SAN FRANCISCO – There was one common reaction when the Rev. Megan Rohrer said she wanted to start a farm in a weedy, glass-strewn vacant lot a few blocks from the Civic Center.
"People told me I was crazy," Rohrer said. "They said it was the wrong kind of space, you'll never be able to weed it, no one will come to work on it."
Yet the Free Farm will celebrate its first anniversary today, a year in which it grew and gave away more than 2,500 pounds of vegetables, making it the most bountiful of six gardens planted on Lutheran church-owned space in the Bay Area.
In an age when farmers markets are sprouting in every urban California neighborhood, the Free Farm is an unusual tale of success. Its "Hecka Local" brand produce, from tomatoes and zucchini to dwarf kale, pineapple sage and watermelon radishes, is prize-worthy, but is tended by volunteers and donated, no questions asked, to anyone who wants it.
"We want to provide an example of how to live based on generosity and sharing, instead of everything being seen as a profit," said a farm manager, who calls himself Tree.
He is joined Wednesdays and Saturdays by a dozen or more willing workers who mulch, shovel, weed and eat a communal vegan lunch. The volunteers come from all corners. There are students, teachers, members of a local temple, gardening mavens, food justice activists, the unemployed and people who describe themselves as living off the economic grid.
"We have eatings instead of meetings," said volunteer Pancho Ramos, as he sat with a bowl of bean stew and rice at the farm one day recently.
Ramos, who says he lives "without traditional currency," has watched the lemon and fig trees start to bear fruit and neighbors come by to get vegetables, surprised to find they are free.
"One woman took some zucchini and came back an hour later with empanadas," he said. "That's what a church should be."
Rohrer, executive director of Welcome, a faith-based nonprofit that works on poverty issues, saw the farm as a way to bring quality produce to inner-city residents. She had worked with the chronically homeless for about a decade and saw them struggling not only to keep housing, but also to afford good fresh food.
"The city wanted community gardens, but there was all this red tape," she said. "Everything was taking years, so I started talking to different Lutheran pastors about getting space."
One of the available spots was the lot on Gough Street, one-third of an acre that had had been unoccupied since a fire destroyed St. Paulus Church in 1995. Like much of the city, it sat in close proximity to wealth and poverty, blocks from the ornate Opera House, expensive condos and public housing.
Rohrer, who grew up in South Dakota, knew backyard gardens and had learned community organizing, but she turned to local experts for farming help. Tree and Lauren Anderson, founder of Produce to the People, which harvests food from backyards and community gardens, joined her.
Together with volunteers they built a ramp from recycled Christmas trees. They scrounged for old pallets, buckets, concrete and hardware. They fertilized the sandy soil and built a labyrinth with bricks salvaged from the burned church.
Today's scheduled celebration includes a greenhouse-raising. Tree hopes to use the structure for seedlings to plant and give away.
"I want to inspire people to pay attention to where food comes from," he said.
The Free Farm continues the work he's done since the 1970s, when he first started gardening and planting avocado trees in the Mission District. He took his name because of his connection to trees, he said, but prefers not to talk about himself. ("It's not about me. It's about the work we can do," he says.)
He started the Free Food Stand in the Mission District in 2008 to give away vegetables from community gardens and surplus collected from other farmers markets. The stand, which has given away more than 12,000 pounds of produce in the past two years, now also gets vegetables from the Free Farm. "Hecka Local" always goes first.