Since 1994 Green Gulch Farm has welcomed those with an interest in both Zen practice and organic farming to live and work there as farm and garden apprentices. Some of the participants have remained in the community (for example, City Center Tanto/Head of Practice Nancy Petrin first encountered Zen though her apprenticeship) and others have gone on to share their practice and agricultural skills in the wider world. Read more
By Tova Green
Many residents of SFZC’s City Center go up to the roof to get a view of the city, find a quiet place to read, or to work out on the stationary bike. On the roof there are several beehives and a protected area with Suzuki Roshi’s orchids.
These orchids were originally tended by Shunryu Suzuki, who lived at 300 Page Street from 1967, when San Francisco Zen Center acquired the building, until his death in 1971. We don’t know how many orchids there were initially, or how many times they have been divided and repotted over the last five decades but they have lived on the City Center roof all these years. They have been watered twice a month by a succession of Zen student gardeners, and have absorbed nourishment from the water and the moist air.
Each Friday at 9:30am, former Green Gulch Farm apprentice Vanessa Caldarelli and her team of three (Jess Nelson, Kate Sylvan, and Leia Layus) set up a stand at the Mill Valley Farmers Market. They are there on a volunteer basis so that GGF produce remains available to the public.
GGF farmers would normally run the stand, but due to Covid-19 and the need to limit exposure within the community, Vanessa and her team have volunteered to help run things this year. Read more
During these days of imposed restriction, it is easy and natural to lament the loss of the easy freedoms that, just a few months ago, we took as given: the ability to meet with friends, to go to a restaurant or bookstore, to pick up an item or two at the grocery store without having to wait in line to enter. And, perhaps most importantly, to walk down a street without a mask and not instinctively shy away from our neighbors. But in the midst of these very real losses, it is good to recall that there are others who face an even more challenging loss: the loss of food due to unemployment, illness, or poverty.
While there are many heroic organizations in the Bay Area committed to making sure that everyone is fed, we are all called, as individuals or as a community, to do our part.
Sara Tashker, the farm manager at Green Gulch Farm, reports on the efforts undertaken there:
Seven students arrived from Tassajara recently and many of them will be working on the farm this season, bringing our crew up to full size. We also have an active social justice group whose members are focusing on augmenting the farm’s labor to harvest and distribute extra produce.
I have been sowing and planting with an eye toward having a regular supply of extra food to donate to those who need it. For many years now we have been working with the SF-Marin Food Bank. The great thing about the Food Bank is that they do pick-ups, so all we have to do is call and they will send a truck. It is a wonderful partnership and we are looking forward to working with them again this season, knowing there is so much need everywhere.
We have long standing relationships with HaMotzi, a food distribution program at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco and with The Cultural Conservancy’s Native Foodways program, a Native-led nonprofit which distributes fresh, organic food to Native community members in the Bay Area. Every week, we send cooked food to Poor Magazine for distribution.
What a gift it is to be able to produce good food and get it to those who need it.
This is how dana paramita (the perfection of giving) moves through our lives.
The Gift—a leaf of chard, an apple, a potatoâ—is called into being by innumerable causes and conditions
The Givers—the farmers, cooks, truck drivers, volunteers—nurture the gift and deliver it to
The Receivers—those who come with empty hands to bless the gift with their acceptance.
San Francisco Zen Center has opened the gates of teaching and practice to all who come to us. But most of those who receive food from the Green Gulch fields may never have heard of SFZC, may never sit in meditation, may have no interest in or ability to hear a talk, or attend a class. For many of these people, the Dharma is food.
Last week, former Green Gulch Farm apprentice Jack Thomas stopped by City Center to pick up potato chits and lettuce and collard starts gifted by Green Gulch Farm to San Francisco’s Alemany Farm. The hand-off was distinctive to the current circumstances: not entering the building, wearing masks and gloves, and maintaining six feet of distance. Nevertheless, the starts made it to Alemany Farm where they were planted this week and where they will be harvested and delivered free of charge to low-income residents of San Francisco.
Jack lived at Green Gulch Farm over four farming seasons, 2015 – 2019. He was an apprentice, then regular farm staff, and then Assistant Farm Manager. Jack arrived at Green Gulch with no farming experience. He had recently graduated from college and briefly worked in what he described as a soul-crushing sales job.
What he brought to Green Gulch was his own immense suffering, the realization that meditation was one of the only things that seemed to help, a desire to engage in physical work in the company of a team, and a desire to find a community and a livelihood that allowed him to be in alignment with his aspiration to contribute to the healing and well-being of the world.
Asked what he took away from his time at Green Gulch, he laughed and exclaimed, “There is so much!” Among the gifts is a growing ability and readiness to turn towards whatever is arising as opposed to ignoring, minimizing, or numbing himself from present circumstances.
He also points to an ability to take himself more lightly, to laugh at himself. Asked to elaborate, he tells this story:
“I was in the fields cutting lettuce with [Green Gulch Farm Elder] Emila Heller and cut too many of the precious Little Gem lettuces. I instinctually hid my mistake by tucking the extras in a box that was already packed. And Emila, being a hawk, of course found me out! But her only remark to me was, “Jack, you don’t have to hide here.” She essentially told me that I could make mistakes and still be part of the family. That was huge for me. It catalyzed the possibility of accepting my imperfections and mistakes, which opened the door to being in relationship with who I actually am. And that, in turn, gave me more agency in regard to my perceived flaws as to whether to enact them or not. And I watched as some lifelong patterns began to fall away as I could acknowledge them and relate to them.”
Jack further points to having grown in the awareness that we only ever live our lives together and that relationship—as opposed to a feeling of isolation, independence, or the idea that we ever accomplish anything alone—is the whole project. And in the process, he says, ‘I found family, friends and teachers that I will always stay in relationship with.”
“My time at Green Gulch gave me practice. It gave me a language through which to express spiritual longing through forms and sutras. It gave me a lattice onto which I could grow and learn as a young man. And it gave me the precepts.”
In November 2018, Jack received the precepts from Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts who gave him the name Myojun Yasho, which means Wonderous Pure Heart, Midnight Song.
Last year, Jack left Green Gulch with the dual aim of taking his practice outside of the refuge offered by San Francisco Zen Center and engaging more actively in social justice. He lives in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from City Center. Jack continues to farm and is currently the Alemany Farm Assistant Manager and Operations Lead.
Alemany Farm is a 15-year-old non-profit urban agricultural project in Bernal Heights, a historically low income community. The mission of the farm is to grow fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables with and for marginalized communities with the broader goal of sowing the seeds of economic, social, and food justice. To those ends, the farm gives away 100% of the produce grown on site, approximately 25,000 pounds annually.
The farm maintains an open harvest policy, meaning that the gates are always open and food is available to all for picking. In service of promoting food sovereignty, the farm offers gardening workshops at no or low cost and partners with City College to offer green jobs training.
The Alemany model has been that most of the farm work is done by volunteers. During this time of pandemic, in which the farm is not allowed to host volunteers, a skeleton farm crew does most of the work. However, because this experienced crew does not have to teach and host volunteers, production hasn’t diminished.
The crew hopes to be able to deliver approximately 40 pounds of greens per week to the housing project adjacent to the farm. Additionally, Alemany has a new local food partner who is supplementing these offerings with food that a grocery store would otherwise throw away. In response to an explosive interest in home gardening due to the coronavirus, the farm is also hosting online workshops, including one with long-time Green Gulch farmer and gardener Wendy Johnson.
Thanks to Jack’s relationship with Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm has contributed seeds, starts, and potato chits to Alemany. Sweet pea seeds have long since germinated and are now blooming at the property line between Alemany Farm and the adjacent Section 8 housing development. Kentucky Wonder and Scarlet Runner Bean seeds are in the ground. The lettuce and collards will be ready for harvest in under two months. Potatoes are in the ground and will be ready at the summer’s end.
Reflecting on the major threads that form the continuity of farming at Green Gulch and Alemany, Jack points not only to similarities in the operation of the farms and an openness to volunteers and school groups, but to an ethic of being in respectful relationship to the earth, regarding it as a mother who provides what we need to survive and whom we need to reciprocate with in some measure.
“We talk consciously about our relationship to the earth. And we talk openly about how we are in relationship with each other as regards the division of farm labor,” says Jack. Both of these things are reminiscent of farming and practicing at Green Gulch Farm.
Please note that several of these photos were taken pre-pandemic and therefore show people in close contact without protection. We feel it is important to continue to share these photos when they are appropriate to the story being told.
The Green Gulch 2020 farm season is now well under way. Every Wednesday morning, the community walks down to the fields after zazen for communal hoeing. Last week, various work crews joined the farmers to get the third planting of the new season into the ground. Volunteers included Green Gulch Farm Abiding Abbess Fu Schroeder, who showed up wearing boots and the now ubiquitous face mask.
The farm crew is small this year, due to restrictions resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. Fortunately, two new farm apprentices arrived just before the order to shelter in place. They joined four other crew members, Farm Manager Sara Tashker and Farm Elder Emila Heller. Residents from Tassajara are also arriving to help.
The farm is supplying lettuce, arugula, and herbs to the Green Gulch Farm and City Center kitchens. Orders of baby lettuce, herbs, and rhubarb were sold to two Mill Valley restaurants, Watershed and Piatti, which are providing a pick-up and delivery service during the shelter in place. The last of the winter squash went to Jason McKinney, formerly with French Laundry, who cooked and delivered meals to essential workers at Marin General Hospital.Â
Collards, chards, kales, spinach and root vegetables should be ready for harvest in approximately one month. These will go to SFZC kitchens, to supermarkets in Mill Valley and Sausalito, and to the Marin Food Bank. Green Gulch Farm is not planning to sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this year, but will continue to host a stand at the Mill Valley Farmers Market, provided the SFZC Health and Safety Committee does not deem this exposure too great a risk to the community.
Though GGF is committed to providing fresh vegetables to the Muir Beach community, it’s not clear whether the Muir Beach CSA will be happening, due to short staffing.
The small number of apprentices is not the only change for the farm crew this year. Crew check-ins – an important feature of work practice in which apprentices share their personal and practice lives and work on being in right relationship with each other – are now being held on Zoom rather than around the wooden farm table. Morning zazen is no longer in the beautiful old barn-turned-zendo but also happening via Zoom, as are Dharma talks and classes.
In this time when most of our communications and interactions are moving online, practice offers a rich array of new challenges and working with the soil becomes an even greater refuge.
Photos taken by Green Gulch Farm Manager Sarah Tashker.
Apprentice positions are still open in the farm and garden + land stewardship programs at Green Gulch Farm for the 2020 season (April 8 – October 12)! This program is a unique and wonderful opportunity to study the Buddha Way and practice intimately with the land, nourishing self and other.
Saturday, November 11, 2 pm in the Green Gulch Garden
Honoring Yvonne Rand and the Jizo Garden at Green Gulch by Wendy Johnson and Jizo Dedication by Chris Fortin
Saturday, October 14, 1:30 – 3 pm
Please join us at Green Gulch Farm to glean vegetables from the fields that will be donated to local non-profits such as the SF-Marin Food Bank, Poor Magazine, Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy, Zen Hospice, and Martin de Porres in SF.