What's Happening at Hayes Valley Farm?

Categories: Urban Farming
Hayes Valley Farm/Flickr
More than 2,500 volunteers have gotten dirty at Hayes Valley Farm.
To those of us who lived in Hayes Valley while Octavia was transforming from prostitution alley to boulevard, the chained-off lot between Oak and Fell held a peculiar romance. After a decade of neglect, the old Embarcadero Freeway on- and off-ramps had become a thicket of green, a place where you'd hear birdsong and spot wild fennel thrusting through the wires. No matter what kind of nonsense you suspected was taking place out of view, the lot was a welcome spot of wilderness in the heart of the city.

So the transformation of the block from postapocalyptic forest to farm ― Hayes Valley Farm ― made sense. But that didn't prepare those of us who loved the green hills to see them filled with people, with cardboard everywhere, browning ivy on the trees, and no sign of planters, raised beds, or tiny greens.

SFoodie has read about classes and movie nights at the farm, but hasn't read anything about actual vegetables. It took the news of the recent bee slaughter to remind us it was time to check: What exactly was going on here? So, on the six-month anniversary of what the Hayes Valley Farm's organizers call "the cutting of the locks," we took one of its public tours.

It turns out that for the past six months, the farm's coordinators and volunteers have been working on one critical little detail: dirt.

Although more than 60 soil samples showed that the soil was almost completely free of heavy-metal contamination, it was also nutrient-poor. According to SFoodie's tour guides, co-director Jay Rosenberg and longtime volunteer Brett McGuire, it has taken most of the past six months to cover almost 60 percent of the ivy with "sheet mulch." Sheet mulch starts with a foot of cardboard ― more than 40,000 pounds have been laid down so far ― followed by a thick layer of horse manure and then a final layer of wood chips. While the ivy chokes to death underneath the mulch, the urban farmers have been planting favas and clover on top to add nitrogen to the new soil without using chemical fertilizer. They're also terracing the slopes, turning the paved slope of the old on-ramp into a container garden, and finally ― much later in the season than they'd hoped ― planting seedlings in the ground.

Hayes Valley Farm has become a permaculture lab with dozens of experiments. They're testing several different composting systems, for example, and have planted more than 250 different varieties of fruits and vegetables to see what will grow best on the site. The farm now has three paid staff, dozens of core volunteers, and more than 2,500 people who have showed up for work parties and events.

Twenty-five hundred volunteers in just six months! There's no way that 1.7 acres of land, no matter how lush it will be after several years of soil building, can support 2,500 people. And while SFoodie's tour guides described Hayes Valley Farm as more of a demonstration farm and education center than a community garden, that doesn't explain why so many San Franciscans feel called to help out. Shoveling manure and clipping fava leaves seems almost a symbolic act: Putting your stamp on the city by ripping it up. Remembering the ground underneath the concrete. Wishing good thoughts for the coltish baby fruit trees and rows of tiny green shoots.

Standing on the springy new soil of the old off-ramp, a spot we'd daydreamed about sneaking onto for years, the fenced-in lot doesn't look like the forest we'd always imagined. It's still years away from looking like the bucolic oasis the farm's organizers envision, too. But from the center of the farm, looking out toward the surrounding roofs, it's possible to see the land becoming beautiful again.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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