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SF Chronicle Article Features Richmond Greenway

Richmond gardening program finds support

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On a warm February afternoon at the Richmond Greenway, the Best Farmers of Lincoln School - Myles, Corina, Jovon, Michael and Raymond - greeted us with big smiles and armloads of turnips they had just harvested.

Their teacher, Park Guthrie, had invited us to visit the Lincoln School Farm, a small step toward the large goal of local food security.

While Guthrie helped the other third-graders plant seeds, Myles and Corina gave us a tour of the handsome raised beds and new trees. "We have chicken poop for minerals," Corina said. "It comes from a farm, and they donate it to us."

"That's called mulch," volunteered Myles. "We spread it around so plants will grow."

The students are growing turnips, mustard greens, onions, fava beans, radishes, strawberries, salad greens, mint and other herbs, potatoes and carrots. "Can we grow corn?" Myles asked Guthrie, having called it his favorite vegetable.

"It's too early for corn," Guthrie replied. "Corn likes it hot. Maybe in April or May. Hopefully, we can run this project during the summer."

The Lincoln School Farm - and neighboring Berryland, with raspberries, native gooseberries, pineapple guava and more - are on what used to be the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe tracks, in Richmond's Iron Triangle.

The Richmond Greenway park opened last spring. According to Ben Gettleman, Western regional director for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the railroad had deeded the land to the city in 1972, but starting the conversion had taken decades.

Rails to Trails wanted to foster community involvement with the new public space, including a Friends of the Greenway group. Gardening does that. "Rail trails, sometimes 100 feet wide, provide good linear space for school and community gardens," Gettleman said. The conservancy contacted Lincoln School Vice Principal Will Plutte, who wanted to expand a small school garden onto the Greenway. "Park Guthrie added a lot of energy, turning modest ideas into really big plans," Gettleman said.

Guthrie calls himself a fanatic backyard gardener. A biology teacher, he realized the possibilities of school gardening on a field trip to Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard. After developing a Community Supported Agriculture project with high school students on Treasure Island, Guthrie saw the Lincoln School project as a piece of two broader efforts: Urban Tilth, which promotes city agriculture, and the Five Percent Local Coalition. "We think producing at least 5 percent of our food supply here in west Contra Costa County would improve the health of the community and create a more sustainable and equitable local culture.

"The whole project is built around the idea that you should be able to grow a pound per square foot of garden bed space," Guthrie continued. "We want to build it out so each kid gets three beds. That could mean 100 pounds of produce per year."

The students at Lincoln have limited access to fresh produce; there's no Berkeley Bowl or farmers' market in this neighborhood.

"We haven't figured out in our food system how to provide equitable access to healthy foods," said Guthrie. But he points to the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II, many of them in schoolyards: "In a time of crisis, schoolchildren have produced a lot of our food."

Although high school students can be too cool to get their hands dirty, Guthrie's third-graders need little persuasion. "They love getting out here," he said. "They're super enthusiastic. Being on the Greenway is different from being on campus."

By now it was time for the second after-school shift. We met the Fantastic Farmers: Antanea, Taleaha, Brianna, Westley, and brothers Abiel and Ottoniel. There's a healthy rivalry between the Bests and the Fantastics. The Fantastic Farmers like corn, too - and carrots, lettuce, cauliflower, strawberries, cherries and peas. Their favorite activity is walking in the trailside creek/swale, seeing chorus frogs or the splashes they make in fleeing. Guthrie provides rubber boots.

It was their day to harvest mustard greens. "They're going to be spicy, Westley," Ottoniel warned his classmate. "Throw them in some soup or something," Guthrie suggested. "You want to rinse them before you eat them."

Brianna handed Ron a bouquet of greens and, journalistic ethics be darned, Ron was thrilled to accept it. They were delicious, barely steamed with garlic, a la Alice Waters.

Guthrie says both the city of Richmond and neighborhood residents have been supportive. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 150 people turned out to build planter boxes and plant trees and native plants. "We haven't had any vandalism out there," Guthrie said, knocking wood. "Some worried that the Greenway would get trashed," Gettleman said. "That hasn't happened."

Other groups are adopting pieces of the Greenway. The Gompers Greenway Brigade from a local continuation high school is planning an orchard. There's going to be a Police Athletic League pumpkin patch, and a Kmhmu Community Garden (the Kmhmu, a Laotian ethnic group, have a strong presence in Richmond). In a place best known for random violence, a sense of community ownership is taking root along with the turnips and carrots.


-- Rails to Trails Conservancy: www.railtrails.org/index.html

-- Urban Tilth: www.urbantilth.org

Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan are freelance nature and garden writers in Berkeley. E-mail them at home@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page G - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle