The Science of Sustainability

Urban Farms in San Francisco Struggle to Put Down Roots

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 Free farm regular size

Americans are falling in love with city gardens. From truck bed farms to guerrilla gardening, urbanites have found a way to bring small scale farming into the city. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the world's food is now grown in urban areas.

“A lot of things have come together to make urban farming so popular,” said Adrian Benepe, a Senior Vice President from the Trust for Public Land, a land conservation non-profit in San Francisco.

“The advent of the community gardening movement coincided with the interest for fresh food and even more recently, the interest and necessity to allow people to eat better.”

But despite all the benefits – from reducing urban blight to teaching kids about where their food comes from – farming in some cities is easier than in others. Perhaps most difficult is in San Francisco.

"It’s hard for [urban farms] to exist, except in cities like Detroit where there is a lot of open space"

The Free Farm community garden, located in the Tenderloin neighborhood, has harvested more than three tons of produce since opening in 2010. However, by December it will close, joining the Hayes Valley Farm, which shut down last month after developers decided to build housing on the land.

The back-to-back closures raise questions about why locavore-loving San Francisco farms can’t seem to stay open. Benepe says it’s simple, and comes down to space and money.

“The essential dilemma is that it’s hard for [urban farms] to exist, except in cities like Detroit where there is a lot of open space,” Benepe said. “In cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco, you’re unlikely to have large open space.”

In recent years, real estate prices have also risen sharply in San Francisco, and locals often quip that it’s the most expensive place to put down roots in the country. Couple that with limited space— the city is only 30,000 acres, a tenth the size of Los Angeles—and it’s easy to see why community farms fail to stay in business.

 “We knew this was coming we just didn’t know what the timing would be,” said Free Farm co-founder Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain. 

Free Farm kids

The Free Farm provided food to more than 150 people a week, including kids that were learning how to garden

Like the Hayes Valley Farm, the Free Farm is also closing because developers want to build housing on the property—something the farmers knew might happen when they signed the temporary land agreement back in 2010.

The city has taken note. The San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks’ board of directors recently approved a measure that creates a position for an urban agriculture coordinator within the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"We are always looking for opportunities to expand food production in the city," said Public Affairs Director for the Department of Recreation and Parks, Sarah Ballard.

"That’s one of the main goals of this coordinator position, we want to make starting a city garden less cumbersome for folks."

The move follows widespread sentiment among urban farmers that there had been poor coordination between the city and community groups. Dyer-Chamberlain hopes it will improve the situation for farmers in the future.

It will take four months before a new urban agriculture coordinator is appointed, and Ballard says the department hopes to hire someone before the end of the year.

In the meantime, Ballard's department is helping the Hayes Valley Farm look for a new space, as the Free Farm continues searching for a new plot of land.

And Dyer-Chamberlain said the Free Farmers have built something more enduring than just an urban garden.

“This has been a validation that people long for community,” said Dyer-Chamberlain said. “We will always be this community. We might not be [there] every Wednesday and Saturday at the Free Farm, but we’re hanging onto that.”

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Category: Food, Sustainable Food

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About the Author ()

Mike Osborne is currently finishing his PhD at Stanford where he studies climate change in the tropical Pacific. In his research he uses coral-based records (similar to tree rings) to examine El Nino and La Nina cycles over the past few centuries. Mike also created and co-produces the Generation Anthropocene podcast which features interviews and stories covering a wide range of 21st Century global change issues. He loves travel and is always looking for a reason to be outside.