The complete antithesis of the rural idyll that many might associate with farming, the 4-1/2 acre Alemany Farm is located just off the decidedly non-bucolic Highway 280 in San Francisco, adjacent to a public housing project. But its tough exterior contrasts sharply with its benevolent mission of educating, engaging, and feeding its urban constituency through the organic food it grows. I spoke recently with Alemany’s co-manager, Jason Mark, who, when he’s not harvesting carrots and kale, is editing the quarterly environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal.
So how did you become an urban farmer?
When I was growing up, my father owned a landscape design and construction firm in Phoenix, Arizona, and we always had these amazing gardens at our house. But I hated helping out in the yard (it was, after all, a chore). So when I left home for college, I never thought about gardening again.
That is, until Sept 12, 2001, when I thought: “Man, the world is going to hell fast, I better learn to grow my own food.” So I enrolled in an urban gardening course offered by the now-defunct San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), where I learned some of the basics about food production. Then I got a small (I mean, tiny) plot in a community garden in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, where I grew some pretty impressive carrots and some pathetic radishes. It was a blast.
During this time, I was working at the human rights group Global Exchange, where I ran a national campaign trying to break America’s oil addiction. I began to feel an even more acute sense of the importance of building a sustainable food system. So I quit my job, left San Francisco, and enrolled in the ecological horticulture apprenticeship at the UC-Santa Cruz Farm & Garden. It was a truly magical experience: living in a tent with 45 other industrial-society skeptics, learning to grow your own food, watching the sun set over the Big Sur Mountains across Monterey Bay. The farm gave me a visceral sense of the importance of not only sustainable food production, but also the need for people to get closer to the natural system on which we depend.
And then you got involved with Alemany Farm?
I felt that bringing my skills back to the city was important. Because if we can’t bring the people to the land, then we should bring the land to the people.
What are the biggest challenges of running an urban farm, particularly an all-volunteer one like Alemany?
Farming is the easy part–or at least the easier part. It’s a craft humans have been practicing for 10,000 years, and I believe it’s in our DNA at this point. To thrive, the plants need water, sunlight, and healthy soil. And we really only have control over this last one.
Plants are easy; people are more challenging. Farming in a big city like San Francisco involves a lot of different communities and a lot of different agendas. This is part of the charm of the enterprise–and its challenge. Groups and individuals come to Alemany Farm with their own goals, expectations, and agendas. And since we naturally want to be inclusive and welcoming, a big part of the farm is balancing out all of the different interests.
Perhaps our biggest challenge is how little urban folks know about food production. I give almost the exact same tour to 7th graders as I do to middle-aged corporate executives, because the adults don’t necessarily know much more about food production than the kids. Of course, this is one of the most rewarding elements of urban farming: education. We are engaged in a mission to show people how they themselves can become their own food producers.
How do you feel about the seemingly exponential growth of interest in urban farming over the past few years? Do you see a bright future?
There’s no question there is a tidal wave of interest in sustainable food right now–what I think of as the Alice Waters-Michael Pollan-Barbara Kingsolver effect. Local-organic food is IN. And that enthusiasm has translated into a lot of interest in urban agriculture.
Some might dismiss this as simply a trend, but looking at the expressions on our volunteers’ faces, feeling their enthusiasm and commitment and passion, I am positive that this is no passing fad. There is an entire generation of people who are eager for some tangible, physical connection to the natural world, and they are finding that in their food.