Growing up on the East Coast, Isaiah Powell, 46, never thought he would be a farmer. Tending his latest project, a pollinator sanctuary and community garden that overlooks the Caltrain tracks underneath Oakdale Avenue, in Dickies coveralls, a rasta hat and holding a machete, he’s eager nowadays to show visitors what he’s working on and drop knowledge on the fruits and vegetables he decides to grow. Working near the railway feels like a family connection; Powell’s uncle was a pullman porter in the 1930s.
“I wanna show you something,” he waves his hand as he leads me to a greenhouse only large enough for two people to stand in. He bends over a white paint bucket and turns it around to reveal blue oyster mushrooms emerging from the sides.
“Blue oyster mushrooms can eat petroleum,” he shouts with a laugh. “And that’s not even a theory, that’s happened in San Francisco.”
“It cleaned up an oil spill,” he said, referring to the 58,000 gallons of fuel that permeated San Francisco’s beaches in 2007.
Powell became enchanted with the science of plants when he started growing cannabis in his Brooklyn closet, where growing anything is more difficult than in California: It’s “more of a thing because of the weather,” he said.
“One time I was leaving Brooklyn for another apartment. I got the truck and I’m moving these plants and the cover blew off. So we just driving through Brooklyn with flowering weed plants in the truck,” he said, recounting the memory with a chuckle. “I got a kick out of that, but in my head I always knew if some shit went down, you better know how to grow food.”
But before he decided to make the move to the West Coast to grow food, he studied film and worked as a paralegal for a major media company for six years. Several layoffs later, he returned to the career center at Columbia University.
“I’m like, ‘what’s going on man?’ Getting through that school was no cakewalk, either. I thought once I got that [degree], at least I can get in the fucking door. I wasn’t asking for the keys to the city, just give me a fair chance to get in the door,” his anger from this moment started to show as he balled his fists up and widened his eyes.
“All that to say? Yeah, man, [farming] is a guarantee.”
Coincidentally, a friend he met in school had a farm in Santa Cruz, which brought him to the Golden State in 2014, where he not only grew cannabis, but fruits and vegetables as well.
“We were growing watermelon, potatoes, cantaloupe, ghost peppers, the best strawberries; growing it and eating it, so I got the taste of it. It was not a fun journey, that farm. It was hard and it taught me that we exploit farmers. I was like, ‘I’ll never go do no manual labor.’ I equated that with demeaning exploitation, which it can be, but that was unwise, because it’s really a source of empowerment and a necessity to keep yourself healthy,” he said.
While volunteering with two other farms located in Bayview, Powell grows his own crops, drilling holes into PVC pipes to water carrots so the water doesn’t evaporate. For his garden on Palou Avenue, he cleared out the fire-damaged brush and revitalized the soil. With zero waste as a priority, he made his own compost in a 55-gallon water drum, where he places leftover stems and leaves to provide a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Establishing a farm in San Francisco in 2022 isn’t a simple feat, especially on top of Caltrain tracks; Powell had to wait for contracts to be signed to acquire the farm in 2020, and had to hand-water plants with a water supply of only 28 gallons. He didn’t get access to city water until March of this year.
“I mean, it was crazy,” he said. “Some vines did die. One fruit tree died. One gallon of water doesn’t do much.” Reflecting on the process of getting the bee sanctuary together, “There were some nightmares, I found that you have to go through a nightmare to get some dreams happening.”
But the hardest thing for Powell was applying and getting funding for his 501c3 nonprofit, Dragon Spunk GRO.
“It was hella involved; I wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “We’re out here [farming] to go home, get out of this,” he says, motioning at his soiled clothes, “sit down on the computer, now get in that mood. Upload every single picture you took. I’m not the social media generation where, ‘Oh I’m gonna take a picture of everything and post it,’ but it’s necessary.”
Spreading the knowledge of growing plants to other people, particularly the youth, to create more farmers is Powell’s goal, especially in the Bayview, where the majority of residents are Black and Brown.
Now Powell teaches gardening and farming to the youth at the Willie Mays Clubhouse of the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco. He wants to leave the youth empowered, the same way he was after working at the Santa Cruz farm, and with something that’s “real and lasting.”
“They say [kids] don’t have the ability to think long-term; they want instant gratification. Gardening really teaches you patience and long-term strategizing. Whenever they are getting well into their high school years or whatever, I’d love to hire them,” he looks under budding sunflowers that shade a row of mustard greens. “You guys grew up with this, let’s take over San Francisco,” he said.
Powell sells microgreens grown at his farm at the Stonestown Farmers Market on Sundays. He hopes to get his produce in local restaurants to educate others about sustainable farming.
“I thank God I stumbled onto this. I’ve never felt more purpose in my life,” he said, arranging microgreens in a black tray.
“This is a school I like,” he said.