An hour south of San Francisco along Highway 1, past fields of artichokes and cliffs dotted with pampas grass, a triangular piece of land rises from the coastal plateau into the densely forested hills above. Fourteen acres of meadow and woods house an old, not-yet-livable home and a few other ramshackle buildings dating back to the 1860s. There’s also a yurt.
In mid-September, I stood in a field that, if viewed from above, would resemble a beautifully striped rug. Every row is planted with a different crop: sunflowers and strawberries and squash, then pumpkins, beans, corn, and wheat. These are interspersed with rows of apple trees, followed by hedges of berries—blackberries and raspberries that under the fall sun are warm to the touch but burst coolly in your mouth. I’m so absorbed in finding the quintessential perfectly ripe berry that I forget who I’m with until a glance upward through the brambles reveals several sets of eyes, and I’m bombarded with waves of ridiculing laughter. High schoolers from San Francisco’s Mission District. I pop that precious berry into my mouth, and then I’m joined by Karen Heisler, whose teeth and hands are as stained as mine from our foraging.
This berry-tasting has a purpose: we’re testing berries that will be used as pie fillings for Mission Pie, the café Heisler recently opened in San Francisco’s Mission district. Heisler’s vision is unique—Mission Pie is intended to link the urban community to this plot of farmland. Heisler, clad in a red workshirt, jeans, and a straw cowboy hat, will gladly give you a tour if you’re brave enough to venture up the long dirt road that leads to the sloping field. If you time your visit right, you might catch Nancy Vail or Jarred Lawson. The couple—along with their two young children—live in the yurt, and it is they who tend the field of diverse crops. They farm, keep bees, tend chickens, host visitors, and generally hold down the fort. Along with Heisler, they’re cofounders of Pie Ranch, the rural outpost of urban renewal.
Though these projects are recent (Pie Ranch hosted its first student group in 2005, and Mission Pie opened its doors in early January), they’ve been a long time in the making for Heisler, a San Francisco native and an active member of the Bay Area’s sustainable agriculture and social justice communities for decades. Earlier, Heisler divided her time between projects with the EPA’s Agricultural Team and other voluntary positions related to community food security projects. But she hungered to create a more personal and visible change in her community. Inspired by her growing concern for food security and justice issues—problems dealt with globally these days, as agriculture grows increasingly industrialized—Karen wanted to bridge the gap between food production and consumption, a gap we’ve grown so accustomed to that we hardly notice it anymore.
Heisler wanted to reconnect people with the stories they’re not hearing: the stories of people who grow our food as well as the stories of the communities who eat it. The aim is to rekindle a reverence for place, to reclaim responsibility and esteem for our lives, one pie slice at a time. It’s a gift she’s giving, arms outstretched, to the next generation: a genuine connection.
Heisler says the name springs from its geologic fate; it’s a piece of land shaped like a pie slice, amenable to the growing of berries and wheat. “When you’re dealt something that delicious, you have to go with it,” Heisler says with a smile. Pie Ranch is a working farm that teaches visiting students nutrition, the basics of agriculture, and cooking. And it serves them pie.
The kids who visit Pie Ranch, like your average kid, are picky. At lunch on the day I visited, for every “mmm” that I heard uttered at the picnic table, there was also the vehemently declared “yuck!” or “sick!” One boy told me he’d never eaten raw vegetables before; he poked suspiciously at his salad but later consumed it with gusto. The girl next to him was sneaking cheesy Doritos chips from a bag under the table. The orange dust on her fingertips looked radioactive compared to the homemade chili, cornbread, and salad on the untouched plate before her.
Preferences take time to develop, but change, when it happens, can be instantaneous. “I’m continually amazed by the kids,” Heisler says. “Their experiences, everything they have to say is so revelatory.” After a few visits to the farm, one boy told Karen that he “doesn’t eat McDonald’s anymore.” “What do you do when your friends go there after school?” she asked.
“I sit and watch them,” he replied, “but I will NOT eat that stuff.”
With help from with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), Pie Ranch was acquired in 1981—saving it from future development—and held until Heisler, Vail, and Lawson took over its mission and management a few years ago. They’re now negotiating, under POST’s guidance, the purchase of a swath of adjacent land. Buying historic Green Oaks Ranch would allow Pie Ranch to expand its programming to serve many more students and expand collaboration with other food advocacy organizations.
The current program has been wildly successful, despite space and budgetary constraints. Heisler arranged a partnership with San Francisco’s Mission High School. Instead of opening the farm to numerous groups who would visit only once, Pie Ranch sees the same students, who arrive in rented vans funded out-of-pocket by their teachers. The group, currently from English Language Learner classes at Mission High, is deeply involved through the seasons. They help plant crops, then return once or twice a month to weed and witness as the plants sprout, mature, and become ready to harvest. By returning to a familiar place every few weeks, the kids develop a fondness for the land that only comes over time. A supporter of the Slow Food movement, Heisler and her collaborators seem to have hit upon something unique: the Slow Fieldtrip.
The relationship that connects urban dwellers to their rural areas can be difficult to create, Heisler admits. She remembers offering the farm to her first student visitors as a place to bring their families, a place they should feel belongs to them. Her grand vision was shattered when one boy said, not unkindly, that his family didn’t have access to a car and couldn’t make it all the way down to Pie Ranch. Heisler mulled this over for a time; most of the families lack the means to get to the farm. All right, Heisler thought—she’d bring the farm to them. With that one boy’s comment as a catylyst, Mission Pie was born.
The café’s creation did not come without sacrifice. Two years ago Heisler sold her Noe Valley/Glen Park home. With that money, she purchased the historic Victorian on the corner of Mission and 25th. Since then, she and her partner Marc Tognotti have restored the property, transforming a decrepit looking structure into a subtle, classy version of the original. Just as in days past when shop owners occupied the upper floors, Heisler, Marc, and her college-age daughter Jessie live on the third floor of the building, rent out the second floor as apartments, and sell pies at ground level. With Mission Pie, Karen is “bringing the mountain to Mohammad.” By opening the café in the heart of the Mission District, by decorating the café’s walls with photographs of members of the Mission community at work on Pie Ranch, she hopes to foster a genuine connection to the farmland and a more profound understanding of the place where good food is grown. The standards she upholds on the farm—organic, sustainable—she upholds in the café as well. Its counters and tables are made of recycled material purchased from Berkeley’s Ecohome Improvement. TaylorMaid Farms, a progressive coffee roastery in Sebastapol, provides the java. “This is all about the stories,” Heisler reminds me. “It’s about the stories of the people who provide the food, and the stories of the community that eats it.”
Mission Pie isn’t based on traditional growth models. It’s the relationships that count. Instead of focusing on economic success—a success that would build only individual wealth—Heisler is concerned with creating connections to bring wealth to the entire community. By collaborating with local organizations (La Cocina for one, a nonprofit kitchen entrepreneurship mentoring program), by hiring and training Mission High students to work in the café, and by hosting events about the farm and the Mission District, Mission Pie helps sustain and empower the community. “Our magic is going to be in whether we can thrive without volume-based income, and instead with the support of the relationship-based economies that we are in turn supportive of,” Heisler says.
Fast forward to early January. I’m sitting on what was a church pew and is now a bench that stretches the length of the café. It’s Mission Pie’s informal grand opening, and it’s early—7:45 in the morning. The place is bustling. A customer orders a coffee at the counter while Heisler, on a ladder with arms outstretched, hangs a light fixture she bought for the café nearly two years ago: it resembles a glowing raspberry. Fixture successfully installed, Heisler beams down at the scene below. After taking a bite of my scone and receiving a radiant grin from Karen, I realize the story has just begun.
Stop in at 25th and Mission to enjoy a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Heisler is in the house weekday mornings and would love to whip you up an espresso drink. To get involved, visit www.pieranch.org.