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Operation Plant a Row: Someone Near You Needs to "Water on Wednesdays"

Posted Oct 19 2011 6:13am
I wrote an article for Urban Farm magazine about what backyard and community gardeners could learn from urban farms.  It ran in the July/August 2011 issue, and includes a handful of tips gleaned from interviews and research with urban farm leaders nationwide.  While doing that research, I happened upon an entire city (Missoula, Montana) that is knee-deep in growing food.  In fact, the excellent book, Growing a Garden City , is all about it, and I did include a quote from Josh Slotnick, the head of the farm on university property there.  However, I also interviewed the book's author, Jeremy Smith, and the founder of a community garden there, Gita Saedi Kiely, and those two sections did not make it into the final article (and Josh got cut out of the shortened online version ).  What's more, I interviewed a man named Tim Murakami who runs inner-city urban agriculture initiatives in Chicago, and that section unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor as well.  (You know how these things go.)

I feel the need to share with you what I learned from these people, because there was a common phrase repeatedly said, and it is the one that I ask you to keep in mind as you plan and grow your Plant a Row 2012, and as you consider asking others to join you in your effort.  The line is this: 
When people get involved in growing food together, they learn that they are necessary.  
And as you read the following, realize that when you are planning your Plant a Row, there is someone in your city, right now, who not only would love to, but really needs to, be the one who tills the soil, or buys the seeds, or lends the shovel, or offers the truck, or covers the row, or waters on Wednesdays.  There is someone, right now, who needs to be part of this, who needs to feel necessary.  And you can provide them with that opportunity through your Plant a Row effort.  
Look around you today.  Who might it be?  The older woman next door who sometimes goes days without leaving her house?  The man who lost his job and feels like he lost his identity as well?  The teen who has nothing to do after school and is starting to make some unhealthy choices?  The newcomer who feels like she simply doesn't fit in?  These people will not only help you grow food but they will help you see how growing food can grow human connection, dignity, and purpose as well.
You don't have to create an urban farm or community garden for these points to apply.  Your 25-foot (or 4-foot) Plant a Row on the side of your house can be a life-changer, too, not just for you and for those who receive what you grow, but for those who feel like a necessary part of your effort as well.  Look around you today.  Look on the edges of society.  Look at that man with his head bent down, bringing in his mail, or the woman who walks her dog past your house and looks like she's been crying.  Or the little boy whom you notice always goes outside to play (but doesn't really play) when his parents start fighting.  You will see these people in a whole new light.  You will see these people as having a need to feel necessary in some small way today.  And you will see that you can provide them with that opportunity. Here goes.  Take what you like and leave the rest. (No time to read this big, long post?  Just skim the stuff in red.  You'll get the gist.)  If this post touches you in any way, please pass it on.  You do not know for sure who needs this message today, but I can tell you for sure that someone near you does.
Lesson #5: Urban farms change lives
    Urban farms face some of the same challenges home and community gardeners face: how to build good, quality soil (and avoid contaminants); how to grow the most amount of food in the least amount of space; how to extend the growing season; how to operate within the existing laws, or work to change the ones that no longer make sense for cities increasingly interested in boosting local food security; how to be good neighbors; and even how to take the skills learned in an urban farming environment and apply them elsewhere.  Interestingly, however, the thing that urban farms seem to do the best is change lives.    Sure, you can learn secrets of compost building, the best crops for various climates, the importance of having good relationships with your neighbors, and the tricks of the trade for conserving water and convincing communities to allow practices that weren’t currently protected in zoning laws, such as on-site sales or chicken-keeping. However, when I interviewed several urban farmers around the country, I heard over and over again that the lessons of urban farming go much deeper.  Perhaps this is because many urban farms are started to meet the needs of underserved inner-city populations, and the food grown on them feeds not just bodies but souls.  Lives change when seeds are planted.  It’s as simple as that.     Tim Murakami is the urban farms manager of Growing Home, a non-profit organization in Chicago, Illinois that develops innovative urban agriculture initiatives in low-income communities, such as a transitional jobs program for individuals facing significant barriers to employment, including experiences of incarceration, substance abuse, and housing insecurity.  During a seven-month internship, participants plant, tend, and harvest a wide variety of crops in several hoop houses on a city plot at its largest garden location, Wood Street Urban Farm.  They learn how to grow good, healthy food all year long in a very small amount of space, to manage garden waste and see its progression to valuable compost, and to share in the experience of chef demonstrations and growing workshops. 
    “Interns gain on-the-job experience in our social enterprise business, which enables them to acquire skills that can help them land jobs after their internships are complete,” explained Murakami, “But mostly, they learn that their work matters.” 
    Josh Slotnick finds a similar effect.   He is the director of the PEAS Farm, which is the nine-acre farm for the University of Montana’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, located in Missoula, Montana.  The PEAS Farm serves as the anchor for the Garden City Harvest Project, a collaborative effort that also includes community gardens, a program for troubled youth, and a community education program.
    “At the PEAS Farm, people learn seasonally-appropriate crops, various harvesting techniques, post-harvest handling, and food preparation,” Slotnick explained, “but the common thread of their farm education is that they learn they are necessary, and that personal effectiveness mixed with a sense of community is, frankly, life-transforming.”
Lesson #6: Urban farms create communities
    Gita Saedi Kiely and her husband Jason Kiely learned directly from Garden City Harvest when they organized a community garden named the 2nd Street Community Garden on a forgotten city lot next to their home in a neighborhood-in-transition in Missoula. 
    “Tim Hall, Garden City Harvest’s community garden director, offered us not only advice but resources, such as an excavator to put in a water line and a tractor to help till the land,” explained Saedi Kiely, who is an award-winning documentary film producer, director and editor, and an adjunct professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism.  “Then, anyone and everyone who had any kind of plants to share shared them with us.  We go to the PEAS Farm often and participate in events and classes.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned during my experience as part of Garden City Harvest is that gardeners are generous—with their time, knowledge, and resources.  That makes us all part of a larger community of gardeners.”
    The community of gardeners is so large and interrelated in Missoula that it has spawned a book.  Titled Growing a Garden City and written by Jeremy N. Smith, its subhead is a local, organic mouthful: How Farmers, First Graders, Counselors, Troubled Teens, Foodies, a Homeless Shelter Chef, Single Mothers, and More Are Transforming Themselves and Their Neighborhoods Through the Intersection of Local Agriculture and Community—and How You Can, Too.  Did you get all that?
    As a result of researching and writing this book, Smith learned that farms and gardens are most successful when they are built around the needs and abilities of the particular people they serve.  He also learned that local knowledge on a wide variety of topics is valuable.
    “I was smart about things like big city restaurants and gourmet cooking,” Smith said, “but people in Missoula taught me how to produce an enormous amount of food in a growing season that is so short, with funding sources that are not nearly enough, with a population experiencing widespread poverty.”
    Saedi Kiely adds to that sentiment, “The book created a real understanding for us as to how we fit together.  And perhaps that is the greatest lesson—that whether we are urban farmers or home, school, or community gardeners, we are all part of the same story.  We are part of an interconnected whole.”

This is Week 5 in my 6-week Operation Plant a Row series.  This series is intended to inspire you to get your Plant a Row going now so you can "put winter to work for you" and maximize your row's growing potential in 2012.  See the intro to this project here , plus the four other installments linked below.  Also, see "How to Help Where You Live Be a Model Urban Agriculture City" on pages 138-139 in my book .  
Next week is the final installment in this series, and I will give you some suggestions for ways to help get food to hungry people if you are not going to do a Plant a Row. Operation Plant a Row: Choose a Method and Get Going (Growing)   Operation Plant a Row: "I Smell the Time" and It Is Now     Operation Plant a Row: More Starfish.  Mas Semillas.   Operation Plant a Row: "If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail" (FYI: this post has quickly become one of the highest viewed posts of my 715 FoodShed Planet posts over the past five and half years.  Thank you for passing it on.  It is my hope that it is helpful.)

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