I hope you all had some relaxing time over the long weekend. The timing worked well for both Canadians and U.S. friends - Canada Day on a Friday, 4th of July on the Monday. I read an Agatha Christie mystery (Destination Unknown); I'm a real Christie fan. Last evening, I transplanted a batch of plants into a neighbour's garden. I'd been unable to get over to trim spent feverfew, remove the too many ajuga and forget-me-not growth, and generally check out what's going on. She's got great lobelia blue and pink bergamot coming along soon, as well as campanulas and nigella; I added balloon flower, several clumps of sedum and two old fashioned begonias that bloom with ruffly pink flower. Blue and pink, colours she loves.
My reward for the mosquito bites of that late evening was to come in and discover a super article by Pattie Baker, titled Five Urban Farming Lessons. Pattie writes a blog - FoodShed Planet - which is its own great discovery. (www.foodshedplanet.com) She writes about a range of topics, and I've bookmarked it so I can read more.
I've put some highlights from Five Urban Farming Lessons below. But do check out the whole thing if you have time.
Five Urban Farming Lessons By Pattie Baker FoodShed Planet (www.foodshedplanet.com)http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/sustainable-living/urban-community-building/urban-farm-know-how.aspx
.... A community garden takes more than just a few seeds and water.
.... it starts with connections among people who have a desire to do something good. It is built on the bedrock of relationships that persevere through, shall we say, sunshine as well as stormy weather. For those urban farmers gardening in a postage-stamp-sized lot, the ingenuity put forth by city urban farmers with a whole acre in the city can be awe inspiring. Their large-scale efforts can teach a lot about how to improve any urban-farming situation on a small scale.
Lesson No. 1: Establish an atmosphere of trust and accessibility.
No lock here. Rashid Nuri, an urban organic farmer and agricultural educator who has lived and worked in 30 countries, not only has no lock on his 1/2-acre urban farm; he has no fence. He simply has rows of gorgeous crops—kale, garlic, lettuce, Swiss chard, tomatoes, peppers, basil and more—that he sells to the city’s best farm-to-table restaurants and distributes to CSA members every Wednesday afternoon year-round.
“What do you do about theft?” I asked. He said, “If people are hungry, I let them eat.”
.... Back at my community garden, when a “random act of healthy eating” occurred and some members called for a lock to be added to the gate, I shared Nuri’s advice, and instead, we came up with other ways to deter theft. We built a special bed in which we planted highly desirable crops and added a tongue-in-cheek sign that read, “Thieves: Please steal here.” We reminded our members that they increase the chance for theft when they allow their crops to rot on the vine, sending the message that they don’t value them, and we invited anyone to donate excess crops to the food pantry for which we harvest each week from designated beds. More importantly, Nuri’s words caused me to think about not just small potatoes (reducing theft) but the big picture (addressing hunger) and reminded me, once again, that we are not just growing food but also knowledge, community and compassion.
Lesson No. 2: Observe and participate, then you shall learn.
That day at TLW, I double-dug beds and spread compost, planted garlic (pointy side up!), used a stirrup hoe to slice off weeds in mere moments rather than hand-picking them for hours, and helped measure new rows. (Nuri likes them 40 inches wide.) These were all effective urban-farming methods that would be useful not only in my community garden but in my home garden, as well. In short, I learned urban farmers have a lot to teach one another, and we need to be open to learning.
Lesson No. 3: More is possible in less time than you think.
Nuri works on three urban farms, including one he just broke ground on in Atlanta’s historic Fourth Ward, on the site of the razed Wheat Street Gardens apartment complex. I visited him here when it was just one month old, and this 8-acre urban farm already showcased 50 25-foot raised beds, two small fields for row crops, an herb and flower garden, a greenhouse, fruit trees, a compost operation, and space for an office and farmers’ market.
Nuri works full time at his urban-farming operation, and he received grants to help fund the new urban farm, so these two details worked in his favor. If you’re not farming as your main occupation or are struggling to fund your farm or garden, consider bartering time and materials, tapping into your community’s volunteer organizations (such as the Boy Scouts of America, who love to build and always seem to need new Eagle Scout projects), and starting small, growing conservatively as time and funds allow. You’ll still be shocked at how much you accomplish with every single hour of effort.
Lesson No. 4: Be a good neighbor.
As development explodes around farms and as more homeowners want to cultivate their own home and market gardens, land-use disagreements are inevitable, especially when existing zoning codes don’t indicate farming or even gardening as an allowable land use. Service-truck deliveries, noises, smells, unsightly farm equipment or compost piles, and on-site commerce can raise red flags in neighborhoods that are more interested in property values than nutritional values. Nuri says that meeting with the neighborhood watch leader near one of his farm locations smoothed the path to acceptance for his urban farm. Nuri demonstrated that he took her concerns seriously, and he addressed them immediately.
In Clarkston, Ga., urban farmer Steve Miller also demonstrated neighborly concern, and that helped him in his recent fight against the county for his farm’s right to exist. Miller had been farming on a 2-acre tract of land surrounded by single-family homes for 15 years. He sold his produce off site at farmers’ markets (http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/sustainable-living/green-living/compost-benefits.aspx).
The county ruled that crop production was illegal on his property as it was currently zoned. Miller hired lawyer Doug Dillard, who was not only a land-use and zoning specialist but an urban farmer himself. By proving that the surrounding neighbors were in support of Miller’s farm, that he was operating in accordance with existing nuisance ordinances, and that he would agree to additional specified conditions, Dillard was able to secure a rezoning of Miller’s property to allow crop production.
“Steve Miller’s farm (http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/urban-farm-news/2011/05/06/urban-farmers-fight-legal-hurdles.aspx) is shielded from the street by fruit trees, other attractive vegetation and fences,” Dillard explains. “One of the additional conditions in the rezoning states that Miller will maintain this buffer between his farm and the neighborhood. The conditions also specify actions Miller was already taking, such as limiting his hours of operation, not creating any offensive odor, dust or noise impacts on surrounding properties, and making sure no water or fertilizer drained onto adjacent property. It’s important to note that not one neighbor had complained about his farm because he was already being a good neighbor.”
Take proactive steps to ensure positive relationships with your neighbors. Urban farmers typically share their bounty with neighbors to boost goodwill.
Jonathan Silverman of Feel the Earth, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that provides urban-agricultural community education and events, recommends being empathetic and truthful with neighbors and forming a neighborhood group early on so neighbors can voice concerns.
Sarah Bernardi of The Farm at Walker Jones in Washington, D.C., adds, “Make your compost pile beautiful, keep it tidy, and feed and work it properly. This will keep the neighbors, the city and the soil happy, allowing you to grow a lot in a little space.”
Stacey Murphy of BK Farmyards, a Brooklyn, N.Y., farming network, suggests repurposing waste-stream products—such as coffee chaff from a local roaster, spent fruits and vegetables from a local juice shop, and leaves from the neighbors—to add to your compost pile (http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/urban-farm-videos/urban-farming-activities/build-compost-bin.aspx) as a way to get the community involved and supportive.
Think this is all too much and you don’t want to be involved in politics in any form? If you participate in urban agriculture, you’ll most likely end up at city hall (http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/sustainable-living/urban-community-building/city-farm-cooperation-tips.aspx) at one point or another. Look at land-use ordinances in your county, city and neighborhood. Society is at a crossroads, and many antiquated zoning laws are up for review and revision. Connect with others in your community, show up at city hall, speak up, and advocate for local zoning and ordinance changes that will make your city more receptive to urban farming in all its forms. You’ll be standing up not only for your favorite urban farmer but for your community, your neighbors and your family, and you’ll meet others who share your passion.
Lesson No. 5: Life (and seed-planting) sometimes requires a leap of faith.
Going back to the nitty-gritty of neighbor complaints, soil contaminants (http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/urban-farm-news/2010/02/12/cleaning-up-brownfields.aspx) and city ordinances, I still struggle to know how on earth those of us who simply want to grow good, healthy food can keep the faith. I told Nuri that the community garden I helped start was under threat of losing its land but we wouldn’t know for another two months. If we waited for location security, we’d miss the spring planting season, and we’re growing for those in need, and they’re hungry. If we planted and lost our location, we’d lose our plants, and we didn’t have the funds to replant elsewhere. I didn’t know what to do and asked him for advice.
He answered simply, “Pattie, you plant anyway.” Yet another lesson learned.
About the Author: Pattie Baker writes the FoodShed Planet (http://www.foodshedplanet.com/) blog and is working on a book Food for My Daughters, about what one mom decided to do when the towers fell (and what you can do, too).
This article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Urban Farm magazine.