Free Farm plants seeds of community, generosity
The folks planting a farm on the corner of Gough and Eddy streets in San Francisco hold no illusion that they'll cure urban blight with a head of lettuce.
They make no claim that a fava bean sown today will reduce the prison population tomorrow.
"I'm a simple person," said a man who goes by the name Tree, a Mission District resident who oversees volunteers as they plunge seedlings into mulch. "We're going to grow food here, and then we're going to give it away to people who need it."
The 1/3-acre lot, known unofficially as the Free Farm at the Corner of Gough and Eddy Streets, will soon provide free food to anyone who wants it. It's being built and cultivated by a group of people who decided the unused parcel, on a particularly busy Western Addition intersection, was a great place for a peach tree to grow.
And a mulberry tree. And potatoes.
"Doing things for free encourages people to share," Tree said. "It encourages people to be community, to be family. It provides people the chance to be generous with each other."
Tree first put his proverbial money where his mouth is in 2008, when he opened the original Free Farm Stand in his Mission neighborhood at 23rd and Treat streets. Relying on donations for supplies and elbow-grease from volunteers, by his count, he's since grown and given away more than 6,000 pounds of food on Sunday mornings.
"I've always got more people in line than food," he said.
Going home with a plant
Tree also sends visitors away with potted plants and small fruit trees. "I don't know if they go home and plant them, take care of them, or throw them away," Tree said. "I just know that I gave them a plant."
Tree has a salt-and-pepper beard (mostly salt), a diminutive frame, but the thick and soiled hands of a lifetime gardener. He declined to share his birth name because "this story is not about me."
The Rev. Megan Rohrer, executive director of Welcome, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to end poverty, helped start the Gough and Eddy project after she asked the landowner, the Lutheran Church, if the organization could grow food on the church's unused lot. Through Welcome, Rohrer has persuaded about six Bay Area churches to convert vacant land into urban gardens and farms in the past couple years.
The Western Addition lot was once the home of St. Paulus, an ornately designed church with Gothic arches and a towering spier that was destroyed by fire in 1995.
For more than a decade, it was an overgrown space for the homeless, junkies and partying gang members. When Rohrer lead the three-month cleanup effort, it took weeks before she could walk across the soil without hearing the sound of crunching glass.
Value of free food
Rohrer said the church has agreed to let the food farmers use the plot for three to five years, but nothing is in writing.
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"We're secretly hoping the farm will be so exciting they'll let us keep it," Rohrer said. "But I know the realities of the economy, and how much the land must be worth."
The concept of worth, and market value, is something the workers at the Free Farm like to challenge.
To Pancho Ramos-Stierle, a volunteer working the land last week, the worth of a farm that generates free food for a community can exceed the worth of a high-rise condo. Ramos-Stierle met Tree at the Mission Free Farm a few years ago and was so inspired by his generosity he began working at the Karma Kitchen, a cafe in Berkeley that opened in 2007 and operates on a "give what you can" billing system.
Trying to feed everyone
"If the community appreciates it," Ramos-Stierle said of the farm, "it will support our work. No strings attached. ... Why can't there be a re-emergence of a culture of generosity?"
It will be weeks, maybe months, before workers begin handing out roughage and beans, Tree said. It will be at least a year before the fruit arrives.
Yet each passing day another volunteer arrives at the gates and asks to help, and each week seems to lure another interested neighbor.
"We're trying to live with a certain intention," Tree said. "Our intention is to feed everyone. In terms of whether we can accomplish this in this city, I don't know."