Growing Food and Community in a Rebounding Midwestern Town

How Hamilton Urban Garden Systems, or HUGS, brought a network of gardens to a small rustbelt town.


On a recent summer afternoon, Patty Burbacher, a small, light-haired woman, gave a tour of the two-acre lot in Hamilton, Ohio, filled with raised beds brimming with hot peppers, herbs, tomatoes, and a variety of other produce. Corn grew in tall rows, and squash vines mounded up. Burbacher showed off some handsome ripening eggplants.

All summer long, Burbacher and her husband, Alfred Hall, weed, water, and harvest vegetables. The lot is sandwiched between two sets of apartment buildings in the Riverview neighborhood. Though Burbacher and Hall started building all-organic community gardens seven years ago, this garden, on Front Street, is only a year old.

Hamilton is a 62,000-person town north of Cincinnati with a familiar history for those who live in or frequent the Midwest: industry made it a successful and thriving city for the first half of the 20th Century, but the closing of a paper mill and other factories in the area created economic hardships for many residents. While some growth has occurred in the past decades, challenges remain. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Hamilton was 22.5 percent in 2014, and only 15 percent of the adults over 25 have a college degree. As you might imagine, fresh affordable food is not exactly easy to find.

In order to address that need, Hall and Burbacher formed the Hamilton Urban Garden Systems (HUGS) as Hamilton residents were starting to focus revitalization efforts on the downtown area, neighborhoods, public parks, and local food access.

While many urban gardening initiatives are localized to a block or a particular group, Burbacher and Hall shaped the organization to meet the broad needs of a multitude of Hamilton residents. In addition to running a central garden with HUGS volunteers, the nonprofit has installed gardens in various other places around town, including a rooftop garden at a business and a small garden in a local park, for people not affiliated with HUGS to subsequently take over and maintain.

The Front Street garden, HUGS’ current central location, is situated in a lot they call the “Field of Hope,” in a neighborhood with very few grocery stores. “This is the right place for it,” Hall explains.

Throughout the year, 30 to 40 people from various groups volunteer at the garden, including a fair number of teenagers working on public service hours or in outreach programs. Most days there are around three to four people working in the garden. Over a 22-week season, HUGS produces about 2,000 pounds of food. While they give away about 25 percent of it, they also sell at two local farmers’ markets and online, through a vegetable-delivery service. Then they use their earnings to help support the garden.hugs-community

Hamilton Meets Urban Gardening

In small cities in a part of the country both dependent on industrial-scale agriculture and culturally reliant on non-local foods, it can sometimes take time for urban agriculture to catch on. In Hamilton, the couple find children from the nearby apartment complexes are sometimes baffled by the vegetables, because they may not have seen food grown before.

As a result, HUGS puts a lot of energy into raising consciousness about local food systems. “When we first came here,” Burbacher says, “People looked at us like we were crazy—[they said,] ‘Who needs organic food?’”

The nonprofit’s ability to sell the community on its mission has very real implications when it comes to funding. While a local community development grant funded much of the garden infrastructure, including a fence, raised bed boxes, and a water line, the total grant was less than a third of what HUGS requested, requiring them to create a budget.

When you’re starting an organic urban garden in a small, economically depressed city, you do have some factors working in your favor, however. In Hamilton, finding ample space was simply a matter of figuring out the best location, not trying desperately to afford the cost. The owner of the Field of Hope supported the idea of a garden so heartily, in fact, that he agreed to let HUGS stay for 10 years rent-free.

And some residents do buy in. Fourth-grade teacher Bekki Turnbull serves on the board of directors for HUGS and raises greens with her students at school as part of their education.

HUGS brings the organic, locally-grown food movement to Hamilton,” says Turnbull, who has also begun raising tomatoes in her backyard. “Being a part of HUGS connects me to the community and the earth. Patty and Alfred have planted the seeds for a movement that that will continue to grow as more people get involved.”

Slow Growth Toward Long-term Sustainability

Burbacher and Hall, who are both Southwest Ohio natives nearing retirement, have long personal histories with urban gardening. In fact, it’s how they met seven years ago.

At the time, Burbacher, who was taking classes toward a Bachelor’s degree in Integrated Studies, was working on a project that looked at connections between obesity and poverty.

Meanwhile, Hall had left a long career in industry and studied sustainable organic agriculture at a farm for veterans in New Hampshire. He had recently moved back to Hamilton, where he had started to build gardens in front of his home and around town.

One day, one of Burbacher’s professors suggested that she meet up with Hall. “That evening, HUGS was born,” Burbacher says. Later on, the pair dated and then married.

While Burbacher and Hall, are the faces of the organization along with the members of their board of directors, they both recognize that Hamilton needs a wider array of people to lead the charge. They also hope to raise funds to plant food in greenhouses, which would enable them to start providing more year-round produce to local restaurants.

The couple currently works seven days a week on the garden, a commitment they hope to reduce to part-time in future seasons as community members step up to take on tasks.

Though the gardening project produces healthy food for the community, the couple believe that it’s fundamentally about building relationships. Gardens are “safe places for people to converse, to talk to people they didn’t know, to interact with other people,” Hall has come to realize.

“I’m not a farmer—not a botanist, a horticulturalist, [or] a master gardener,” Hall adds. “This is just a tool we use to build community. And it really, truly does—it doesn’t matter who you are if you’re working side by side.”

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  1. Justine
    Thursday, September 1st, 2016
    I love this! This is what every community should be doing. You grow food and make some new friends. what could possibly be wrong with that?
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