Why San Francisco's Community Farm Isn't Focused on Growing Food

bees hayes valley farm photo

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

In many ways, a community garden is less about the "garden" and more about the "community," and such is the case with San Francisco's Hayes Valley Farm. Once the site of a freeway damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the unused space was going to be turned into housing. Instead, a group of activists got their hands on it and have turned it into a 2.5 acre haven for gardeners and anyone who just feels like getting dirty for a few hours. In fact, that's really more the point of the Hayes Valley Farm project -- reconnecting people to each other and to direct, hands-on work in the dirt that plain old feels great. Sure, there's food growing there, but there's also educational courses, movie nights, volunteer work days with live music provided, food and supply exchanges and so much more. Hayes Valley Farm has become an example of how to reconnect city-dwellers to the "real" world. Co-director Chris Burley was kind enough to invite me to a permaculture bootcamp at the farm a couple weeks ago, and I was glad to get to talk to him more about what the farm stands for.

Burley stated that food is really secondary to Hayes Valley Farm, and that it's more a strategy for building up the community, that caring for people comes before caring for plants. "We're stitching the community back together," he said, pointing out that in our daily routines, city dwellers rarely get a chance to do connect with one another, let alone with dirt and plants. "It's not a community garden, it's a garden of communities."

bees hayes valley farm photo

The farm tries to show a complete picture of what is necessary to make a garden grow -- from rich compost (which is sourced from the compost collected by the city from households) to seasonal planting to the insects that pollinate the plants. The diversity needed to grow food mirrors the diversity of people needed to make the garden work. In addition to the core team, the farm relies on volunteers who show up during the volunteer work parties on Thursdays and Sundays. It's always a real party, too, with live music and usually other events going on. And to draw in those hard working volunteers, the farm also relies on the musicians, speakers, yoga instructors and all sorts of community members who create the fun and festivities that happen during the week.

bees hayes valley farm photo

When asked what seems to be the biggest factor drawing people to the farm, Burley stated, "People want to play in the dirt. They feel disempowered from the planet and this is a direct solution to be part of."

Burley stressed that the core volunteers who have become part of the Hayes Valley Farm structure actually do the least manual labor -- it has become their role to build connections among new volunteers. No one wants to return to a place where they don't feel like one of the gang, so the people who have volunteered since the beginning are important for helping to organize newcomers, show them what needs to be done, make introductions and so on. It's these connections that make the farm a place to hang out, to feel welcome and needed, and to feel connected to something unique.

bees hayes valley farm photo

The farm has been such a success, it has inspired similar projects in other places around the world from Japan to South America. Burley states that this is the real legacy of the farm -- not the food that is grown (though that is a big part of it, and food swaps at the farm of local growers and producers help feed the community) but the participation in the community the farm inspires.

Hayes Valley Farm is somewhat of a miracle -- few major cities with the density of San Francisco get their own 2.5 acre lot of dirt to play in. What the team members are doing with this opportunity they've created for themselves is outstanding. And the local residents who show up to take part in the farm itself or learn from the courses offered are rebuilding community connections, quite literally, from the ground up.

Right now, the farm is working to raise $20,000 for improving the project. Their fundraising on Kickstarter will go toward materials and supplies, including for irrigation, a massive worm composting unit and soil maker, and the vital seeds, plants and fruit trees that will get this garden looking like a real farm. But in keeping with their mantra of farming as a way of building community, the bulk of the funds will go to building more programs, including a youth education program, internships, and green job training.

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More on Hayes Valley Farm
Bee Murder at San Francisco's Hayes Valley Farm: Unknown Attacker Sprays Hives with Pesticide
Celebrating 101010 At Hayes Valley Farm, San Francisco
Hayes Valley Farm- Get Your Hands Dirty or Watch Dirt the Movie

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