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Gardening the Community raises the stakes for high quality produce

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 September Issue Newsletter

By Kristin Brennan, Ibrahim Ali and Gabriella della Croce

Daniel Staub and Qamaria Amatul-Wadud discuss tomato staking strategies

An ever-evolving relationship

By Kristin Brennan, former Gardening the Community Director & current NOFA/Mass Director of Development

Gardening the Community (GTC) is a youth based urban agriculture program, growing food and leadership in Springfield, MA. GTC was established with NOFA/Mass’ support in 2002 and is now an independent program.

Today GTC staff and youth manage five garden sites, help to establish community gardens around the Mason Square neighborhood, grow over 5,000 pounds of vegetables each year for youth, residents and markets, run one of a handful of CSA programs in the city, and provide a strong voice for expanded urban agriculture in Springfield. Though the program has an impressive record, many of the former NOFA/Mass staff that led GTC in the early years, myself included, still like to call GTC our baby.

In the spring of 2014, Project Bread, NOFA/Mass and GTC created a partnership to address soil improvement and agricultural capacity building, supported financially by The Harry Chapin Foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR).

NOFA/Mass sees the availability of local, nutrient-rich, organic food, its organizational mission, as central to public health. In the past 30+ years, NOFA/Mass has initiated many programs to increase availability and production of healthful, organic food among marginalized populations, including prison garden projects, youth gardening initiatives, and discounted farm share programs for low-income families. Rather than focusing on the program management of GTC, NOFA/Mass is offering its technical expertise on farming and fertility.

GTC staff and youth have also attended the 2014 and 2015 NOFA Summer Conferences and the 2015 NOFA/Mass Winter Conference. Project Bread helped fund transportation, and NOFA offered partial scholarships through the Farming Education Fund. “I like learning new things at the NOFA conferences, like how to make our own natural fertilizers,” said Moises, GTC Youth Leader. “Toussaint and I are hoping to start integrating more of these methods next year.”

This has been a timely and exciting reconnection, given GTC’s recent growth and ambitious plans. In July 2014, GTC purchased a lot on Walnut St in Springfield. Thanks to another grant from MDAR, GTC expanded its partnership with NOFA/Mass in the fall/winter of 2014, supporting soil regeneration and water installation on the Walnut St. site. Local experts were hired to advise on how to build up healthy soil on the new site in preparation for planting in 2016. Read more below about the experiences of growers at GTC.

Transforming food access by effectively producing quality veggies

By Ibrahim Ali, Co-director, Gardening the Community

Ruby MaddoxGTC is located in what is often known as a “food desert”, meaning that residents don’t have easy access to healthy and affordable food. This is the result of decades of disinvestment in the neighborhood driven by larger economic forces and structural racism in Springfield and many cities like it. “Until I joined GTC, I thought that what was sold at the bodega’s was all that I wanted,” said GTC youth member Tyler M. “Now I know that the food in most of these spots is not so healthy, can sometimes cost too much, and in all honesty, doesn’t even taste that good!”

Collaboratively organizing with community partners, GTC has grown to encompass food justice, youth leadership, and urban agriculture on formerly abandoned spaces. Its goal is to transform food access from the existing paradigm where food deserts and inadequate healthy food options dominate the landscape.

GTC and NOFA/Mass collaborated with Project Bread to work towards two main goals:

1)    Analyzing the micronutrient content of GTC’s soil, and implementing a plan to increase nutrient content where necessary.

2)    Improving GTC’s agricultural skills, systems and efficiencies by working with a farmer mentor for a full season.

“With the establishing of backyard farms, community gardens plots and small CSA’s, urban farmers are seeking to eat and profit from the vegetables they grow,” said Toussaint Paskins, GTC’s Food Justice and Community Outreach Manager. “The question is: how do we effectively produce high quality veggies in the small places we exist in?”

In the past, we’d start the growing season with high-quality compost from a few select vendors and leaf compost provided for free from the city of Springfield. Compost is a costly investment, and what the city offered was at times inconsistent. Continually dumping compost also contributes to excessive levels of Nitrogen.

Working with NOFA/Mass, we wanted to find ways to avoid these costs and pitfalls by using cover crops and green mulch to improve the beds. On our Hancock St. site, we also used vermiculture (worm castings), providing our seedlings and starts with an initial boost.

Farmer and consultant Dan Kittredge provided the first year of training, philosophy, and techniques for us to begin to see the soil in a new way. One of the first things that I remember from Dan’s workshop is how crucial it was for GTC to improve its rainwater system and watering regime.

After listening to Dan discuss the numerous things that are currently being researched about what’s happening in the soil, he picked up a handful of settled compost from one of our beds on Hancock and commented on how dry and lifeless it was. That really changed how I thought about what we were doing right and wrong, and how we needed to incorporate some change.

During the second season of this soil building initiative, Daniel Staub joined us again as our farm mentor, as did Jonathan Bates, noted permaculture author, practitioner, and early GTC Co-Director.

"Daniel has been very helpful in teaching us how to plan for the season,” said Qamaria Amutul-Wadud, Youth and Farm Program Manager. “In previous years, it was all in our heads… This year, we drew a map of what was going to get planted where. I learned about double digging beds from Jonathan Bates – and we definitely see a difference. The beds that we did that with seem more productive than the others.”

“It has been interesting to get a more traditional farmer’s perspective,” said Kyle Richmond, Youth Leader. “Often we do things based on intuition or what’s in a book. It has been important to get a perspective from someone who has been doing this longer than we have. The soil workshop was especially interesting because the soil aspect of the garden is often overlooked. Jonathan really helped us understand just how important maintaining and improving our soil quality is to growing good food,” Moises R. said. “We know by the way that our soil feels and looks that it is pretty healthy.”

NOFA/Mass and GTC originally began this intensive project to see how urban land responds to soil amendments and provide a model for increased production. “We test the soil to figure out where we are at and where we need to be,” said Moises R. “We test different parts of our sites separately, and we have to use our math skills to figure out how many ounces we need of each amendment. It’s a bit tedious and kind of annoying, but it is definitely making a difference. It’s improving the soil.”

With the summer 2015 slowly coming to close, we found that the unusual wet conditions in June impacted some of the hot weather crops that have done well for us in the past. We’re working on better record keeping, better soil preparation and developing a more thoughtful approach to building up our soils, with the hope that in the future such adverse conditions won’t be as impactful in the future.

Some of the challenges we face are different than farmers out in the country – but it goes without saying that our commitment to cultivating vibrantly healthy soil is the same. GTC is solidly on the path of restoring and maintaining our soil, and ultimately we are all about feeding our community and the soils in which we grow. Our partnership with NOFA/Mass has had a big impact on staff and youth alike. 


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