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Athens’ Market Garden

Much like the rest of the country, community gardens in Athens, Georgia sprouted up everywhere in the last decade, some with iffy hopes of survival.

Successes here include: a beautiful edible landscape around a resource center for the elderly; an abandoned lot in an African American neighborhood where a grey-haired gardener scares off drug dealers with collard plants; and a resident-run garden in a hip neighborhood where homemade tomato cages poke up on public land.

In one low-income Hispanic neighborhood in a culturally segregated trailer park outside of town, a garden put in place by horticulture student volunteers from the University of Georgia didn’t fare as well, at least in its first seasons. As a newspaper reporter and farming enthusiast, I watched this garden’s early growth with both hope and worry. Many of my friends who lived in this mobile home park had worked hard to drum up awareness of it in the neighborhood, and initial interest looked promising. Read more

New Book Takes a Look at Urban Farms Across the U.S.

It was an overcast but hot and humid Sunday July afternoon when 50 volunteers arrived to clear a sizable lot of land at Phoenix Press in New Haven, Connecticut, underneath their wind turbine, that is soon to become New Haven Farms’ fifth farm site.

As a founding member of New Haven Farms, it is exciting to see our urban farm sites sprout up around the edges of Fair Haven, an historic area of New Haven and one that has been home to immigrant populations for over 100 years. The mission of New Haven Farms is to promote health and community development through urban agriculture and our goal is to establish and cultivate year-round urban farms that produce nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, in collaboration with community members who are both within 200 percent of the federal poverty level and suffering from diabetes, pre-diabetes, or have at least two risk factors for diabetes. The organization is now partnering with the Fair Haven Community Health Center (FHCHC) to rigorously build farms in the lowest income neighborhoods of New Haven, and investigate the impact of increased exposure and consumption of fresh, local nutrient-dense foods on this underserved community’s health. Its CSA program began the first week of July–called the New Haven Farms Fresh Produce Prescription Program.

Looking at the barren, rocky site at Phoenix Press gave me a rush. It may look desolate now but I can visualize a farm here, and I can imagine all the green and luscious, nutritious produce that will rise forth out of this lot within a year’s time [with the help of a lot of compost!] So when the afternoon was over and the volunteers got back on their bus, I returned home and immediately opened Sarah Rich’s beautiful book, Urban Farms and allowed myself to be inspired and imagine what this new farm site can become. This book chronicles the urban agriculture movement through gorgeous photography and thoughtful essays that would inspire any good urbanite to pick up a shovel and find a nearby community garden. Read more

New Urban Ag Law Paves the Way for Growers in San Francisco

Last month urban agriculture advocates in San Francisco got another piece of legislation to celebrate. City government once again came out to support the growing of food within this dense city, this time by mandating that an “urban agriculture program” be organized. The program will help coordinate existing programs within and between city agencies that touch food production (including the Recreation and Parks Department’s community gardens, the Department of the Environment’s urban orchard work, and the Public Utilities Commission’s water-saving education efforts), as well as look into new ways to expand and improve urban agriculture opportunities (including an audit of city-owned rooftops with potential for gardens or beekeeping; the development of incentives for private landowners to lease undeveloped land to urban ag projects; and–perhaps most importantly–the creation of materials resource centers, where urban agriculturists of all sorts can find the compost, mulch, and materials needed to successfully grow more food).

As a co-coordinator for the SF Urban Agriculture Alliance, a grassroots volunteer group supporting local urban agriculture projects and their respective goals, I am happy that we not only achieved the passage of such legislation, but achieved a more difficult goal: funding for the program. In these days of austerity and endless cuts, our members’ advocacy, and the support of particular city Supervisors (in particular, David Chiu, the legislation’s sponsor, and John Avalos, chair of the Budget committee) were crucial to ensuring that the program would not just exist on paper. The budgeting process is a complex and mystifying beast, but we tamed it, and came out with $120,000 for implementation of the program in the coming fiscal year. Read more

Restaurant Gardens a Boon to New Farmers

In this era when consumers want to know how many “food miles” their carrots traveled and restaurant menus list the distance from farm to fork, restaurant owners are increasingly putting in their own farms on rooftops, abandoned lots and nearby agricultural plots.

The trend has caught on with high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants in California such as The French Laundry in Napa and Manresa in Los Gatos as well as more casual places, such as Pauline’s Pizzeria in San Francisco and the Fremont Diner in Sonoma.

The growing number of restaurant farms is welcome news to new farmers like Rose Robertson, 28, who, like many new farmers, is trained but without a plot of land to call her own. After interning for a year at a farm in Santa Barbara, Robertson knew she wanted to farm but also knew she did not want to be a cog in a large-scale farming operation. She worried that at a big farm, workers like her would end up, “spending your whole day picking beans,” she said. Read more

To Profit or Not to Profit on the Food Movement?

My friend Tree runs the Free Farm Stand, a weekly give-away of left over farmers’ market produce, plus “hecka-local” produce gleaned and grown in San Francisco. Working the line between charity and community building, the Free Farm Stand allows people to provide for each other without requiring proof-of-poverty–which for many hungry people can be stigmatizing. People line up at the stand every Sunday, get food, share food, interact, and enjoy.

Recently, Tree and I discussed the recently-passed legislation which officially legalized urban agriculture in the San Francisco. His project is primarily concerned with food access for low-income communities and creating collaborative, non-commercial projects. Tree does not see a benefit in gaining the legal right to sell city-grown food because he wants food to be free. How, Tree asked, is the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA–the main civic group pushing for the passage of the legislation) going to work for those who want to see volunteer-based, collective, and non-commodified forms of urban agriculture?

As mentioned in my previous post, the SFUAA worked on this new legislation out of a need expressed by one of our members, Little City Gardens, and an opportunity presented by members of city government. But my conversation with Tree has brought to my attention a rift forming in the San Francisco urban farming scene. Read more

The Bronx’s Pied Piper of Peas

Whatever you call him, Steve Ritz is an extraordinary example of how one person can make a difference.

He has two missions: The first is to get his Discovery High School students to grow and eat vegetables. The second is to ignite the Green Bronx Machine and get all of the borough residents to grow and eat healthy food. (Watch out for the soon-to-come Web site and meanwhile follow Green Bronx Machine on Facebook and Twitter.)

Ritz is fueled by the irony that although the Bronx is the distribution point for produce to all five boroughs, its residents have very little access to high quality, fresh vegetables.

“If my kids can’t buy good produce at the local supermarket, we’ll get them to grow it,” Ritz decides. And grow they do! Hundreds of pounds of it a year. Where? On the classroom walls. Read more

Farming High School in Detroit Target of Harsh New State Law

Recently a Detroit public high school that focuses on farming and second chances for young mothers was added to a list of schools that would be closed this summer. Catherine Ferguson Academy is on that list thanks to a new law that allows Michigan governor Rick Snyder to dismiss locally elected officials and put in place new ones. (I’ll let Rachel Maddow give the details in the video, below).

You might have heard that Detroit lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade. What has resulted is a lot of abandoned land and a lot of blight. And yet, Detroit is also home to an urban agriculture Renaissance, with projects like the Greening of Detroit and D-Town Farm, among others. Catherine Ferguson Academy is just one such place that offers opportunities in growing food to those who need it most. Read more

Texas College Converts Football Field Into Organic Farm

Highland Hills is one of those down-and-out communities that’s allowed a glimpse of prosperity but never gets to taste it. The Dallas skyline looms large across the hazy north Texas horizon and is linked to this poverty-plagued neighborhood by a seven-mile ribbon of light-rail steel. Ledbetter Avenue crosses the train line passing vacant buildings, empty parking lots, and a dizzying array of “For Sale” and “For Jesus” signs. Named for the renowned guitar picker Lead Belly who did time in these parts–both in and out of prison–the Avenue speaks little in the way of promise, but wails the blues of poverty loud and clear. Read more