Congregants enjoy the dirty work as urban farmers

Linda Rubinstein holds aloft a thick-stemmed, green stalk. Taking a pair of gardening shears, her daughter Jessica, 10, severs it once, then again. A leafy pile grows at their feet as the two continue their labor; the nitrogen-rich garden waste will be added to other fresh organic matter and worked by worms into compost to nourish the ground.

A few feet away, other volunteers cull sugar snap peas from vines. The peas — along with chard, carrots, potatoes and an abundance of other organically grown vegetables harvested from this urban Eden at Gough and Eddy streets — will be given away in San Francisco’s Mission District at the Free Farm Stand, a distribution place where locally grown and gathered food is shared with residents of limited means.

Rubenstein, a member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, is one of many at the Reform synagogue who volunteer to help reap the bounty of produce grown at Free Farm. As part of the congregation’s social justice contingent, Emanu-El in the Garden brings members of all ages together for a lively mitzvah the first Sunday of each month.

Stanley Edwards coordinates Emanu-El’s farm volunteers. photos/rebecca rosen lum

“We place a lot of importance on tikkun olam,” said Michael Amerikaner, 30, a University of San Francisco graduate student and Emanu-El’s young adult program coordinator. “Environment is a big part of that. Also feeding the hungry.”

Congregant Stanley Edwards, the lead volunteer at Free Farm, organizes the congregation’s monthly workday. She also spearheads other efforts such as beekeeping, growing plants for dyes and gathering donations from gated communities where oranges, pears and other fruits fall off trees in profusion, unwanted by their owners.

Only a third of an acre, the Free Farm lot, owned by St. Paulus Lutheran Church, has been yielding a rich bounty since numerous community-based organizations launched the farm in 2010. In its first year alone, the project grew and distributed more than 2,500 pounds of produce, held gardening and urban homesteading workshops, and brought on board a variety of volunteer groups. Last year, the farm yielded more than 3,000 pounds of food.

Seedlings grow in a greenhouse on one end of the lot; bees, butterflies and hummingbirds abound.

“A peregrine falcon lives right over here,” Edwards said, pointing to the bird’s perch.

A “one-nation” flag flies overhead. Free Farm is all about partnerships. School, faith and community groups participate regularly, working the soil or taking classes. In February, in honor of Tu B’Shevat, Emanu-El volunteers teamed up with young professionals at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Moishe House residents to plant several new trees.

Jessica Scheer, 10, prepares materials for compost.

On this sunny March Sunday, Emanu-El members have joined with an interfaith group from United Religions Initiative, a nonprofit organization based at the Presidio that promotes peace and interconnectedness.

High school students Omar Raza, a Muslim, Asay Mohan, a Hindu, and Anna Shepard, a self-described atheist, sit in the dirt laughing and culling ripe peas from a network of green vines while “An Octopus’s Garden in the Shade” plays on Raza’s recorder. “This is perfect gardening music,” he said.

That all work toward a common goal is “what makes this special,” said Thomas Egan, 16. “You get to learn the truth about stereotypes. You hear people’s own stories.”

All comers are welcome, individually or collectively; Edwards asks only that prospective farmers email ahead. With an approximate head count, “we can figure out what jobs need to be done.”

On this day, Jessica’s twin brother, David, gathers bricks that remain from a Lutheran church destroyed by a fire in 1995. They will be used to reinforce terraced steps.

The family last rolled up their sleeves here when the twins’ older sibling, Rachel, was performing tzedakah in preparation for her bat mitzvah. At quitting time, the twins pose arm in arm for a photo holding up a prize spud.

“What’s great is to see young people enjoying doing the farming,” Amerikaner observed. “We live in a world in which we are very removed from the production of our food.

“I ask them, what was the first job in the world? And they say, ‘prostitution.’ I say no, farming. Adam tended the Garden of Eden.”

Visit www.thefreefarm.org for more information. Stanley Edwards can be reached by emailing [email protected]

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.