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Down on the farm — in San Francisco

By Katherine Seligman
He is a farmer without a single piece of farm machinery, without overalls, without even a back yard.

"I like the fact that I'm a San Francisco farmer," said Robert MacKimmie, as he tended one of the 23 bee hives that people "host" for him in their back yards.

A farmer in San Francisco? If it seems as unusual as arugula in Kansas, consider this: More than $2 million in commercial crops was harvested in San Francisco last year.

The unsensational but steady number represents a world not often glimpsed by most harried city dwellers — wheat grass farmed in the Mission District by a self-described "wheat grass messenger," orchids on a Bayview hillside, designer lettuce in an industrial park and honey harvested in practically every neighborhood, more than a ton of it this year by MacKimmie.

At a time when the state's farmland is shrinking, urban farms have carved a niche. The federal Census of Agriculture even found that farm land in San Francisco tripled from 1992 to 1997, a fact city agriculture officials would like to, but find hard to, believe.

"I don't know where they get their figures from," said Jay Seslowe, deputy agriculture inspector in San Francisco, who knows the plots of soil that can qualify as cropland and maintains they've remained fairly constant. "There have been no big increases. If you had land in San Francisco, you'd make more money if you built lofts instead of grew lettuce. Of course we'd like to see more growing."

If the federal figures are true, it would mean that San Francisco farmland grew to a modest 21 acres over the five years, up from 7 acres. That's still dainty compared to the more than 27 million acres being farmed statewide — an acreage that slipped 4.4 percent from 1992 to 1997.

Also due to the daintiness of City farms, don't look for John Deere tractors parked outside, hay bales, horses or other farming accouterments. More likely to be seen are farms like the garden lovingly tended by Eva Moen, proprietor of Wheat Grass Farm and Depot on 15th Street.

Her 75- by 45-foot back yard is a burst of primary colors, a bright red patio jammed with white shelves of sprouting green wheat. Moen, 59, takes care of the planting, watering and marketing of 350 flats a week of the green sprouts.

Much of her business comes from regulars who stop by her juice bar for a cup of the pulpy chlorophyll-rich potion and a chaser of "Rejuvelac," a fermented wheat juice said to aid digestion.

"Everything that's in the soil is in the wheat grass juice," said Moen, who subsists solely on it until supper each night.

Though she has run a rental agency, an appliance repair business and a home repair company, her own roots aren't far from wheat. She was born on a wheat farm in Norway. Years later, suffering from alcoholism, she said, she discovered that wheat grass helped conquer her addiction.

Her business, which opened in 1994, has as much to do with educating people about the health properties of wheat grass as it does about business.

In this educational aspect of farming, she is not alone. Most of San Francisco's farmland is run or sponsored by either the Garden Project or the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which aim to connect people more closely to the land and to teach responsibility rather than to bring in big bucks.

"Seeing what it takes to grow food is really critical," said Kathi Colen, director of urban agriculture for SLUG. "It gives you more respect for what you eat. It fits into community health issues both physically and spiritually."

SLUG works with community gardens near public housing projects in Hunters Point, Sunnydale and off Alemany Boulevard. Volunteers tend crops of corn, collard greens, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and peppers, then distribute produce to the community.

Ex-cons befriend seniors

The Garden Project employs recently released inmates from the County Jail to work its half-acre garden on Carroll Avenue. It is there, over the beets, garlic, potatoes and lettuce, that ex-offenders have met and befriended seniors, who come to pick up fresh produce.

"It's a teaching place," said director Catherine Sneed. "Young men who have preyed on seniors have said that by giving them vegetables, they've learned not to prey on them. They see them as human beings."

Aside from being an object lesson, veggies from the Garden Project also end up at the Ferry Plaza farmers market and in salads devoured by foodies at Chez Panisse and Hayes Street Grill.

Kim Nguyen also sells her crop — orchids — at the farmers market. Nguyen, who grew up in Vietnam watching her mother tend the delicate flowers, raises 20 to 30 different varieties in a greenhouse behind her Bayview home.

"I've always loved orchids," she said. "When I don't see something green, like flowers inside a house, I don't feel happy."

Nguyen gave up restaurant work about five years ago, she said, to devote herself to the orchid business. Though the wind howls outside her hillside home, the orchids fare well inside the greenhouse, oblivious to the outside climate.

The City's damp climate largely dictates what will grow and what won't. And it's the diversity of climate — the many microclimates in this city — that has added the distinctive bouquets, tastes and textures to beekeeper MacKimmie's product.

"The honey from Pacific Heights is buttery and creamy," he said. "I can't quite figure out what it is. McLaren Park is cinnamony. It even changes throughout the season."

On borrowed land

MacKimmie, who is a high-tech recruiter working from his Pacific Heights home when he's not in his beekeeping veil, tends hives in nine locations, including Noe Valley, Cole Valley and the Castro District. Like many San Franciscans, he has no back yard, so he has to improvise by using other people's.

"When I'm at social events I say I'm a high-tech recruiter and I also keep bees," said MacKimmie, who soon will begin selling to stores under the label City Bees. "They're such an interesting thing that no one wants to talk high tech. They all want to talk about bees. Some of my best sites are coming from parties."

A self-taught beekeeper, MacKimmie works without gloves as he takes the wooden hives apart to check on bee health and productivity. On one recent afternoon, he pointed out a queen bee he'd marked with green paint at a hive in Cole Valley.

With the bees collectively buzzing at a low roar, he smacked a honeycombed shelf against the hive to remove a few thousand of them while his visitors cowered.

"This wouldn't be unique at all in Iowa," he said, as he checked the hive for crowding, a warning that the hive residents may be creating a new queen and planning to split for new digs.

Beekeeping is not technically considered a farming activity in the federal census, but the state Department of Food and Agriculture keeps track of "certified producers" who sell at farmers markets. The department, which has issued licenses for five years, lists 4,000 such producers now who sell to 300 markets.

Many of those are in urban areas, said Jim Tippett, a state statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Indeed, he suspects the small producers help account for the growth of farming in urban areas.

"In Fresno, for example, there are 700 Hmong farmers who are growing strawberries on a few acres," he said. "I don't think you had that 10 years ago."

Pressure from development

Small producers are listed in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Berkeley. In those communities, as in San Francisco and the state as a whole, they face pressure from spreading development.

Colen from SLUG believes there is a future in tiny urban gardens and farms because consumers value produce tended by hand.

"Urban agriculture is on the upswing," she said. "The higher the profile of food projects, the better off we'll be. It gives you more respect for what you eat."