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.

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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

Edible Vegetable Art

Carrot wheels, apple slices, kale leaves, chunks of hot pink watermelon radishes, deep purple beets…

These were just some of the art supplies available to children who attended a workshop on edible art last weekend. Given this beautiful array of produce, the children developed VERY creative sculptures such as sailboats with kale leaves, porcupines, and even an outhouse!

As much as I was surprised by the creativity of the kids, I was even more surprised by their knowledge of fruits and vegetables. How many kids can identify a watermelon radish and yellow beets? For that matter, how many adults can identify these veggies? I have to admit that I would have guessed the mysterious pink vegetable was some rare cross between a turnip and a beet, but many of the kids were quick to recognize the watermelon radish.

Now, to be fair, many of our participants were the children of garden enthusiasts and organic farmers. The workshop’s coordinator, who has led similar activities with other, predominantly urban kids, was also surprised by how many could identify these uncommon veggies.

Maybe this was not the most typical group of kids after all. During one of the workshop sessions, I had fun collaborating with a few of the kids to build a rainforest of broccoli, complete with a tropical bird made from beets and raisins. The children were hungry and snacked on apples, carrots, and celery, and one of the boys announced that he wanted to eat his rainforest broccoli for lunch, but that he would wait until the end of the day so he and his partner could first showcase their artwork for others to see.

Since when do kids need to refrain from eating their fruits and vegetables?

According to a 2006 study on fruit and vegetable intake, less than 20% of elementary school-aged children consume the recommended five or more servings of vegetables each day. Would these workshop attendees fit within the 20% of children who do make the cut? If these children are such avid eaters, what’s their secret? Is it that their parents regularly expose the kids to fruits and vegetables from the garden? Is it that these children are encouraged to try new foods like the watermelon radish? Or is it that these children participate in gardens themselves? The coordinators at Friends of Burlington Gardens share success stories of kids and teens who transform their eating habits through a garden program… but what is it about the gardening experience that could improve diet?

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