an important moment to affect federal food and agriculture policy

May 23rd, 2013 by brooke

The Farm Bill is being debated this week in Congress.  The Farm bill is a huge package of legislation….”a 700-page hodgepodge of laws, regulations, guidelines and payouts covering all manners of U.S. agriculture, conservation and nutrition programs”. -according to Dan Imhoff the author of “Food Fight”.  U.S. ag policy, specifically subsidies and insurance for overproduction of commodity crops, also ends up making a huge impact on agricultural practices and food systems around the world.  I once heard Daniel Imhoff speak at a Food Justice Conference.  I remember him saying that the Farm Bill is a tangled confusing string that seemed only to relate to the farmers of America  (who make up less than one percent of the U.S. population) but that when you tug the string of the Farm Bill it becomes clear that it is attached directly or indirectly to almost every political, economic, health social and environmental issue in the world.   Land-use, air and water pollution, ecosystem management, energy use, food security and insecurity, food prices in the U.S. and abroad, immigration trends,  public health, rural economy,  animal treatment, biological patents and GMO technology and urban farming to name a few.  So its a really good time to weigh in on a really influential package of legislation!

There are some positive and important proposed amendments including one about investing in local community economic development and community food projects!!!  and another that provides funding for research and seed breeding for publicly held non GMO seed varieties.  There are also some  very unfortunate amendments that would decrease spending on food stamp programs, nutrition education and require proof of citizenship to receive food aid.    I called the capitol switchboard this morning and left messages for our California Senators Feinstein and Boxer with their respective Agricultural staffers. But if you are calling from elsewhere ask for your State’s Senators.  Here is a description of the amendments and a script to read if you call in.   It is a power pack of a script that was put together by a cool organization called Live Real. Live Real  is a platform for young people across the US to shape a radically different food system through policy and practice.  A big thanks to them!

photo from the Library of Congress

field trip to sacramento

April 17th, 2013 by caitlyn

Today was the Agricultural Committee hearing for AB 551, and it was a success! Unanimous votes in favor, no opposition. One of the assembly members, a farmer from Lassen County, said he was glad to support the bill, and hoped it would allow farmers like us to “teach those who live in cities just how hard it is to farm.” Another committee member said she hoped the bill could also engender more support in cities for protecting the Williamson Act which is instrumental in preserving rural farmland.

This is just the very beginning step of the long legislative process ahead for this bill, but it felt momentous. Thank you to all of you who have sent in letters of support so far!

Side note: Originally, the committee was also going to review what’s being called the Ag-Gag Bill (AB 343) today — a bill that requires anyone to report photo/video evidence of animal cruelty in factories within 48 hours of the evidence being gathered. California is one of eight states introducing similar legislation. The bill sounds fine on the surface (Yes to exposing heinous animal abuses, of course!) but considering the sponsors of the bill, and its specific details, it’s very fishy. We were curious to be in the room to hear it discussed, but it was taken off of the agenda at the last minute. You can find an interesting article about about it here.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (AB 551)

April 5th, 2013 by caitlyn

Access to land is a crucial issue for small scale farming, both urban and rural, and as we’ve previously talked about here, insecure land tenure has been one of the biggest obstacles we’ve come across in our three years of operating this farm. Running a successful, financially sound business has been particularly challenging without a reliable long term lease, as it has greatly limited the kind of investment we can safely make, both physically (in the form of long term perennial crops, thorough irrigation setup, and necessary infrastructure like hoop houses and cold storage) as well as personally (how we are able to commit to and shape our lives around this project). Because the land we farm is currently owned by a developer, we never quite know when our month-to-month lease will be terminated, or when our rent will suddenly spike in order to more adequately cover the owner’s rising costs. Also, in our particular case, the property we’re using is ill-suited for development due to it’s irregular orientation (a long, narrow lot surrounded on three sides by backyards) and a very high water table. Unfortunately, these factors are negligible when it comes to the property’s market value, and the property taxes are exorbitant. It’s hard to imagine commercial farms thriving in cities, providing food at prices comparable to their rural counterparts, when urban land is exclusively and without exception valued in terms of its potential real estate.

For the past year or so, a group of urban agriculture activists here in SF, Brooke and myself included, has been working to push forward the idea of incentivizing urban property owners to sign long term leases with farmers by offering an adjusted property tax rate. If a property owner agrees to put their land into long-term agricultural use (10 years or more), the county could opt to assess the property at a lower rate based on it’s agricultural use instead of its market value. Over the year, we’ve had countless meetings discussing the idea, brainstorming its implications, and researching similar models (there are few, but a helpful starting point was California’s Williamson Act). Fortunately, State Assemblymember Phil Ting (former SF Tax Assessor), looking for ways to promote urban agriculture at the state level, has recently adopted the idea and has officially introduced statewide legislation known as Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (AB 551).

You can find the current draft of the legislation here, along with a comprehensive FAQ about the bill here. It should be noted that the legislation is still in draft form, and our group of SF urban ag activists is strongly pushing for a few key changes to the draft before it’s finalized. We’ll post updated language to the draft as it unfolds.

This legislation could directly affect the sustainability of projects like ours, and even more importantly, could generate opportunities for more self-sustaining commercial farms to sprout up in cities throughout California. I think this could be a promising step toward the viability of urban farming, as well as toward widening its accessibility by lowering a significant financial barrier. And, more broadly, if this legislation passes and is put into use, it could help bridge the gap between urban and rural food production and consumption, and California’s cities could be on a path to becoming stronger and better-informed allies in advocating for a healthier agricultural system overall.

For more, Jason Mark of Alemany Farm just wrote a great article that sums up the implications of the legislation.

A public hearing is currently scheduled for April 17th, and we are trying to collect as many letters of support as we can ahead of that hearing. If you are an urban farmer, a supporter, or a property owner who supports this legislation, please consider sending a letter! Letter templates and instructions on how to submit can be downloaded here:

How to submit letters AB 551
Urban Ag Incentive Zone Sample Letter (GENERAL SUPPORT)
Urban Ag Incentive Zone Sample Letter (SPECIFIC TO PROPERTY OWNERS)

shifting dynamics of san francisco

March 22nd, 2013 by brooke

This is a very interesting article by local author, essayist Rebecca Solnit. It examines the shifting economic and sociological dynamics of San Francicsco. She intelligently observes and critiques the current resurgence of the  dot-com boom and its implications for residents of this city. She also explores the historical context and development of the bay area’s urban centers, linking the current trend to the booms and busts of past.

People often ask us what is unique about our urban farm and what are the specific challenges of making on urban farm financially viable. Of course there are universal challenges to making any small-scale farm viable, but certainly some of those challenges are amplified by the extraordinary cost of living, doing business and finding available land in San Francisco. We also face the emotional challenge of knowing that many of our friends and peers with creative, activist lifestyles are being squeezed out of the city through evictions or an inability to afford inflated rental prices. Farming in a boom time in one of the most expensive cities in the country does offer the benefits of more customers with extra money to spend on vegetables, but it also presents the significant challenges of earning enough to handle the high cost of living and a sense of increasing social isolation.

part-time farming

February 8th, 2013 by caitlyn

Spring is here! At least at the farm anyway. The compost delivery is scheduled to arrive next week, a new large patch of strawberries is planted, the greenhouse is cleaned up and packed full of freshly seeded trays, and we’re getting the cover cropped beds turned in and pre-mulched while they await the big brassica planting later this spring.

I feel good about this season, because after a bit of winter distance from last year’s challenging ups and downs, we’ve decided that the next phase of this experiment is to scale back a bit. Rather than spread ourselves thin trying a whole plethora of marketing outlets and crop experiments, we’re going to hone in. We’ll shave our planting plan down to crops we’ve learned sell consistently well and for a decent price, and we’ll use the newly freed up bed space for more perennials and low maintenance crops we love like strawberries, cardoon, chayote, rhubarb and more flowers. We’ll start the season with only restaurant sales (a reliable and efficient outlet for us), and we’ll move slowly from there.

While we’re proud of what we’ve created so far – a functioning urban farm business that covers all its costs and makes a meager profit – we’re trying to maintain some honest perspective about what is working and what is not. Farming anywhere is hard, all-consuming work. Food prices are generally low compared to the amount of labor and resources that goes into its production, and the amount of task-juggling, experimenting, and constant troubleshooting that goes into running a production farm is never ending. This wasn’t a surprise to us of course, and the importance of experiencing and sharing these realities, particularly with our urban supporters as an audience, has been an inspiring motivation from the beginning. Neither of us are afraid of hard work, in fact I’d say we are both drawn to it, and both of us started this project privileged enough to be able to feel comfortable with small, unpredictable salaries. But this past year, due to the frighteningly high cost of living in San Francisco, our still tenuous land tenure situation, and the tug and pull of personal goals and needs outside of the farm, we found ourselves at times more tired, physically and emotionally, than we had really expected.

Of course there were great accomplishments: some beautifully successful crops, a small crew of incredible and devoted volunteers, inspiring emails from afar, and a year’s worth of notes and observations about farming on this piece of land. However, there are parts of this project that have felt so unfortunately neglected this past year. Keeping up full time with the farm’s steadily spinning wheels has left little time for the processing, documenting, and reflecting that we were so inspired to do from the beginning. Yes, San Francisco and many cities like it need farms. And gardens. We need as much food production within city limits as we can fit — we need small backyard veggie plots, educational gardens, community gardens, free food sharing programs, spontaneous farms without permission, aboveground farms that confront and push all the legal boundaries, nonprofit farms and commercial farms alike. We need them all! But, from any of these farms, what feels just as important as the nutritious food and the empowerment a community experiences from growing it together, is the dialogue and reflection that the farms can generate. The symbolic rootedness to the large, endangered, complex food system that is out there beyond our city limits, and the ways we all fit into it.

We’ve had high hopes for this farm to be a contribution to this very kind of connectedness. We want to talk openly about our financial figures and business plans — the pages that, in the name of competition, are so typically guarded by businesses — so that others can consider this kind of farming (and quite possibly find ways to do it better). We want to write more about the politics of food prices, and the complicated hip foodie scene we are right in the middle of here in SF. We want to read more from other farmers and activists. We want to recommend articles as we come across them, link you to related news pieces and relevant discussions taking place. We want to take more photos of the farm, and share growing tips and techniques we’re picking up along the way. We want to make a living growing as much food as we can, but even more importantly we want the process of growing this food to be an earnest contribution to a conversation that is so much larger.

It’s ambitious, and after this past year I really wonder how much we can actually do all at once. But, in an attempt to get closer, we’ll seek balance and try our hands at part-time farming. It’ll be the next step in this ongoing experiment — a restructuring of our time on and off the farm. We’re also going to relieve some of the financial pressure we’re feeling by increasing our off-farm work (I’m making time for more sign painting and lettering work, and Brooke has some new illustration projects underway). We want to work hard, but we want the hard work to feel balanced and meaningful and relevant to what this project has been about from the beginning.

last minute gift idea! hot off the press!

December 17th, 2012 by caitlyn

Brooke has just finished working on a beautiful new poster — Make Yourself at Home, a collection of San Francisco House illustrations — and it’s now available just in time for holiday gift giving! We’ve updated our online store to include a fresh stock of these posters, as well as a couple other poster designs that we haven’t had in there before. We know it’s last minute, but if you’re interested in buying a few of these posters (or any of our other merchandise) in time for Christmas, please place your orders by this THURSDAY DEC 20th, and we will rush them out to you as best we can!

a milestone for our irrigation system

November 26th, 2012 by brooke

Irrigation is one of the most important parts of farming. Having a functional system that delivers the appropriate amount of water at the appropriate time is one of the main contributing factors to any crop’s success.

Setting up our irrigation system has not been simple. Like every step of urban farming, there has been bureaucracy to navigate and city policies to push. When we signed the lease at 203 Cotter, there was no water meter onsite, which meant that there was nowhere to hook up a hose or drip line. There was no water access at all. After the first few months of tilling the ground, we had made good friends with some of our neighbors, one of whom generously agreed to let us install an irrigation system off of his backyard water hookup. We of course agreed to reimburse him for all the water used, which is what we have been doing every month up to this point.

This was a great solution except for the fact that our water bills have been extremely high. This is because we reimburse our neighbor for everything over and above his normal monthly use, which means the water we use is always in the higher use-tier and thus is a billed at a higher rate. As is residential policy, we are charged not only for the water we use but for the subsequent sewage treatment of the water as well. Of course all of the water we use permeates into the water table rather than going down the drain, but because of the complicated scenario of piping water over property lines, it was difficult for us to qualify for the water department’s Landscape Irrigation rebate.  (We eventually did so successfully, and have begun receiving this rebate just this season.)  Another issue with borrowed water is that our pressure has been unreliable especially to the fields that are farthest away from the source.

We looked into having our own water meter installed on the property so that we could begin paying an interruptor rate  (a service that can be shut off in the case of drought but is billed at a much lower rate and would be more manageable for a farm business). However, the price tag on that installation was over $8,000 — too much for a small business like ours without secure land tenure!

Back in the summer of 2010, we met with some directors of various SFPUC programs to see if we qualified for any reduction of fees for a new water meter installation.  Although the SFPUC is very supportive of our work and believes in our efforts, they were not able to make a donation of this kind to a business without some kind of program or accessible public process. The following year they announced the introduction of a new grant program which allowed us to apply for funding to cover the costs of the meter installation. We were the first garden to apply for the program and had our meter installed this summer.

After this though, there was still more work to be done (and a couple thousand dollars still to spend) before we could use water from our own meter. We needed to install a backflow prevention device, dig hundreds of feet of trench, lay pipe and hook it up to our current drip system. And of course we had to get permits, inspections and certifications from the city to do the work legally and make sure the final product was up to code.

This was still a lot of resource to put into a property that we still have no secure lease on. So it took us a few months of thinking and discussing to be ready to take the next step. Ultimately we realized that we want this land to be farmed into the future even if we are not the ones to do it. We realized that our business was suffering from not having efficient and reliable irrigation and that if we wanted our business to live up to its full potential, and/or set this land up for any other farming endeavor in the future, we needed the foundation of a good farm — a proper irrigation system.  

The good news is that when we decided to go for it we found the best landscaper/plumber in San Francisco, Peter Good of Goodscapes who was willing to spearhead the process. Peter and his crew were extremely generous with their time and expertise because they believe in our work and wanted to give us a boost of support. Peter took care of obtaining the permits. The Goodscapes crew came out for a few full days over the course of this past month with a jackhammer, a ditch-witch, soldering tools, pipe cutters, trench shovels and hundreds of feet of PVC. We learned a lot about irrigation systems through working with them and following their lead. We are extremely grateful to them for making a potentially time-consuming and all-encompassing project move briskly and smoothly.

we’re bringing artwork!

November 13th, 2012 by caitlyn

We’ve had some requests for our artwork at the farmer’s market this Thursday, so we’re bringing a little of everything! Need gifts? We’ll have sticker sets, posters, and hand-silkscreened fliers all packaged up and ready to go home with you and your bags full o’ veggies. See you there — Mission Community Market this Thursday 11/15, 22nd & Bartlett, 4-8pm!

NOVEMBER 15th FARMERS MARKET! see you there!

November 9th, 2012 by caitlyn

Please mark your calendars! We’ve been working hard to grow a well-rounded, fresh array of vegetables for the holiday season. We’ve strategically timed all of our seeding and transplanting, and we’ve babied and nurtured our crops so that they’ll be as healthy and vigorous as possible for a big mid-November harvest. Now, we’d like to enthusiastically encourage you to PUT LITTLE CITY GARDENS PRODUCE ON YOUR THANKSGIVING TABLE!

Here are the details:

1) VISIT US AT THE MISSION FARMERS MARKET on THURSDAY NOV 15TH from 4-8pm (22nd St & Bartlett). This is the only time we’ll be at the market for the rest of this year, so please come on out! Never been to this market? Now’s a great time to give it a try! Is this outside your normal shopping routine? Consider shaking it up for one week in order to support us!

We’ll have: mountains of lacinato kale, rainbow chard, beets, fennel bulb, collard greens, romanesco greens, radishes, salad mix, culinary herbs, edible flowers & garnishes, and more!

We’ll also be digging into our archives and bringing along lots of artwork for those of you who want to get a headstart on holiday gift buying. We’ll have Brooke’s beautiful salad and herb posters, Caitlyn’s sticker sets and silkscreened farm posters, and if we can get it together in time, the new issue of our zine, Germination, hot off the press! We would very much appreciate seeing you and having you include our produce in your holiday menus, and our artwork on your gift-giving lists.

2) PREORDER salad mix, either for pickup at the market on Nov 15th*, OR for pickup at the farm on Tuesday Nov 20th (the week of Thanksgiving). It will be much easier for us to calculate how much salad to harvest (a time consuming task!) if we have an idea of how many people to harvest for. $10/bag, which will include our usual diverse, wildcrafted blend, plus some extra special flowers and flourishes for the holiday. It will be beautiful and incredibly tasty; just dress with olive oil and salt and you have an impressive ready-made side dish to feed your family and friends. We can accommodate the first 20 orders per pickup date. To preorder – send us an email (littlecitygardens @ gmail) with the subject “salad preorder”, the date you’d like to pickup (11/15 market, or 11/20 farm) and how many bags you’d like.

*Note: because our salad is harvested fresh and goes straight into your fridge the same day, we find it lasts quite a while. Bags purchased the day of the market will likely last through the following week into Thanksgiving Day, no problem.

We could very much use your support as we close out this long and winding year. The fields are full of greens, and they were grown just for you. Please tell your friends! We can’t wait to see you there!


Also, a side note: have you liked us on facebook? We like to post photos and videos there whenever we remember, and we’re hoping to get better at doing so more often this fall. It’s also come to our attention that facebook now asks businesses/organizations to pay for posts in order for them to be widely seen by followers. So, we’ve gone off the deep end and also started a Twitter. It’s an experiment. Please follow us there too! We’ll keep it exciting with sneak peeks of market goodies and snippets of life at the farm.

We hope this update finds you all well, enjoying these brighter mornings and longer evenings. We hope to see many of you on the 15th!

goodbye dahlias. hello fruit trees and rain.

October 24th, 2012 by brooke

The dahlias were a source of great beauty this summer on the farm, at the market, and in our homes.  We can’t wait for them to come back next year.

We planted a few fruit trees recently: a mulberry, a fig, and a pineapple guava.  Once the rainy season gets into full swing, we have plans to put some more trees and perennials in the ground: apple, meyer lemon, raspberry, rosemary, rhubarb, chayote, hops, cardoon and yarrow. It is a special kind of  excitement to watch perennials grow and to know that they won’t need to be pulled out at the end of a growing season but that there roots will deepen and spread for many years to come. These plants can be like cheerleaders encouraging us on a daily basis through the rigorous cycle of annual crop production.

The first rain of the season is always momentous for us. It means all our plants get a good long healthy drink of high quality water, and we don’t have to lift a finger to make it happen. It means we can begin to cover crop.  It means that all of our unirrigated soil that has been dry all summer will get a breath of life…the worms and other organisms will start to return to the topsoil. I imagine the relief being similar to the moment for a parent when a child can finally feed itself!


farmers market announcement

September 17th, 2012 by caitlyn

Farmers Market Customers — we’ve decided not to return to the market on a regular basis this Fall. As much as we love the Mission Community Market and enjoyed putting together a beautiful table, we’ve determined that for the time being the market does not fit sustainably into our weekly schedule. We will reevaluate next Spring. In the meantime, we will be making one special appearance for the holidays on Thursday November 15th (the week before Thanksgiving)! We’ll have salad mix, greens, fresh herbs and more, as well as artwork for those of you on the lookout for gifts. Check back here next month for more details.