Stories from the Garden
January 15, 2014
Author: Neighborhood Farm Initiative
Category: General News Stories from the Garden
Just over a decade ago, organic farmer Michael Ableman described urban agriculture as a quiet revolution stirring in our food system, one that is providing an oasis for the human spirit where urban people can gather, preserve something of their culture through native seeds and foods, and teach their children about food and the earth.1
I recently spent a year researching sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty in Austria, the number one organic farming country in Europe. During my time abroad I learned much about the transformative power of robust local food systems, but it wasn’t until I left the Alps for my new home in DC that I found myself fascinated by the increasingly popular practice of growing food in cities. I had just begun to comb through literature on urban agriculture when I came across the above-cited essay by Michael Ableman. I read and re-read select passages, fixated by one word: revolution.
I was intrigued by the metaphor. Does urban agriculture truly have the potential to bring about radical change? Could it serve as an engine for economic growth, a solution to public health and environmental crises, or a vehicle for cultural preservation? Or is the recent trend of increased interest in urban agriculture, as some critics contend, nothing more than a passing fad?
In late August I began my graduate studies and decided to embark upon an academic journey to find some answers. Opting for a multi-method research approach, I set out to gauge the viability of the urban agriculture movement by tackling a deceptively simple question: why do urban growers do what they do? I figured that before we can determine what the movement will achieve in the long-run, we must first understand what motivates the people who drive it. I needed to find those people. I needed to hear some stories.
It wasn’t long until I struck gold. The DCGardeners Oral History Project proved to be an invaluable resource, providing me with a treasure trove of unique, richly contextualized narratives. I explored the NFI Oral History Biography Map and listened with admiration as DC gardeners chronicled their agricultural adventures. I was inspired by Chekesha Rashad and her resolve to grow healthy, wholesome food in her own front yard. In another interview, Ryan Shepard offers a compelling critique of industrial agriculture, pointing to our dependence on 20,000 mile long supply chains and indeterminately cheap oil. Shepard considers what it would mean to scale up nonindustrial agriculture and highlights the importance of preserving traditional farming knowledge. In yet another interview, Ken LePoer describes the transformation of an unsightly impoundment lot into a safe space for neighbors to gather and grow food, side by side.
I spent most of the semester sifting through the stories of seasoned DC gardeners, seeking insight into the key factors that motivate urban residents to grow local food. At the same time, I sought to gain some urban gardening experience myself. The NFI community was more than welcoming, kindly showing me the ropes during Saturday morning volunteer workdays at the Fort Totten Demonstration Garden. I weeded, planted, harvested, and tended to compost while watching the urban farm site evolve. NFI Staff and fellow volunteers graciously shared their own stories with me, and when the season came to an end I spent time reflecting on all that I had learned. I sorted through my notes and transcripts to identify recurring themes. DC urban gardeners, I found, most often expressed interest in (1) building community, (2) “reconnecting” with the earth, (3) improving health, and (4) caring for the environment. Gardeners also commonly cited educational, economic, political, and recreational factors.
If one resounding conclusion can be drawn from my study’s overall findings, it is that the growth of interest in urban agriculture is not merely a passing fad. The movement seems to be driven by a demographically diverse community of passionate individuals with deeply personal yet intertwined agendas. The DC Gardeners Oral History Project reveals that city dwellers have been gardening since before it was “hip,” and all signs suggest that younger generations will continue to build upon foundations that have been laid, drawing inspiration from the past as they work to actualize their hopes for the future.
A big thanks to the NFI community for assisting me with my research and for sending me home, on more than one occasion, with an armful of delicious fresh vegetables.
Guest post by: Tschuna Gibson
Graduate Student of Ethics, Peace & Global Affairs at American University’s School of International Service, concentrating in Global Environmental Justice
- Michael Ableman, Fatal Harvest (The Institute for Deep Ecology), quoted in “Urban Agriculture: A Revolutionary Model for Economic Development” by Chris Lazarus, New Village: Building Sustainable Cultures, Issue 2, 2000, p64. ↩