From Fumes to Fava Beans: San Francisco Freeway Gets a New Life


Q & A With Chris Burley, Cofounder of Hayes Valley Farm

Earlier this year, while speeding down a busy San Francisco street in the passenger seat of a friend’s car, I spotted a bunch of people scurrying around atop a concrete slab. They were moving dirt the hard way – using wheelbarrows and shovels.

The image did not fully compute. I did a double-take, thinking I’d just hallucinated, and interjected a query along the lines of, “Did you see that? Wasn’t that one of the old freeway ramps?” We were in Hayes Valley, one of San Francisco’s more densely populated neighborhoods. Situated west of the Civic Center, the neighborhood was once dominated by a raised freeway structure. But after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake damaged the roadway, the city tore it down. The site I caught a glimpse of, bordered by Octavia, Fell, Oak, and Laguna Streets, was in fact, once a freeway ramp. There are a handful of others like it strewn around the neighborhood.

Said friend and I were deep in conversation so all I got in answer to my question was a vague, “don’t know.” I wanted to stop the car, jump out and investigate but I wasn’t driving so I filed the vision away in the area of my brain reserved for all things food and farming (it’s cavernous and messy in there) and vowed to check it out later.

Well, it’s later now and today Hayes Valley Farm is holding classes and work parties, and operating a fledging nursery that sells dwarf fruit trees especially suited to San Francisco’s chilly climate. The farm is still a ways away from producing food for folks to eat directly because there’s pretty much nothing more DIY than turning a slab of concrete into a farm.

After testing the site for contamination, you have to build enough soil to support plant life. Hayes Valley Farm managers and armies of volunteers started by layering cardboard, mulch, and manure atop ivy and dirt, with the goal of generating two to three feet of organic matter. Cover crops like fava beans and clover were planted to fix nitrogen in the soil and make it fertile enough to support food crops. The concrete slab will house potted plants and trees.

Growing food in the soil is a couple years down the road, but for now the farm functions as sort of a community space, education center, and demonstration garden for neighbors or anyone interested in volunteering and learning to grow food. Classes on garden design, composting, and Permaculture are available regularly. And for those who just want to get their hands dirty, there’s always a work party. Some days over 100 people have shown up to volunteer!

Originally driven by neighborhood residents who had been petitioning the city to do something with the vacant land, the farm is a fiscally sponsored project of the San Francisco Parks Trust. The lot, and others like it, are currently owned by San Francisco’s Build Inc., a development agency. But due to the economic downturn, the lots are not being developed, so the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development organized an alliance of urban farmers, educators, and designers to make up the Hayes Valley Farm Project Team.

Funded by a city grant as an interim use agreement, the farm is currently operated by Chris Burley, one of the original founders of My Farm (a now defunct garden installation business), David Cody a leader of the San Francisco Permaculture Guild, and Jay Rosenberg, volunteer coordinator of the San Francisco Permaculture Guild, and longtime community organizer, volunteer and educator in sustainable agriculture.


I caught up with Chris Burley, the co-founder and co-director of the farm to ask him a few questions about the farm and his and his fellow organizers’ vision for its future.

Q: This is an amazing project because it’s a huge undertaking, yet the city could decide to develop the site in as little as two years. Is that correct? How do you feel about that?

A: There is the imminent possibility of the site being developed sooner than later. I personally believe this site is a huge opportunity and urban agriculture will thrive because of its existence. Despite the inevitable development plans Hayes Valley Farm will steward the site until further notice, all while building soil and building community to its greatest potential.

Q: Water access is always a tough issue. Do you irrigate? If so, where does the water come from?

A: We do irrigate, but we also go through great lengths to SINK water into the ground so we can store it into the ground reservoirs and use it later. The ultimate goal of our efforts is to use none to very little water from the public water system. The more we can sink, the more we can recycle from the plants into the environment and back into the plants to meet our needs.

Q: Can you explain what Permaculture is for a lay audience? And tell how this project fits into a vision of Permaculture.

A: Permaculture is a theoretical and practical framework for how to produce food, build shelter, and approach all other aspects of life in a way that gives back to the planet as much as it takes out. Imagine if we were to give back more than we consumed? Imagine the regeneration, the abundance, and the sheer beauty that would ensue.

Q: Tell me about the potato tower. It’s fascinating. Can you explain how it works to folks who may have never grown potatoes?

A: Potato towers are vertical structures that provide a practical, no-dig, high-yield way for folks to grow and harvest potatoes in limited space. And who doesn’t love potatoes right? Potatoes are a high-calorie crop too, which means they can feed a lot of people while using little of the earth’s resources. In fact, they are also a great way to build soil because as they grow they help break down organic matter in the soil, which makes additional nutrients available for other plants.

Potatoes are tubers, which are storage containers for starches, or plant energy. Tubers aren’t seeds themselves, but they can act as seeds when buried, using their energy to propagate a new plant. So bust out that 5-gallon bucket (or make your own tower), drill plenty of holes in the bottom to ensure great drainage (potatoes hate to be wet), plop a few potatoes on top of 6-inches of compost and cover with another few inches. When the plant reaches 12 inches tall, gently cover the first six inches with compost and then repeat until you have filled the bucket to the brim. When the leaves of potatoes are covered, they turn into roots and form more tubers! Then water them as needed and harvest your bounty when the plants die off and turn brown.

If you want to learn how to make a more productive tower check out our blog for a detailed article on tuberous towers.

Q: Are there other cool ways of growing food in small spaces that you will explore?

A: First, we encourage people to just grow. It’s not rocket science, it just a matter of planting a seed that will produce a future 3-course meal. Second, Check out Sixty-Six things you can grow in containers – everyone can grow, even Ronald McDonald statues.

Q: What is the best possible outcome you can imagine for this project?

A: The best possible outcome would be that Hayes Valley Farm becomes a launching point for regenerative agricultural practices in the city, the region and in the nation. We begin to realize that food production is a source of life, both physically, emotionally and spiritually. As a Japanese master in regenerative agriculture named Masanobu Fukuoka says, “Natural farming is not just for growing crops,” he says, “It is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” When all know the value of our mother earth, and how the caring for their own garden of abundance bears delicious fruit, I will see this project as a great success.

For research on this article I relied on information from this article by Madeline Lynch in San Francisco State University’s online publication, [X]Press

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: Hayes Valley Farm

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.