Brooke Budner could see it out of the window of her apartment at 18th and Guerrero. It was hidden from street view – hemmed in on all sides of apartment buildings. It looked exciting. Abandoned. Alluring, even.
It was, she thought, a really nice patch of dirt.
Two years later, that patch of dirt is, improbably, a working farm. Budner, 29, and her farming partner, Caitlyn Galloway (also 29) grow a salad mixture composed of a different tiny, strong-tasting plants: among them arugula, mustard and fava greens, mache, spinach, tatsoi, pea shoots, fennel, chervil, lemon balm, and thyme.
They are quietly, intensely nerdy about what they do. “Plants are biology and chemistry and ecology,” says Budner. “Every plant has its own needs and desires. I could spend the next five years studying this and still know nothing.” The two make compost with coffee grounds from Faye’s Video (a half block away), and hold up the shade cloth over planting beds with broken bicycle hubs from the Bike Kitchen (five blocks away). Periodically, an enthusiastic neighbor stops by and drops off a bucket of what is rhapsodically described as “the loveliest worm compost.”
As far as local food goes, it’s hard to get shorter than the distance between the greens raised by Little City Gardens and the plates at Bar Tartine: about two blocks. Budner and Galloway chose to grow greens and herbs because they’re a crop that can be grown in a very small space and sold for a good price because they’re fragile and don’t stay fresh for long after they’re picked. Attempts to grow other things on the site, like tomatoes, haven’t worked out.
“It was dismal,” says Budner. “We got them to grow, but it was so pathetic compared to what they’re like just a few miles inland. They need the warm nights to ripen.” At this point, one of the farthest-traveling components of the farm is Budner, who has since moved to the East Bay. She now rides the BART into the city to do the farming.
Community gardens are not uncommon in the Mission. What is uncommon is the notion of trying to make a living growing food in the middle of one of the most expensive cities in the country. The landlord who owns the lot lets the two cultivate it for free. “We try to give him lettuce,” says Galloway, “but he won’t take it. He’s this nice, old-world Greek immigrant whose wife likes to garden.”
Budner and Galloway do share one key thing in common with other farmers in this country: they both have second jobs. Budner continues to work as an illustrator (she first became curious about farming while she was a printmaking student at the Rhode Island School of Design) and Galloway is a painter of wooden signs and hand-gilded apartment numbers (she also studied art, at UC Santa Barbara).
When not at their other jobs, they battle snails. And slugs. “Half of our harvest we just throw into the middle of the path because it’s slug-eaten to hell,” says Budner (It’s later eaten by people who don’t mind asthetically challenged greens – usually Budner and Galloway). And then there are other infestations, mysterious or not: “We never did figure out what those white specks on the plants in one section of the garden were,” says Galloway. “They came and then – fortunately – they didn’t stay.”
Visiting the farm involves going to an inconspicuous garage door, calling Budner or Galloway, and then winding your way through a garage, past cars and bicycles and furniture, until you turn the knob of another, equally inconspicuous door and emerge into a patch of green so hemmed in by the buildings around it that it feels like being in the bottom of a terrarium. Or like any number of children’s books that involve stepping through doorways from one world into another.
It’s the kind of place that attracts pilgrims. Specifically, it attracts fresh-faced women in clogs and thrift-store cardigans, a group of whom arrive mid-interview and stare at Budner and Galloway with thinly disguised adoration. “Are you guys WOOFers?” asks Budner. They shake their heads “no” shyly.
Every world has its acronyms, and WOOFers – volunteers on a network called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – work in exchange for room, board, and the chance to pick up new farming techniques. Budner spent many holidays WOOFing across the United States and, once, Italy. “So many ways to farm,” she says, dreamily. “Biointensive. Biodynamic. Permaculture. No-till.”
The group of visitors turn out to be from British Colombia. They launch into a story about their own efforts to piece together a farm out of the backyards of local volunteers, which spiraled into a nightmare of perpetual transit between sites – turning irrigation off and on, weeding, dealing with pests. “It’s just more time than you ever think to run back and forth and work all these tiny spaces,” one of them says. Budner and Galloway nod knowingly. “So many people want to farm in San Francisco,” says Budner. “There’s a lot of motivation and big ideas. There’s not much space.”
Space is an issue that preoccupies Budner and Galloway. In the winter, a long shadow cast by the apartment building at the southernmost end of the farm turns their usable space from a 50×50 patch of earth to 25×25. It’s been a struggle deliver the agreed-upon 5lbs of greens to Bar Tartine every week.
Getting a bank loan to expand would be impossible, but a week ago Budner and Galloway posted a business plan on a Kickstarter, a Brooklyn-based fundraising website. They asked for $15,000 to buy the shadecloth, irrigation equipment, tools, and time needed to seek out a new site and nearly quadruple their turf. In return, they promised seeds, silkscreened prints, handwritten postcards, and a choice of signs hand-painted by Galloway, including one that says, in flowing cursive script, “Let’s Figure This Out Together.” In seven days, the project has already raised more than $10,000. The garden, so close to the bustle of 18th street, feels secret, but it’s linked to an informal quasi-subterranean network of chefs and other farming enthusiasts that turns out to have a surprisingly wide reach.
Snails still come to eat the greenery, but Budner has begun to, in the French style, eat the enemy. “Put them in a jar of cornmeal for a week, and then cook them,” she says. “They’re actually pretty delicious.”