Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerDennis “Tree” Rubenstein and other Free Farm volunteers remove plants from their site at Gough and Eddy streets. The operation must be out by December.

Volunteers lament move of Free Farm for development

Wet soil clung to the hands of two San Francisco farmers Wednesday afternoon as they busied themselves with shutting down a half-acre lot that for nearly three years has been one of The City’s largest urban farms.

Jesse Meade, 25, and Dennis Rubenstein, 65, aka “Tree,” both volunteers at Free Farm, were trying to figure out how to get as many plants from the site as they could. Those included an avocado tree, a lemon tree and an olive tree that had all been planted at the farm.

Free Farm, as its name implies, is not simply a garden — it has a mission.

The food grown at the farm, along with surplus food collected by volunteers, is given away at the Free Farm stand at 23rd and Treat streets every Sunday.

“These farms are not just like … trying to promote being hip and growing food,” said Rubenstein, a Mission district resident. Instead, the farm is trying “to make sure people get fed,” not dissimilar to groups like Food Not Bombs.

But by December the farm must leave the lot at the corner of Gough and Eddy streets to allow for a 100-unit, low-income apartment building and a church to be built on the site.

The farm was given use of the land by St. Paula’s Methodist church after the site became empty when a church on that corner burned down.

Rubenstein said he was thankful that the church gave him and the hundreds of fellow volunteers at the farm the land to use. But with the closure of one more of The City’s farms, he sees it as a blow to the urban agriculture movement that is being pushed aside to make way for development.

Just this summer, nearby Hayes Valley Farm, which had been given temporary use of an empty lot, was closed amid protest to make way for a development. But groups such as 49 Farms, which is trying to get a garden or farm in every square mile of The City, and Alemany Farms, which gives away what it grows, continue to advocate for and grow local food in San Francisco.

The City is also getting behind efforts to create more urban agriculture. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee signed a law making urban agriculture legal across The City, as well as the sale of food grown on such plots.

When Free Farm volunteers first came to the lot, which was mainly sand, they had to literally build soil. Now, a shovel full of the dark soil — worms, wood chips and roots are among its material — shows what has made the kale and bishop’s hat peppers thrive.

While the greenhouse and its seedlings have been taken away already, as has much of the food, a variety of other plants remained last week. They included marigolds, mint, mug wart and wormwood. While not all edible, they are part of the farm’s permaculture growing techniques.

Meade, who became a volunteer after picking up free food, said the farm has other less obvious attributes. It’s a place for people to learn about alternative agriculture, get their hands dirty and do something that is not simply a commercial interaction, he says.

Free Farm, with a very distinct mission of giving away local, organic food, is a far cry from the world of expensive organic food sold at nearby Whole Foods stores and the like, Rubenstein said.

But instead of seeing more urban farms, Rubenstein sees expensive boutique stores popping up — one right around the corner from his Free Farm Stand in the Mission.

“It’s beautiful. How can anyone complain about it?” he said of Local Mission Market, the new store selling local food a block away from his food giveaway stand. “Except it’s not for the locals who have been here for years.”Bay Area NewsfarmersFree FarmJesse Meadeneighborhoods

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