Alemany Farm: A 3.5 Acre Urban Agriculture Oasis In San Francisco
by Scott Matus
In the urban agriculture sphere, vertical farming has been getting a lot of the media attention recently. New vertical farms seem to launch almost every week, and the idea of transforming food production through modern technologies like LED lighting and IoT has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and food system pioneers across the globe.
But while all of this attention is being given to indoor farming, impressive feats of their own right continue to take place in the soil and community-based farms that not too long ago still dominated urban agriculture headlines. Such is the case with Alemany Farm.
Alemany Farm is a 3.5 acre organic farm “ecosystem” (as their website proudly proclaims) located in southeast San Francisco and run by a board of volunteers known as Friends of Alemany Farm. It is also the largest urban farm in San Francisco.
“Our main mission is around food security and environmental education,” explains Chris Chimenti, who has been a co-manager of Alemany Farm for the past decade while also working full-time in San Francisco’s startup tech scene.
During his summers in California while in college and graduate school, Chris would work as an 18 wheeler truck driver transporting California-grown tomatoes across the state, a job that Chris credits as first getting him to really think about our food system. It was ultimately Chris’ wife that introduced him to Alemany Farm where she had already been volunteering, and Chris “became hooked from the first day there.”
As part of the farm’s mission to increase local food security, all of the produce grown at the farm is given away for free. “We give about 45% of our produce to the Free Farm Stand,” Chris explains. The rest is given away through other means such as the “U-pick harvests” for local residents, and their “sweat equity program” where volunteers take home produce at the end of the work day.
This year alone, the farm is on track to produce and give away 13 tons of fruit and vegetables. Alemany Farm has produced a total of 39 tons of food since 2009, when they first started keeping records.
To grow this incredible amount of local produce, the farm maintains 38 dedicated rows of crops (each ranging 30ft to 50ft in length), as well as an “urban orchard” with 140 fruit trees. This enables them to grow 45 different varieties of vegetables throughout the year, and 20 different types of fruit. “Our fruit trees grow everything from apples and pears to pineapple guavas and plums,” Chris explains.
“We try to grow what our neighbors who eat the food will want,” Chris adds, “and we ask folks all the time what they’d like for us to be growing next.”
The other big component of Alemany Farm’s mission is education. Of course, this includes teaching people how to grow their own food, but it also includes educating everyone from kids to adults about healthy ecosystems and the habitat value that farms such as Alemany provide to dense urban areas.
A large part of this education comes from welcoming volunteers to the farm to learn how to grow food and experience farming for what is frequently their first time. Alemany Farm has dedicated volunteer days about twice every week where individuals and groups alike can come to experience the urban oasis. Recently the farm has seen a large uptick in corporate groups from the local tech industry who come for team building and service days.
“Folks come out from every demographic and neighborhood in the city,” says Chris, “and that’s what’s really beautiful about it. People are now traveling from across the bay and down the peninsula just to visit our site.”
In addition to welcoming and educating volunteers, Alemany Farm also has a farming internship program and just last summer began a jobs program which they plan to have again this coming summer. Fortuitous enough, one of their past farming interns was actually hired by the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department under the city’s Urban Agriculture Program and is now the department’s dedicated rep to Alemany Farm.
“I’ve really come to see Alemany Farm as an incubator,” says Chris. “We’re not just educating people about urban farming, we're actually developing our next generation of food advocates and entrepreneurs.”
The story of Alemany Farm dates back to 1994, when the nonprofit San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners received a grant from the city to develop the land as a jobs site. When that ended around 2003, “the site became an impromptu dumping ground,” explains Chris, “since it’s on the way to a landfill that’s further down the highway.”
In 2005, the founders of the group known today as the Friends of Alemany stepped in and began “guerilla gardening” at the site. Flash forward almost 14 years and the site is now a thriving urban farm. In 2018 Alemany Farm has had over 1,300 people come to volunteer so far, compared to the 470 that volunteered back in 2010 when they started keeping records of attendance.
Up until recently the farm was entirely volunteer run, functioning solely off of donations and volunteer labor from the local San Francisco community. “Now we’re about 99% volunteer run,” Chris explains. “About two years ago we made the big leap to start applying for grants and pushing harder for donations, and so now we’re able to employ two staff members at 32 and 25 hours per week, respectively.”
Looking back over the past five years, Chris notes how incredible it is to see the site becoming more and more utilized. “You can really see this acceleration that has taken place at the farm over the years,” he says, “and a lot of that is because of our stewardship and the programs we've put in place, plus a deep interest that people everywhere are developing for sustainable farming practices and knowing where our food comes from.”
While Alemany Farm strives to be a benefit for the local community, its relationship with the farm’s neighbors has had its share of challenges, as is the case with many urban farms. “We're always trying to make the site more inclusive,” says Chris, recommending that “anyone starting up an urban farm should really be canvassing the neighborhood and finding out what those who live around you actually want to eat.”
To new urban farmers, Chris has a simple message: “Don’t get discouraged.”
“As cities continue to get denser, I think that urban farms will be a critical component of people’s overall wellbeing,” he says. “They bind us together around food. I find that once you begin to create that bond, our other defense mechanisms that we as humans tend to have start to drop away. All the sudden you're just eating the same apple.”
Want to help Alemany Farm continue to grow? Donate here.