Thursday, September 29, 2011

Notes on 'Our Food, Our Schoolyards, Our Water'

On Monday the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA) co-hosted a forum for the San Francisco Mayoral Candidates on the topic of 'Our Food, Our Schoolyards, Our Water'. Four candidates attended, and answered questions from a crowd of about one hundred advocates for urban agriculture,water conservation and the environment. Many interesting ideas were floated, both by the crowd and by candidates, on the topics, and after the formal event lively discussions ensued on the floor. I've summarized some of the ideas that stood out for me below, and you can find the candidates' answers to the SFUAA survey here.
[View of San Francisco's Alemany Farm, photo via Nelson Minar's Photostream]

The overwhelming theme to the questions about urban ag was access to land, and to equipment. One question suggested the formation of Urban Ag Resource Centers within neighborhoods, where residents could borrow tools, get access to compost from the curbside composting program, and presumably swap tips as well. Another question challenged the candidates to create twelve new community gardens by the end of 2012. Candidates were queried on their support of the Green Schoolyard Alliance, and edible school gardens. Audience members suggested incentives for roof-top gardens to increase access to gardening, use of underused public and private lands (including Rec and Park Lands), and challenged to candidates to support The Free Farm, which not only provides a source of nutritious food to the community but also builds a social support network among volunteers and customers. Several questions also related to water conservation, and alternative sources of water for gardening, including supporting grey water systems.

Candidate Chiu made reference to an issue common to all urban landscapes - availability of construction funds, but no operations fund, which means it's easy to build but then an ongoing challenge to maintain the landscapes. Candidate Baum suggested that rooftop gardens might be incentivized by assessing the amount of storm water diverted from S.F.'s combined storm/sewer system, and refunding the amount of water not treated because of the garden. Candidates also suggested that (if elected) they would survey open lands to identify suitable plots for urban ag, or form Urban Ag Departments to work with district supervisors.

[Mayoral candidates answer questions, photo via Steve Rhodes Photostream]

One thing that was not always clear was what audience members meant by urban ag/farming, as it seemed to be used interchangeably for both community gardens (land subdivided for use by multiple individual gardeners) and for larger, more singular farms like Hayes Valley Farm or Alemany Farm. This is an important distinction in planning for urban ag systems. Community gardens can be located on small, or odd-shaped parcels, since the land is further subdivided and individual gardeners can tolerate more unusual conditions - like the 3:1 slope at the back of my own plot in Argonne Garden. For small farms, with farmers making a living off the land, there are some basic principles of efficiency that would come into play when choosing suitable land, including size, dimensions, access to full sun during the day and slope. It's my feeling that both types of growing are essential to a holistic urban ag plan.

Congratulations to the SFUAA and their partners for organizing the event - great civic participation and lots of food for thought!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

City Forage Wine

I love learning by doing. It's the best way for me to understand the complexity of any activity. This is part of why I grow my own veggies and herbs in a community garden plot. It's not the same as farming, by any stretch of the imagination, but it grounds my thinking about farming in a reality. So I was excited to take part in making a true city wine over the past year. A friend has a cherry plum tree in his backyard (for SF folks, it's in the foggy Richmond district), and usually lets the birds claim the harvest. But last year there were other plans for the fruit. An hour's labor gleaned two paper shopping bags full to the brim with cherry plums (about 3.5 pounds). To these were added two pounds of cherries (store bought) and a pound of blackberries gleaned from the Presidio (a large urban park/wilds in San Francisco), along with yeast, sugar and water. A year later we have two cases of what we call 'Captain's Red', a dry, light, almost rose, very drinkable (if a little acidic) wine made largely from the neglected fruits of the city.

If you've ever tried home winemaking, you'll know I'm leaving a lot out about the process. This is mostly because I was the assistant winemaker, or more accurately, an bystander observing, once we got past the harvest part. But its also because, from an urban ag perspective, the big lesson was not about the winemaking process, but about how so little (mostly one tree, on one day's harvest) can make so much. With that knowledge I see the city landscape a little differently now.
[Fermentation bubbles - for a couple months it bubbled like crazy]
[Cleaned, recycled wine bottles drying in the window on bottling day]
[Bottling the wine - the carboy is just out of frame to the left]

[Corking the bottles with a corking device, rented from Brewcraft on Clement St]
[The finished product, ready for a label, and for drinking at bottling day lunch]

The wine recipe came from Making Wild Wines and Meads by Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling, advice and equipment from Brewcraft, and the talented winemaker credit goes to Michel Fuller.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Landscape Approach - systems thinking and agriculture

[Irrigation canal in California's Central Valley]

At World Water Week in Stockholm last week, a 'landscape' approach to agriculture was touted as the solution to growing environmental problems caused by large scale industrial farming. And while no one referred directly to the field of landscape architecture, the correlations in approach were apparent. Advocating
"‘agroecosystems’, meaning systems ... planning for food production and other land uses(that) is integrated into a broader plan – one that ensures clean water, clean air and biodiversity for the long term"

experts at the conference  nailed a clear description of how landscape architects work and think.
[Field irrigation, images via Wikipedia (top) and Irrigation Museum (bottom)
Noting that agriculture accounts for 70-90% of water use in some regions, speakers called for action to avert disaster as some agricultural areas (including the Western U.S) use water faster than it can be replenished. Specific strategies mentioned included alliances between sustainable farming advocates and conservation managers that "blur the lines between sustainable farming and natural resource protection" and studies that "found ... efforts to preserve wetlands by excluding agriculture can actually increase the rate of destruction of the eco-system".

Understanding and working within complex, dynamic, land-based systems are a foundation of landscape architecture practice, and the potential for LAs to be part of the dialogue of solutions is immense. Read more about the conference at Eco-Business.