It Takes a Village to Raise Your Vegetables

June 26, 2009

myfarm_famThis week’s feature article was written by volunteer Carolyn Hauck.

The farmers at MyFarm believe sustainable agriculture can start in your own backyard—literally. Established just over a year ago, MyFarm is “a decentralized urban farm” or rather a piecemeal farm made up of San Francisco backyards.

The collective acreage those backyards create is not just one big garden, it’s a farm. As Chris Burley, Director of Operations and wearer of many hats, sees it, “a garden in the traditional sense [includes] a gardener who goes back and tends flowers and a couple of vegetables. We’re actually producing food… I wouldn’t call our employees urban gardeners; they’re urban farmers.”

It seems many San Franciscans are eager to be farm owners. In just over a year, MyFarm has grown to approximately 80 owner/supporters and 70 CSA members strong. Here’s how it works: As an owner/supporter offers a plot of land for farming. Then MyFarm assesses their backyard — including testing soil toxicity levels — to make sure it’s a good fit. After the evaluation, the yard owner pays the initial cost for the farm installation and MyFarm handles the maintenance thereafter cost-free. As an owner/supporter, you’ll also enjoy a weekly box of vegetables at a sliding-scale discounted rate, based on how much your backyard yields — usually around 2 ½ to 3 ½ boxes per week. As a CSA member, you receive a weekly box of fresh vegetables as you would with any other CSA, with the added benefit of picking up your box at the house where your veggies were grown!

In addition to growing food, the folks at MyFarm hope to grow communities that produce food for one another. As Chris says, “Right now, each one of the owners knows the people they’re growing for.” The hope is that city dwellers can begin to see themselves as real farmers, too. Chris continues, “Everyone looks outside of an urban landscape to produce food, no one looks in their own backyards. And when you start talking about sustainability at a truly global level, you have to start looking at where is your circle of influence, where is your circle of potential action?”

veggiesOf course, tending farms and creating real, balanced communities in San Francisco comes with  challenges. For starters, not many S.F. residents own their own homes, let alone homes with spacious yards. And many of those who would most benefit from easy access to healthy local food are renters. But the farmers at MyFarm like to view challenges like this as opportunities. Currently they’re investigating various ways to involve volunteers at a grassroots level and are looking into land-share possibilities — making urban farming accessible to everyone.

Then there are the 17 different microclimates in San Francisco, and the microclimates within microclimates. Our mild climate and foggy summers pose a number of challenges, but there are some varieties of greens that grow well here year-round. Interestingly, Chris notes that not all food needs direct sunlight to grow. “Light reflecting off a window can completely change [how well] something grows in your garden.” he adds. “You may not ever see it, but the light reflecting off your neighbor’s window might be helping your strawberries grow.”

Given their optimism, hard work and a growing interest in what they do (there’s a waiting list for backyard assessments), the people at MyFarm seem well on their way to achieving a goal that might have seemed absurd just five years ago. According to their website, MyFarm envisions having one farm within walking distance of every single citizen by 2010.

Carolyn Hauck is a CUESA volunteer and writer based in Albany, Ca. She hopes to have a backyard farm someday soon.

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