How community gardens make the city a better place
Gardeners have been itching to get their hands in the soil since the first seed catalogs began arriving in the mail in February. People are mobbing garden centers to purchase young plants for home flower and vegetable gardens. We know vegetables grown locally are best for our health and the environment, so many frequent a year-round store like Linda’s Produce.
Ask a clerk where a fruit comes from and the answer is often Conyersville, Georgia. You think, okay, that’s local, but actually Conyersville is simply a food distribution center for imports. It’s better to grow your own and eat what’s in season locally. However, home gardens aren’t the only ones in town.
Urban community gardening has come to Chattanooga as gardeners realize and farmers see the demand for local fresh food to feed the hungry. It’s becoming the new normal.
These transitions don’t happen all at once. It usually requires a champion leading the way. In this case, it’s Alex McGregor (not Peter Rabbit’s nemesis). He had long been a gardener picking up expertise from his grandmother and father, continuing the family tradition. In 1985, he started his quarter of an acre garden on Signal Mountain. His knowledge expanded when he took a class in biointensive farming at Ohio University. Eventually, in 1991, his quarter acre became the first organic certified farm in the area as he moved from gardener to farmer. Walden Farm was born.
By 1993, Alex had started the first CSA (community supported agriculture). Few had heard of a CSA then. Skeptics sneered at the idea of prepaying a farmer to provide a share of fresh vegetables weekly from May through November. Finally, an enthused friend talked some others into buying shares and the business took off. For several years, Walden Farm provided 30 families with a weekly supply of organic food. A study of organic farms in the Southeast showed that the quarter acre Walden Farm produced 8 times more than others.
Eventually Alex secured a Sustainable Agriculture Research in Education grant to teach the Ohio curriculum locally. He mentored several students who have now started up their own CSA’s. You find them at farmer’s markets around town selling their produce.
These days, Alex has returned to being a gardener. “We have formed a friendly coalition with neighbors to share the harvest,” he says smiling. He adds, “You can’t be a recovering farmer—there’s no such thing.”
CSA’s are now available from several regional farmers. Crabtree Farms produces Taste Buds with a local directory of community gardens and CSA farms including Crabtree. For a full Crabtree share, you receive a fresh produce box weekly from May through November for $750. A half share costs $400. However, if you volunteer a minimum of five hours a week, you can get a box. Other less industrious volunteers are eligible to get seconds. In this case boxes are picked up at the farm. Other farmers have a variety of delivery arrangements usually at a farmer’s market.
Now, one can find a farmer’s market somewhere almost every day of the week. Joshua Nelson owns The Healthy Kitchen, a three-acre farm in Dunlap. He brings his organic produce and chicken eggs regularly to Lookout Farmer’s Markets. From 4 to 7 p.m. on Mondays, it’s Red Bank United Methodist Church. On Tuesday, it’s Audubon Acres. On Friday, it’s St. Elmo Avenue except for the last Friday when it runs from 4 to 9 p.m. with the addition of music and festivities.
On Wednesday, go to the Main Street Market from 4 to 6 p.m. and on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to Noon, the Brainerd Farmer’s Market is open. Then on Sunday afternoons, there is the biggest one of all, the Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion on the Southside, where many of the same farmers from the smaller markets plus others appear along with several arts and crafts vendors selling their wares. Live music and special events are a given.
Joshua makes a living from the farm for his family and last year tripled his income. “I can’t compete with commercial farmers so this [farmer’s markets] is the niche I need,” he said. “For me,” he adds, “the health thing is important; everyone should do it; it’s so important to touch the Earth.”
How much do his tomatoes cost? $2 a pound.
Some farmer’s markets managers have an added motive in addition to providing farmers a sales venue. They enable those in need to have access to fresh, nutritious food. Main Street Market’s mission says, “We envision a Chattanooga made vibrant and prosperous through our connection to the food we eat and the people who produce it.”
The Brainerd Farmer’s Market, a project of Grace Episcopal Church, accepts food stamps (EBT, SNAP, WIC) as do Lookout Farmer’s Markets. They now allow double a purchase for fruits and veggies thanks to a Community Foundation grant. Grace Episcopal also offers free community gardening plots.
The Chattanooga Food Bank produces 2000 pounds of produce each year in their garden for emergency food bank boxes serving the needy. This organization also supports Gateway Towers gardening by providing seedlings, tools, and soil replenishment for individual community plots. Some plots are raised to assist those less able gardeners.
Hamilton County Health Department serves food deserts, places where residents find no grocery store within a mile. Step One Project’s Mobile Market regularly brings locally sourced food to such neighborhoods. They hope to incorporate permanent markets within already existing corner stores as well.
H*Art Gallery and Southside Abbey help feed those in need in the area. This nonprofit gallery feeds their homeless artists offering fresh produce from their garden to those recently housed. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, and assorted herbs including basil for pesto will be available in season.
Hill City Community Garden plots are available to individuals for free to anyone who meets with the coordinator for an orientation. There is also a communal garden where volunteers can help with composting or lead garden classes for neighborhood children.
Other gardens also offer learning experiences such as at Bethlehem Center, Mercy Junction, and Crabtree Farms. Crabtree Farms learning comes by volunteering or through participating in workshops. Many students also visit Crabtree Farms during school hours.
UTC’s students are literally digging in this spring. They are planting and preparing a one-acre garden on campus, a space that is known as the Teaching and Learning Garden. Think outdoor classroom and outdoor laboratory.
The Garden finds its roots in conversations with faculty, staff and students who wanted such a space where students from a variety of academic programs could participate in growing fruits, vegetables, and more. While the garden obviously connects with academic programs like environmental science, topics and conversations surrounding the garden also relate to issues of health and wellness, issues of socioeconomics, and access to whole/real food, issues related to aesthetics and design, issues related to numerous themes found in art, and environmental literature.
In short, the garden will provide a hub of activity and teaching/learning in classes that range from the natural sciences to the social sciences and from the humanities to the fine arts.
While food grown on other campuses usually goes to feed students, in the case of UTC’s garden, a significant portion of the produce will be given to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. The rest will be sold (think campus farmers market) with proceeds going toward student travel and research.
Joel Houser, Southeast Conservation Director with the Land Trust of Tennessee and former farmer/director at Crabtree Farms said, “I’m very excited that UTC is planting a teaching and learning garden for many reasons. Gardens offer great interdisciplinary educational opportunities that can be used for curricula ranging from design to biology to geology, the arts, nutrition and beyond. Gardens offer beauty to communities in addition to nourishment and add to sense of place in that community. The garden being an official program of the university will ensure its success and will benefit many students and those they will affect in the future.
With urban gardening and farmer’s markets taking on a life of their own, what’s next? Alex McGregor is still showing the way: “I have long preached that zoning, regulations, and the tax structure have driven agriculture farther and farther away from the city. What we need to do is fold it back into the city itself. Going on in other places are rooftop farms, empty lots being turned into mini-farms and community gardens. Even better than buying at a farmer’s market, get your own out of the back yard. There’s nothing fresher.”
Perhaps we will return to the old “Victory Gardens” either in backyards or in containers at windows or on patios. Still, there’s something to be said for visiting a farmer’s market. After all, a farmer’s market is a gathering place where one not only chats with the farmer who grew your food, but your neighbors as well. Expect to see more outlets for organic and locally grown food and with it, perhaps growth in positive community life and a boost to our local economy.