet at the Eco-center at Heron’s Head Park.

and there’s more…

In looking a little harder, we may find that other elements may not be in San Francisco at all yet…

Where will we find spaces for Timber and Bamboo Orchards for future construction or Biofuel Processing Centers for alternative local energy production.

An Urban Farm is more about the compilation of these various elements than a large space dedicated to growing food.

So how much space do we really need? Most of these elements are relatively small, quite a few are under 100 square feet, restored or built from our garbage at almost no cost. At Hayes Valley Farm, a lot of these elements are conveniently located within the 2.2 acre, fenced-off space. But, they don’t have to all be in the same space, and that is one of the greatest lessons being learned here.

The future success of Urban Farms isn’t going to be realized just because there are more big spaces to grow food. What we really need are all kinds of spaces of various shapes and sizes, and people who live nearby who want to work together.

For the thousands of people who have learned, worked and played at Hayes Valley Farm, the realization that there is a timeline to begin closing up, breaking down, and moving the farm has conjured a lot of emotions.

Someone’s mom once said, “If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade.”

If the lemon served up this time was the notice of the pending sale of the farm to develop apartment buildings, then the lemonade is the opportunity to design more than a single farm site, more than a couple of them, but a whole city. Looking at the amazing structures Suzanne Husky designed, I can easily imagine tool lending, seed libraries and branches of the timebank all over town, accessible to eager urban farmers wherever they may live, work and play.

So, small elements of Urban Farms are now popping up all over town. We opened another branch of The Time Machine at San Francisco State, helped The Veggie Table at 3rd and Palou get started on their version of the free farm stand in the Bay View.

And getting closer and closer to the dream, designing the farms, the city, and the world we want to live in… well that’s some sweet lemonade