NOTICE: Please note that The Town Paper is no longer in business.
This website is maintained as a historical archive.

  Home Archives Neighborhoods Search Contact Order Reporting Education outreach.htm  

The Promise of Urban Agriculture

Americans are passionate about gardening and urban agriculture. Why else would we care when Joan Baez climbs into a California redwood tree with Julia "Butterfly" Hill in an attempt to save from development a 14-acre fruit and vegetable garden in south Los Angeles?

The American Community Garden Association roughly estimates the number of community gardens nationally at 18,000. Add to that number the many small-scale farms that line the edges of most urban centers in the United States, and you have an indicator of what makes digging in the dirt so important to us. Urban farms and gardens connect us to each other, teach us, feed and nurture us, beautify our lives -- and even improve our behavior. If buildings are the bones of a city, then gardens are its soul.

Katherine Brown knows firsthand the power of a community garden. Four years ago she was a university professor living in a transitional neighborhood in Omaha, a neighborhood that weathered no fewer than six drive-by shootings in one month. "That was alarming," says Brown. "I stood in my garden and realized what could help. I didn't know how, but I knew that if we transformed some of our vacant lots into food gardens, it would help to re-moralize the neighborhood, get us out of our houses, get us in contact with one another."

She met with neighbors and friends, and began to take over vacant lots and convert them into community gardens. One lot in particular was the site of a drive-by shooting.

"As we transformed each lot, our actions in turn transformed us," says Brown.

Today Brown is the executive director of the 25-year-old Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) in Providence, R.I., a position she's held for the past three years. Funded by federal and foundation grants, produce sales, SCLT memberships and donor contributions, the organization manages 10 community gardens and two urban farms in Providence and the vicinity.

The SCLT's operating strategy is comprehensive and consists of the following: 1. Teaching people how to grow food 2. Locating, securing in trust, and managing land 3. Increasing access to resources, skills and markets 4. Creating spaces where community members share tools, skills and inspiration 5. Modeling replicable and financially viable programs and practices

SCLT's urban agriculture programs contribute to increased health, stronger neighborhoods, micro-enterprise development, and environmental stewardship for thousands of city dwellers, most of them living in some of Rhode Island's most impoverished neighborhoods.

"Our mission is simply to help people grow food," Brown says. SCLT accomplishes this mission through diverse initiatives addressing three community needs: food production, education and entrepreneurship/ self-reliance.

More than 165 community gardeners grow a substantial part of their families' fresh produce needs in SCLT's community gardens in Southside Providence. Many of the gardeners are immigrants who are raising food for large, extended families. As many as 20 community gardeners also supplement their scant incomes by selling some of their harvest of ethnic specialty crops to neighbors, restaurants and small grocery stores. "If these families can save money by growing their own food, they're not only eating well, getting in contact with neighbors and getting exercise, they're also saving their household money," says Brown

SCLT supplies weekly fresh produce for thousands of farmers' market customers at fi ve sites. The organization's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program enables individuals and families to purchase fresh and affordably priced fruits, vegetables, herbs, free-range eggs, meat and other local products all summer. Three acres at Urban Edge Farm (a 50-acre farm located in nearby Cranston, R.I.) supply produce to 60 member families each year. Members pay a subscription fee that is based on income and can be as low as $10 per week over a 20-week season.

SCLT offers educational programs for children, youth and adults in collaboration with numerous community partners and schools through after-school, summer and field trip programs.

The organization also runs a Farm Business Incubator Program based at the Urban Edge Farm, which helps resource-limited farmers overcome language and other barriers, and launch agricultural businesses.

In June, during CNU XIV in Providence, a "Farming on the Urban Fringe" tour focused on SCLT's efforts, introducing attendees to the Urban Edge Farm and City Farm, an organic, 3/4-acre farm within the Providence city limits. The farm, which hand-tills its crops, grew about 60 different crops last year and produced an impressive 3,000 pounds of produce on about 5,000 square feet of land.

Rich Pederson has managed City Farm for three seasons, and says it exists for myriad reasons. "It's trying to demonstrate an efficient, biological, productive means of growing food. It exists as a learning site. It exists because it's green space. My work is to model how to grow food organically in the city, and show other people how to do it."

City Farm has been in operation for about 25 years. It runs a children's program during the summer -- 150 children will participate this year -- and boasts a wealth of volunteers ages 6 to 60.

For Pederson, City Farm is more than an educational effort, although he admits to loving the sight of a child pulling a carrot from the ground and exclaiming, "Oh, my gosh! They don't come from the store!"

"Locally grown food is important because of its freshness and nutrition -- and the fact that it travels about 3 miles from farm to mouth instead of between 1,700 and 2,200 miles. The ecological impact of that speaks for itself," says Pederson. "I also support the idea of having a diverse urban landscape that includes food and food production. Whether it's a city farm, a backyard garden, or something even smaller, it's a place where people can meet, ask questions, learn and be connected to the earth.

"One of our social ills is the fact that we live in a consumptive society that consumes rather than produces. A vibrant community is one that's producing food, art, music ... all the great things that people can produce. Gardens tap into giving people the opportunity to do that."

Brown concurs, adding that local economies also benefit from local farms and gardens.

"Every time I go to my local grocery store, I'm buying delicious food, although it's not as good as the food I'm growing in my garden. But every dollar I spend there is going outside my community. They're dispersing those dollars, but they're not dispersing it with the best interest of Providence in mind. If I continually send my dollars elsewhere, I'm not creating sustainability locally. I'm not against a global economy. I simply want to nurture the local economy simultaneously."

In Columbus, Ohio, between 60 and 70 active community gardens complement the urban environment, says Bill Dawson, director of the Growing to Green (community gardens) program at the Franklin Park Conservatory, at which the American Community Gardening Association is based.

"There's a multigenerational effect that happens in a garden," says Dawson. "Kids bring their newly acquired knowledge of recycling to the garden. We have seniors who love to tell us how they used to do things. Then there's us in the middle, the convenience generation. Now that community gardens are appearing in neighborhoods, we're seeing the generations come together again. This used to be a necessity; now it's happening again. It's bringing families and neighbors together, too. Sometimes people have lived across the street from each other for decades and never met each other. Then a garden appears, and they begin sharing stories and recipes with each other."

A youth from the therapeutic recreation program plants a marigold seedling
in the accessible beds at the Franklin Park Demonstration Garden in Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by Bill Dawson.

There are hundreds of stories associated with the gardens in Columbus, stories of youth entrepreneurship to senior gardens to gardens that accommodate physically or mentally challenged gardeners, providing them the opportunity to garden where none existed before. There's even an inner-city garden that is managed by the Franklin County Juvenile Court System, where juvenile offenders work to give back to the community. "They've transformed that area," says Dawson.

Gardening as a crime-deterrent is a theme that repeats here in Columbus, too. "At times, we've had to almost physically remove criminal activity from vacant lots in order to install gardens," says Dawson. "Once they're installed, though, the criminal element really doesn't want to do its business in a beautiful place. People respect a beautiful place. Even people who don't garden love them because of what they do for a community. The non-gardeners watching the gardens for activity that doesn't belong. They go to the garden to read to their children. They respect it."

Those neighbors' watchful eyes allow some of the gardeners to realize tangible -- sometimes profi table -- results. In one garden, fourth-graders grow nothing but basil for local restaurants. One dollar will get you one bag of basil.

"Some folks sell to restaurants, some sell to farmers' markets," says Dawson. "They're supplementing their incomes while providing fresh, local produce."

On a site once slated for a future civic building, a community garden is maturing nicely in Clark's Grove, a TND in Covington, Ga. Randy Vinson, project manager for Clark's Grove, conceived the garden because of a common feature of most TNDs: smaller lots.

"In most cases, traditional neighborhoods offer smaller-than-usual lot sizes," says Vinson. "So the house footprint is actually taking up most of the lot. If there is any significant ground left over, because the houses are closer together and often two stories, the amount of sunlight that reaches that smaller patch of ground is fairly minimal. So we felt it would be important to offer space with a garden plot that would be in full sun. For someone who's always had a garden and is looking to downsize, it wouldn't be a dealbreaker to live here. The garden would be an attractive way to offer that ability."

The community garden in Clark’s Grove, S.C., offers a variety of plot sizes for residents.
Photo by Sara Vinson.

The Clark's Grove community garden, managed by Sara Vinson (Randy's wife), allows residents to sign up for individual garden plots during the summer and winter growing seasons. The garden offers six 7-by-21-foot plots, nine 7-by-7-foot plots, and one 14-by-21-foot plot. A community garden shed is stocked with garden tools for the residents' use. Sara keeps a notebook handy for the gardeners, packed with fertilizing and pest management information, as well as suggested planting dates and tips on how to garden organically.

Now in its fourth year, the garden is one of the most popular amenities in the neighborhood. The Montessori School of Covington moved to a site bordering the garden in August 2005; Sara, who teaches at the school, takes her middle school class (grades 7 - 8) there, where they grow broccoli, garlic, onions and more. "They try a lot of vegetables that they don't like to eat at home. We have a cooking class, too, so they're able to cook vegetables at school," she says. Another teacher will be hired soon to teach a class right in the garden itself.

For Sara, the garden is integral to the community at Clark's Grove. "I think it's another form of a 'front porch,' another place where people can meet casually, in a natural way. People will be out there gardening; others will stop by and talk. It's a great conversation-starter. One resident tells me every time I see him how thankful he is to have the garden because he's not the type to sit around a pool. He likes to come home, put on his work clothes, and get his hands in the dirt."

But what of the possibility that the originally planned civic building will one day replace the community garden? "I think the garden will become so popular that there would be an uproar if we put a community building there," says Randy. "I think this serves a great function."

Not all communities that incorporate an urban agriculture component meet with stunning success out of the starting gate. At the conservation community of Fields of St. Croix in Lake Elmo, Minn., developer Robert Engstrom of Minneapolis-based Robert Engstrom Companies took land originally zoned for 10-acre lots and clustered 115 units (instead of 24) on 241 acres, preserving about 60 percent of the total acreage as permanent open space.

Part of that open space was designated as agricultural land tended by Natural Harvest, an organic farm that got its start in 1997, using existing buildings on the site. Engstrom furnished the land, a residence for the farmers, a tractor and other equipment, and paid for the taxes and insurance associated with the venture. But despite good intentions and hard work on the part of the farmers, the effort never paid for itself.

"After eight years of subsidy, I decided maybe it was time to change direction," says Engstrom, who shut down the farm in 2005. "We went through three sets of farmers and they were all hard-working, but farmers want to own their own land, control their own destiny more. It gives them more flexibility for raising animals and specialty crops, for example."

For Engstrom, the story of Fields of St. Croix isn't wholly a discouraging one; rather, it's a story of changing circumstances. "During the time the farm was in operation it provided a sense of vitality and uniqueness for the neighborhood. Prospective lot buyers and home buyers could sense this. It was a good marketing arrangement," he says.

"But when I started this in 1997, the idea of a mesclun salad mix was unknown to most people. Now you can go into the Lunds (a regional grocery chain) in our neighborhood and they have a sign up saying '162 organic items today.' So there's competition. Some of the uniqueness we had in 1997 is no longer there. Granted, there's nothing like produce grown locally and picked up in the morning, but nevertheless, it's competition. So after eight years, I decided it was time to change direction."

Engstrom's faith in the concept of urban agriculture remains unshaken. And Fields of St. Croix will retain its rural appeal, since, for the foreseeable future, Engstrom himself will manage the permanently conserved agricultural land on the site, rotating corn and soybeans as crops. He also donated 6.75 acres of land in the neighborhood to the Landscape Plant Development Center, a local tree/shrub development effort directed by a former horticulture professor from the University of Minnesota.

And he has another project is in the works, one that will have "an organic component," says Engstrom. "It will be positioned differently -- not a full-fledged CSA, but it could produce free-range chickens, etc., something that has definite value in the marketplace."

Urban environments can be quite removed from nature, the very thing that feeds us. For SCLT's Katherine Brown, that's a dangerous place for humans to be, and reason enough to incorporate urban agriculture efforts on a scale appropriate to each level of urban environment.

"One way to hook people back into the recognition of a partnership with nature is to grow food," she says. "Suddenly it becomes important if it has rained or not. It becomes important if a garden is exposed to contaminants. You'll think about what's wrong with that, in a way you might not notice unless you had some stake in it. In that way, urban farms and gardens can link us to that wonderful awareness of the interconnection between ourselves and nature."