Growth industry: Farming in The City
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
May 23, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Examiner
He is a farmer without a single piece of farm machinery,
without overalls, without even a back yard.
"I like the fact that I'm a San Francisco farmer," said
Robert MacKimmie, as he tended one of the 23 bee hives that
people "host" for him in their back yards.
A farmer in San Francisco? If it seems as unusual as
arugula in Kansas, consider this: More than $2 million in
commercial crops was harvested in San Francisco last year.
The unsensational but steady number represents a world not
often glimpsed by most harried city dwellers - wheat grass
farmed in the Mission District by a self-described "wheat
grass messenger," orchids on a Bayview hillside, designer
lettuce in an industrial park and honey harvested in
practically every neighborhood, more than a ton of it this
year by MacKimmie.
At a time when the state's farmland is shrinking, urban
farms have carved a niche. The federal Census of
Agriculture even found that farm land in San Francisco
tripled from 1992 to 1997, a fact city agriculture
officials would like to, but find hard to, believe.
"I don't know where they get their figures from," said Jay
Seslowe, deputy agriculture inspector in San Francisco, who
knows the plots of soil that can qualify as cropland and
maintains they've remained fairly constant. "There have
been no big increases. If you had land in San Francisco,
you'd make more money if you built lofts instead of grew
lettuce. Of course we'd like to see more growing."
If the federal figures are true, it would mean that San
Francisco farmland grew to a modest 21 acres over the five
years, up from 7 acres. That's still dainty compared to the
more than 27 million acres being farmed statewide - an
acreage that slipped 4.4 percent from 1992 to 1997.
Also due to the daintiness of City farms, don't look for
John Deere tractors parked outside, hay bales, horses or
other farming accouterments. More likely to be seen are
farms like the garden lovingly tended by Eva Moen,
proprietor of Wheat Grass Farm and Depot on 15th Street.
Her 75- by 45-foot back yard is a burst of primary colors,
a bright red patio jammed with white shelves of sprouting
green wheat. Moen, 59, takes care of the planting, watering
and marketing of 350 flats a week of the green sprouts.
Much of her business comes from regulars who stop by her
juice bar for a cup of the pulpy chlorophyll-rich potion
and a chaser of "Rejuvelac," a fermented wheat juice said
to aid digestion.
"Everything that's in the soil is in the wheat grass
juice," said Moen, who subsists solely on it until supper
Though she has run a rental agency, an appliance repair
business and a home repair company, her own roots aren't
far from wheat. She was born on a wheat farm in Norway.
Years later, suffering from alcoholism, she said, she
discovered that wheat grass helped conquer her addiction.
Her business, which opened in 1994, has as much to do with
educating people about the health properties of wheat grass
as it does about business.
In this educational aspect of farming, she is not alone.
Most of San Francisco's farmland is run or sponsored by
either the Garden Project or the San Francisco League of
Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which aim to connect people more
closely to the land and to teach responsibility rather than
to bring in big bucks.
"Seeing what it takes to grow food is really critical,"
said Kathi Colen, director of urban agriculture for SLUG.
"It gives you more respect for what you eat. It fits into
community health issues both physically and spiritually."
SLUG works with community gardens near public housing
projects in Hunters Point, Sunnydale and off Alemany
Boulevard. Volunteers tend crops of corn, collard greens,
lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and peppers, then distribute
produce to the community.
The Garden Project employs recently released inmates from
the County Jail to work its half-acre garden on Carroll
Avenue. It is there, over the beets, garlic, potatoes and
lettuce, that ex-offenders have met and befriended seniors,
who come to pick up fresh produce.
"It's a teaching place," said director Catherine Sneed.
"Young men who have preyed on seniors have said that by
giving them vegetables, they've learned not to prey on
them. They see them as human beings."
Aside from being an object lesson, veggies from the Garden
Project also end up at the Ferry Plaza farmers market and
in salads devoured by foodies at Chez Panisse and Hayes
Kim Nguyen also sells her crop - orchids - at the farmers
market. Nguyen, who grew up in Vietnam watching her mother
tend the delicate flowers, raises 20 to 30 different
varieties in a greenhouse behind her Bayview home.
"I've always loved orchids," she said. "When I don't see
something green, like flowers inside a house, I don't feel
Nguyen gave up restaurant work about five years ago, she
said, to devote herself to the orchid business. Though the
wind howls outside her hillside home, the orchids fare well
inside the greenhouse, oblivious to the outside climate.
The City's damp climate largely dictates what will grow and
what won't. And it's the diversity of climate - the many
microclimates in this city - that has added the distinctive
bouquets, tastes and textures to beekeeper MacKimmie's
"The honey from Pacific Heights is buttery and creamy," he
said. "I can't quite figure out what it is. McLaren Park is
cinnamony. It even changes throughout the season."
On borrowed land
MacKimmie, who is a high-tech recruiter working from his
Pacific Heights home when he's not in his beekeeping veil,
tends hives in nine locations, including Noe Valley, Cole
Valley and the Castro District. Like many San Franciscans,
he has no back yard, so he has to improvise by using other
"When I'm at social events I say I'm a high-tech recruiter
and I also keep bees," said MacKimmie, who soon will begin
selling to stores under the label City Bees. "They're such
an interesting thing that no one wants to talk high tech.
They all want to talk about bees. Some of my best sites are
coming from parties."
A self-taught beekeeper, MacKimmie works without gloves as
he takes the wooden hives apart to check on bee health and
productivity. On one recent afternoon, he pointed out a
queen bee he'd marked with green paint at a hive in Cole
With the bees collectively buzzing at a low roar, he
smacked a honeycombed shelf against the hive to remove a
few thousand of them while his visitors cowered.
"This wouldn't be unique at all in Iowa," he said, as he
checked the hive for crowding, a warning that the hive
residents may be creating a new queen and planning to split
for new digs.
Beekeeping is not technically considered a farming activity
in the federal census, but the state Department of Food and
Agriculture keeps track of "certified producers" who sell
at farmers markets. The department, which has issued
licenses for five years, lists 4,000 such producers now who
sell to 300 markets.
Many of those are in urban areas, said Jim Tippett, a state
statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Indeed, he suspects the small producers help account for
the growth of farming in urban areas.
"In Fresno, for example, there are 700 Hmong farmers who
are growing strawberries on a few acres," he said. "I don't
think you had that 10 years ago."
Pressure from development
Small producers are listed in Palo Alto, Los Altos and
Berkeley. In those communities, as in San Francisco and the
state as a whole, they face pressure from spreading
Colen from SLUG believes there is a future in tiny urban
gardens and farms because consumers value produce tended by
"Urban agriculture is on the upswing," she said. "The
higher the profile of food projects, the better off we'll
be. It gives you more respect for what you eat."
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