A Farmer in the Garden

I recently helped my friend, Josh, plant some seeds and starts on his farmland out in the Northeast Kingdom. Josh’s family has always produced vegetables on their small-scale farm for area farmers’ markets, but this year Josh is running the operation on his own.

When I visited Josh’s land, I got to help him plant some of the usual crops that I have in my small garden: tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, green beans… but the planting process was a little bit different here. Forget the gentle loosening of roots on the tomato starts. Just drop them a couple paces apart for the length of the field and then walk back through and quickly tuck them into the soil a few inches above the roots. And while in my small garden I planted every squash seed with an exaggerated amount of care, here we just opened up a small hole in the soil every three paces, dropped three or four seeds in, and were on our way.

It’s funny how long my friends and I took to plan and decide and gently dig up homes for plants in the small garden plot we have when I compare it to the farmers’ methods. But I guess it’s only fair; any farm must be at least 50 times the size of our garden. It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if two or three tomato plants didn’t survive on the farm since this is such a small fraction of the crop.

While I am not about to move away from the more gentle and tedious methods of the gardener, I’m glad to have a farmer friend as a resource. The next day, when Josh visited our garden, he shook his head when he saw how I, on hands and knees, meticulously plucked out small weeds from a bed of soil I hadn’t planted anything in yet. He grabbed a hoe and we broke up the weeds. I grabbed a small rake and pulled out many of  the larger weeds before scooping some of the smaller pieces up in my hands.

In all reality, the garden isn’t just a place to grow food. It’s a place to relax, work hard, get dirty and watch life grow. So, while the farmer has some shortcuts that will still yield a good crop, I know I’ll continue to take the longer and maybe more laborious route for my miniature field of vegetables. I’ll continue to use my farmer friends as a great resource for planting and pests and so on, but somehow the garden would still feel like a productive use of my time even if it failed to produce much of any food.

How to Stay Hip in the Local Food Movement

“This is Sandra*… SHE grew up on a FARM!”

This is how I was introduced to Sandra, the author of a new memoir of life growing up on a dairy farm. Sandra is a retired schoolteacher who now spends her time with her hobbies: writing and taking photos of gorgeous farmland in Vermont. I met Sandra at the Seed Starter Workshop a couple of weeks ago during my volunteer hours with Friends of Burlington Gardens. She grew up on a conventional dairy farm as a kid, but, without my making any remark about conventional versus organic, she was quick to denounce conventional practices, citing the use of DDT during her youth as the cause of her cancer.

Enough about Sandra. This post is not actually about her. It’s about how she was introduced by one of the coordinators of the workshop. I cannot get the words out of my head.

“This is Sandra … SHE grew up on a FARM!”

The tone of Sandra’s introduction implied that the woman was a celebrity. It was as if the purpose of attending the Seed Starter Workshop was not to honor the gardener within each of us, but instead to admire those who had already ‘been there.’ Yes, there is wisdom to be gained from the older generation of farmers and I respect this, but that was not how this appealed to me. This was trendiness: Sandra’s presentation implied “cool”-ness. This was meant to validate her among a room of young, rugged gardeners and avid foodies, and it implied we were all proponents of the same local food trend – er, I mean, movement.

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, and small-scale food production have always had a home in ag-friendly Vermont, but now these practices are becoming more mainstream. For some, purchasing local food from farmers’ markets is trendy which hopefully won’t fall out of fashion any time soon. For others, it’s an expression of personal values. Many of us fall somewhere between these extremes. Is it worth being bothered over why we all end up supporting the same food movement?

*name changed

FN 2/13

Youth Gardeners Sprout Up Across the Nation

UrbanFoodAmerica, a blog which reports on programs across the country that promote building a community food system, recently posted about RootDown LA. This Los Angeles-based program serves the community through the development of herb and vegetable gardens which are maintained by the area youth. UrbanFoodAmerica describes how RootDown LA creates a new local economy around produce by having two missions: create a demand for local food, and then supply it. In order to stimulate demand, RootDown LA coordinates CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) programs as well as farm stands and community cooking classes. The supply side is handled by the local youth, who are directed on how to produce foods for the community. These youth install garden plots and plant fruit trees in the area, while developing job skills.

When I read about this organization, the story hit home for me… literally; Burlington offers a similar program! The Healthy City Youth Initiative, developed through a partnership of the Burlington School Food Project and Friends of Burlington Gardens, is a 6-week summer program for high schoolers to learn about horticulture and sharpen their gardening skills. In addition to growing food on an area farm, the students help to maintain school garden plots about the city. Past projects have included gleaning – harvesting produce that would otherwise rot – from area farms to collect about 30,000 pounds of produce each year!

I admit I am new to the Burlington garden scene, and I only know the basics about the Healthy City Youth Initiative. From what I have read so far, I wonder if Burlington could learn a thing or two from the crew at RootDown LA. How well are students getting connected with the entrepreneurial side of growing food? I spoke with an intern who worked with the program this past summer, and she emphasized the communication skills students develop by selling the program’s produce at farmer’s markets. These teens learn quickly about the foods they grow (and even begin to take favorite veggies home to their families!). The teens are new to many of the foods they grow, but perhaps this experience inspires them to learn more about farming. Could this be a breeding ground for our next generation of master gardeners and farmers?

WP 2/23

Seed Starting Workshop: For All Ages?

In anticipation of warmer weather and softer soils, Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) hosted its first annual seed-sprouting event to get kids ready for spring gardening. The event was conveniently held at the same time as the neighboring winter farmer’s market, but it was an awkward juxtaposition to see plots of soft summer grass, a badminton net, and a lemonade stand in the drafty basement of a municipal building.

This Saturday was my first time working with FBG, and my job was to help kids plant seed starters in small plastic drink cups. I introduced myself to my host, and then was promptly put to work setting up a workshop table with the plastic potting cups, labels, a watering can, soil, and a few dozen seed packets. I worked the earlier half of the event, when traffic was slowest, but I helped about 8 or 10 kids plant their soon-to-be fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

If I were stranded on a desert island where I committed the rest of my life to teaching kids how to make their seed starters, and I only could bring one kind of seed… I would bring watermelon seeds. These seeds are big and easy to tuck into a soft bed of soil, and kids loved the idea of growing this juicy fruit. Whenever a child was too shy or quiet (or distracted by badminton games) to pick a seed, I pushed the Moon and Stars watermelon seed.

Although some of the very youngest preschool-aged kids needed plenty of direction and were rather timid, the older elementary-schoolers dug into the project with little hesitation. At one point, three girls were planting their seeds together and making their own tags (which they all labeled with their names, rather than the plant’s). The girls planted 2-3 starters a piece and followed the reading instructions on the plant packages with me.

Many of these girls must have planted starters before, I thought. How could this be such an intuitive process to them? Sure, Mom helped some with directions, but the kids piled soil into their potting cups and dropped in seeds without asking many questions. I thought my job would be more about directing shy children all day and prodding them to try planting, but it was just the opposite: I had trouble keeping up with watering the plants for kids as they finished up! I suspect most adults would be much more timid to create starters, out of fear of making a mistake, maybe burying a seed too deep in the dirt or spilling too much water into the cup. These children, on the other hand, had no fear of mistakes or the knowledge they lacked. At what age do we decide gardening is only a task for the master gardener?

FN 2/6