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Growing the School Farm- Updates and Observations

Welcome to the School Farm news! This page is a chronological collection of updates and writings about the School Farm.  If you navigated here from a link just scroll through to find the entry you're looking for.  Enjoy!


April 16th 2012


It’s been a while since our last update and so much has happened on the farm it’s hard to know where to start. The volunteer energy is welling up as we continue to work with special education classes, the Workability job training program, lunch time and after school student volunteers, weekend community volunteers, and a great crop of dedicated interns from as close as SF State, and as far as Montreal, Canada! From chicken coops to coyote sculptures, and water tanks to windrows we’ve been weaving ourselves into the fabric of the school and the landscape of the space.


Probably the most obvious and exciting addition to the farm is the completed chicken coop and enclosed run for the new flock of pretty little hens and two handsome roosters, Jesse James and Victor Gold. There are several interesting breeds including Americana, Leghorn, Sexlink, Wellsummer, Buff Orphington, Plymouth Barred Rock, and Rhode Island Red, and each breed lays a particular colored egg ranging from classic white, to greenish blue, to pink with brown speckles, to deep beige brown. The girls just started laying again after their winter break and ECOSF is selling the eggs to cover the cost of caring for the birds. If you or anyone you know needs farm fresh eggs from organically fed, happy, healthy birds just give us a holler!


Out in the rows things are growing good, bien bien, and our last quadrant (NE) of old lawn was sheeted with cardboard and layered with beds of horse stable bedding and straw. We’re still in negotiations with the gophers, voles, robins, sparrows and other hungry critters, but over the last year we’ve grown strawberries, onions, tatsoi, bok choy, quinoa, fava beans, chard, spinach, carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, and more. Right now we’ve also got garlic, salad mix, peas, more favas and lots of red russian kale in the ground. Most of the food goes to volunteers, farm events like Bakers Alley and our salaries (we’re searching for sustainable funding but for now we’re paid in vegetables). Future farm plans include increasing the bounty, working with interested students to set up an after school farm stand, establishing a fruit tree orchard, and setting up a greenhouse/nursery area for natives, veggies, beneficials, edibles, and medicinals , thanks to a generous grant from the Society for Community Work at the First Unitarian Universalist society .


We’re still working on plans for the orchard, but we do have some trees in the ground now ( two 6-on-1 espaliered apples, a lamb haas avocado, a weeping mullberry and an apple Fedge, fruiting hedge), as part of the SF Backyard Demo Garden installed for the Roots to Fruits fruit tasting and urban homesteading skill sharing event that we hosted last July. ECOSF, the Roots to Fruits organizing crew, the Urban Farmer Store and SF Landscapes teamed up to install the demo space featuring the fruit trees, veggie boxes, chicken coop, native plants, urbanite hardscape, and even a compost toilet! Special thanks to Tom and Shane at Urban Farmer for helping us set-up the Irrigation infrastructure and also to Alemany Farm for donating two 1,500 gallon water tanks that gravity feed to the farm and backyard.


The tanks are part of our 30 year plan (well maybe a little sooner than that) to collect rainwater from the School’s soon-to-come new roof. From the 30,000 gallon cistern, the rainwater will flow down hill by gravity alone to water the farm in the summer, and overflow into water absorbing habitat restoration gardens in the canyon during the winter months. This epic project is in the planning phase but meanwhile we have grant funds from the NOAA Ocean Guardian School program to double the storage capacity we have now to 6,ooo gallons and upgrade the plumbing to lay the groundwork for the larger tank.


In the meantime we have plenty of new projects to keep us busy especially in the realm of Natural Building. With the help of workshop participants we built a deluxe new 32” cob oven on the farm last summer featuring a hollow urbanite base with embedded wood door frame for wood and tool storage as well as a granite countertop slab extending out from the base for prep space. In September we built our first ever movable oven, again with essential assistance from workshop participants, for the Eat Real Festival in Oakland. It was a beautiful creation with a custom fit beveled door, fine sculpting and relief work, alis decoration and all sitting on a custom built pallet so the forklift could jack it up and truck it away. It was an awesome event, and with the Sour Flour crew we really blazed it up bringin pizzas to the people! We’re looking forward to this year’s event being even better!


Back on the Farm despite another bout of serious destruction that busted open the chicken coop, and seriously hurt the new oven we are continuing to grow our natural building farmstead (all the birds were fine but little Frida, freedom rider, was missing for almost four days until Josh in the School Kitchen found her safe and sound). The unknown, and obviously unwell, attackers also destroyed our ground oven which we used for so long, but we patched the old oven up and out of the ashes and rubble, literally since we re-used much of the materials, rose a mighty tiny house showing 6 different earthen wall techniques built with the help of a great workshop crew as part of our Natural Building Workshop Series. Also sprouting from the ground this spring is a new garden wall with lime-crete and urbanite stacked footings built during part two of the series, Foundations and Walls. Another stunning feature howling to visitors on the farm is a cob coyote sculpture Tori crafted as part of the new sculpture garden in the beneficial wind row border. Still coming up we got the FREE intro class and Earth day gathering April 22nd, sculptures and artistic creations in may, and plasters and finishes in June.


Wow, that’s almost everything, so I guess we’ll end with an eye to the future. The School Farm has come a long way in the two years since we started cultivating the space, and the relationships, to grow a vibrant outdoor experiential learning space. The infrastructure, the framework, the skeleton is there and we are now beginning to really grow the vital organs and systems that will allow the farm and the program to come alive. We’ve been visiting local leaders in outdoor learning and youth empowerment programs like Project EAT in Hayward, Food What?! in Santa Cruz, and the Famous Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, and have started the process of crafting our curriculum model to integrate, and accommodate the work teachers are doing, and to gather sustained energy, funding, and support for the School Farm program. We’re not sure what’s going to come out of this process but we know it has to be a cooperative effort between ECOSF, the school community, and the broader SF community to start pumping some life force into the vital programs and projects that can illuminate the world for our youth and start to re-connect people to place, community, and the living world.


January 2011


Here’s some quick highlights of the last few months at the School Farm.


-An Awesome 10-10-10 Sustainable Living and Adobe Brick building Fiesta as part of the worldwide movement for community action in response to climate change


-Tons of fun working with Andy Padlo and the new Environmental Leadership Class from the Academy of Arts and Sciences,


-A great soap making, Biodiesel and Candles Bakers Alley in November


- A Fun and Informative Eco-Fest Ocean Guardian School event with Tom Dallman and the Marine Science class from SOTA,


-Near completion of the chicken coop and run thanks to a great volunteer workday, and good progress on setting up the farm, observing, and interacting with the space (with lots of student participation).


Since last February when we came to the school we’ve had terrific volunteer support from students at lunchtimes, after school, and a few visits from classes, but this fall we began a more consistent program, working every Thursday afternoon with Andy Padlo and his new Environmental Leadership class, about 20 mostly enthusiastic young students from the Academy of Arts and Science (the smaller school on campus). The students rotated through several different hands-on learning activities like extending the trail through the canyon, building worm composting boxes, resurrecting the school’s recycling program, watering, planting, digging, mulching, and weeding on the farm, and preparing displays and activities for the school’s ECO-Fest event. The students were able to self-direct their work to a large degree and also spent class time discussing projects and journal writing. The extra hands and company were a great addition to our die hard lunch time helpers and it helps the School Farm program to integrate, and build cooperative relationships with, the school community.


We also provided advice and support for Tom Dallman’s Marine Science class in their efforts to put on the first annual ECO-fest at the school, as part of the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Grant Program which we were awarded this fall. The educational and fun event featured: composting and recycling games, eco-art made from trash collected on campus, an awesome mural showing trash flowing to the ocean, tours of the farm and the new trail through the canyon, and nutritious and delicious food made with the help of students, parents, ECO-SF and the kitchen staff at the CDC Kitchen on campus that cooks fresh, healthy meals for the city’s pre-schools year round. ECO-SF was also there making adobe bricks and sharing a School Farm display, made by the students, which included a miniature chicken coop, bench and oven made of clay and a functional model of a rainwater collection system. We hope to build off the success of the event to make it a yearly ECO-celebration in April for earth day, starting this year!


Well, after our first full summer growing season we weren’t exactly overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, but things are growing. The tomatoes couldn’t make it through the frigid summer and the hungry little critters on the farm finished them off, sucking whole 2 foot stalks into the earth overnight. Some of the squash and pumpkins (Connecticut field which is the standard pumpkin patch variety had several large fruits) really exploded in September but eventually succumbed to the little munching gophers and voles as well (they will burrow right into your pumpkins from below you know), next time we might loosely wrap the pumpkins in wire mesh. Corn, hah, let’s not talk about that, and none of the half dozen chard starts did much of anything but it’s all good, nature provides! We had one super chard plant that volunteered its services in the corn row and long after the 1 foot high corn grasses were withered and dead it was repeatedly flushing huge, clean, succulent chard leaves. We’ll definitely be saving seeds from that one. We also planted a dozen or so more species of native plants around the farm rows to increase biodiversity and habitat. Plus the farm looked green and lush thanks to the massive cover cropping of cow pea, a nitrogen fixing green manure; things are growing and our protracted observation gets deeper and deeper.


This has been a classic winter for us and the farm, as we gather our energy, reflect on the seasons past, and reassess possibilities for the future. Challenges of time, space and ecology led us to a modest planting of red and white Onions, a couple rows of Brassicas that were donated and struggling but which are doing o.k., some rows of overwintering grains like Wheat, Barley and Oats, and a couple rows of the excellent winter cover crop and green manure, Fava beans. It’s been a challenge to protect seeds and seedlings from major munching by the massive flocks of robins and sparrows that descend on the farm from the canyon daily, but a permeable fabric row covering is very effective at reducing seed loss. We verified this after first losing two whole uncovered rows of densely seeded barley and oats to the hungry birds within a week. We suspect it was even these modern day dinosaur packs that damaged many of the young Fava starts in their efforts to grub the soil for tasty treats. Besides the plantings we’ve also been hard at work mounding horse manure, straw and rock dust to create new farm beds in the southeast quadrant.


Meanwhile, the super five style hybrid natural building chicken coop with living roof is coming together beautifully. The walls (adobe, slip-straw, straw wattle, wattle and daub and faux cordwood) are done and just need more finishing touches with earthen plaster. Some cool artistic features including colored glass fishing floats embedded in the adobe wall and a gorgeous sunflower relief sculpture were added by our fine artist in residence and board/staff member Tori Jacobs. The living roof is fitted with an impermeable membrane and drain, plus nice redwood siding, and it’s ready for adding soil and planting. The redwood frame and cedar foundation for the 20’x 20’ chicken run enclosure is under construction and should be done in a couple weeks, thanks to a great volunteer workday last Saturday the 22nd . We had a small but dedicated group that measured, cut, fitted, screwed and hammered the whole afternoon, it was a wonderful experience to see mostly beginner craftspeople really dig in to using the tools and learning how to build something. As soon as the run is done some lucky chickens will start scratching around in the secure, community built “yard” and go to sleep in an earthen structure that most people would be happy to live in (maybe with just a bit more room than 4’x 8’)!


The plan now is to plan! We want to get a lot more Favas into the ground ASAP since they are great for nitrogen fixing, composting, wind protection and even eating, but sometimes it’s better to leap frog to the next season and get an early jump on spring rather than toil away at salvaging the last of a slow winter season. Now’s the time to plan the spring and summer plantings, start seeds, consider new fruit tree additions, fix equipment and sharpen tools, develop farm infrastructure like composting and outbuildings, and especially in our case develop IPM plans for pest protection. It’s also not too late to utilize some free energy in the form of rainfall to plant natives in borders and hedgerows. Other things on the action list for the School Farm are: bountiful veggie harvest plan, rainwater collection tank and water delivery system, raised planter boxes on new area of campus, chicken raising, greenhouse building, nursery operations, fruit tree orchard, outdoor classroom and kitchen design, and a new cob oven to replace the one destroyed by vandals this summer. It helps to make a list, even if you don’t get to everything!


In conclusion for now, Farming is fun! It may not always be easy, clean, or profitable, but it is a wonderful experience to spend some time on a piece of land, a place on earth, and really get to know it. To know the way the sun shines on it, or how the wind blows through it, what plants and fungi grow there, and what creatures live there and visit it. It’s a beautiful thing to know a place and grow a deeper connection between ourselves, each other and the environment.


August 2010


...The first vegetable seeds of change, a row of Sweet Corn and two rows of Bush Beans, were planted on the farm in March with the help of a local volunteer group with Hands On Bay Area(HOBA) and for our every day is Earth day celebration in April we potted up some fruit trees from the original Bakers Alley at 31st and Judah and some new bare root trees including plums, pluots, pears, apples and a mulberry donated by Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastapol. There are now also two rows of heirloom tomatoes, a row of chard, and a row of winter squash and pumpkins, all generously donated by Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC). A farm needs food in the ground but the plants that give the food need water in the ground and despite our extended rainy season this year the farm’s water situation is still tricky.


The difficulty we’ve had getting adequate water for the farm, given the aging irrigation infrastructure at the school, has given us a tiny taste of what it’s like for most of the world’s people in their struggles to cover basic water needs. Our system of hand watering with a couple two gallon watering cans dipped in our 30 gallon drums of stored water has reminded us of the need for solidarity with the mostly women and girls who have to carry water by hand, sometimes great distances, to support their families. We have the luxury of hoses and municipal water supply to replenish our stores, and run a drip irrigation setup on the farm rows, but the small added difficulty of leaking valves, and walking 5 minutes across campus to turn the water on and off manually is a powerful lesson in compassion for the many people around the world who have to work so hard every day just to get a few liters of fresh water.


While still learning those lessons we are committed to respecting and conserving our precious water resources by designing a rainwater harvesting and storage system which will catch water from the school’s roof to irrigate the farm through the summer. Preliminary plans are underway and we have already received several grants ,one from Lowe’s Home Improvement Center and one from NOAA to bring in the necessary tanks, plumbing and labor to save tap water, reduce overflow into the city sewer system and show the practical potential for significant water conservation in urban areas. See our new and improved website for ongoing fundraising efforts and volunteer workdays that will help build a system that will completely eliminate the need for tap water on the ¼ acre farm and put to good use over 30,000 gallons of rainwater a year usually wasted down the drain.


Food …check,water…check…what’s missing from this farm? “…and on that farm they had some chickens, ee ii ee ii oo!” There’s no cluck clucks here or cluck clucks there yet but in May we hosted our friends at the Urban PDC and led an awesome all day natural chicken coop building workshop in which we constructed three different earthen wall systems including slip straw infill, wattle and daub and straw wattle infill, and load bearing adobe brick (see photos posted by a permaculture student). Volunteers built the walls into the frame we constructed using reclaimed cypress and pine round poles we gathered locally, and lumber and hardware donated by Beronio Lumber. The whole structure is anchored to a reused urbanite block foundation, very solid. Stay tuned for more coop building workdays and the upcoming living roof workshop where we will cover the coop with a beautiful, and super insulating, living roof.


Life on the farm must sound perfect. Perfect? Perfect. It really is as wonderful as it sounds but there are some harsh realities on the farm, especially for our little windswept seedlings, and the little gophers that make tasty treats for the watchful Hawks on campus. The unique location of the School Farm, between Mt. Davidson and Twin Peaks which is an area as close as it gets to a mountain pass in san Francisco, makes it an ecological and geographical gem, and also makes it one of the windiest, foggiest, generally roughest places in the city to grow food. Problem, no. Challenge, yes! We can’t stop the pacific winds from barreling through the huge natural tunnel, but we can slow it down, dissipate the force and mitigate the impact by planting hearty, fast growing plants like Lupines, Ceanothus, Pacific Wax Myrtle, Alder, Elderberry, and many more. These plants will serve as a living windbreak and a highly productive, nitrogen fixing, beneficial insect attracting, herbally medicinal California native habitat garden (how’s that for stacking functions). Through another display of gracious generosity we planted the herbal windbreak at the June Bakers Alley event, thanks Nik and the whole sustainability department down there at the school district. The event also featured a guest herbalist to teach how useful these plants have been for centuries, and can still be today.


July was bittersweet; sweet because of our strawberry and fresh picked blackberry jamming session at the Bakers Alley summer canning workshop and bitter because the sun didn’t shine a single day up at the farm, and even more bitter because some lost souls totally ravaged the site, reducing the cob oven to rubble, kicking out walls of the chicken coop and basically thrashing anything breakable like furniture, pots and planters. Luckily the morning we found the destruction scene was a planned natural building workshop with our trusty allies the Urban Permaculture class, and we turned it into a very energetic and motivated natural re-building workshop as we cleaned up, rebuilt the coop walls and even added more to the structure, and crafted a very artistically inspired cob oven which we were using that afternoon to make some of the best wood fired pizza we’ve ever had. It was community resilience in action and it was a great example of the sobering realities of urban farming, obviously these vandals, whoever they were, never had an engaging natural building and garden experience in their formative years to instill the proper respect for community projects; we’ll have to work on that!


Ever heard the saying, “when it rains it pours”? Well, although the vandalism couldn’t keep us down the powers that be dealt us another shocking blow when we were informed that the trees in our windbreak had to be removed due to their permanence and possible interference with some athletic areas. So after some political negotiations we pulled the trees ( 4 redwoods, 4 Catalina Island Ironwoods, 4 pacific Wax Myrtles and one gorgeous Western Red cedar) out of the ground into which they were beginning to root nicely and begrudgingly put them back into the solitary confinement of pots. We hope they can handle the stress of planting and transplanting until we can find good spots for them elsewhere on the school campus. If we learned one thing this summer, other than that there is no summer in some parts of the city, we learned that community projects must respect all perspectives in the community and all the stakeholders must be involved in plans that affect the community as a whole. That goes double when working with an institutional bureaucracy.


So with our hats in our hands and our heads in our hearts we side step forward into the future as excited as ever about the many possibilities at the School Farm. As roadblocks appeared other avenues opened and we’re working on expanding our vision to more sites on campus to grow food and build an outdoor classroom and kitchen area. Some of the projects we’ll be working on this year are: double digging and layering more farm rows, assembling the greenhouse donated by the Edgewood Center for Children and Families and setting up nursery operations, finishing work on the chicken coop and run, constructing wind break trellis on the bleachers, installing water tanks and irrigation lines, setting up on-site composting with the environmental science class and planning and design work on the outdoor classroom, kitchen and solar power station, raised garden beds and trail building in the canyon.


We’re looking forward to cooperatively building community around the School Farm and the dynamic interaction of one of San Francisco’s finest natural areas with a progressive educational institution, an ecological design and organic agriculture demonstration site and everyday people like you and me. Check back for future updates!


June 2010


The last few months have been busy and bustling. We're expanding the farm space to 6 more 25 foot rows mounded on cardboard laid over lawn, building a chicken coop using several different natural building methods including slip straw, cob, wattle and daub, straw wattle and adobe brick, and  nurturing our newly planted windbreak with over 30 different species of California natives.  Projects on the horizon include a straw bale outdoor classroom with earthen plaster, living roof for the chicken coop and building the run for the little layers to keep out the coyotes (pronounced ka-yotes ).  We're gearing up for the early start of the school year in mid August when we'll start working with an Environmental Science class at the school on these projects, composting operations, and more.


February 2010


with many hands supplied by the San Francisco Urban Permaculture Class, Hands-On Bay Area, students and other community volunteers, we’ve sheet mulched and mounded 6 of the planned 24 farm rows which stretch 25 feet, and also built a wood fired earth oven out of clay sand, straw, brick and wood, which we will use to bake fresh breads, pies, pizzas and more! As we create more growing space, plant the orchard, and start on some of the larger building projects we look forward to working with more of the community at our monthly gathering (Bakers Alley) to cooperatively cultivate The School Farm project. Like most non-profit community service projects we are doing the work on the ground, or the land in this case, while also working on fundraising, in-kind donations of farm, greenhouse and building supplies, and of course developing strong community volunteer support to keep up the energy and make this project the shining model of sustainable education that it can be.