Keep the interns out of the salad greens. Rely on compost, not raised beds, to deal with contaminated soil And shoot to become an urban farmer, not a guard on the hoops court.
“It’s more important to be a farmer than a basketball player.”
A former pro basketball player and current star of the sustainable urban agriculture movement gave that advice to a young gardener in Fair Haven while shining a light on—and offering advice to—New Haven’s legion of hidden neighborhood farmers.
Those tidbits of advice were sprinkled through New Haven Saturday during an upbeat “Big Stink Tour” of the city’s hidden neighborhood vegetable farms.
The advice came from Will Allen, a 2008 MacArthur Foundation-selected “genius” for his work in sustainable urban agriculture.
“It’s more important to be a farmer than a basketball player,” Allen told 10-year-old Timothy Wilborn at the Clinton Avenue School garden.
The tongue-in-cheek-titled “Big Stink Tour” was designed to take gardeners across town to see New Haven’s winter garlic crop going in. Its purpose was also to call attention to the diversity and achievements of the sustainable agriculture projects in New Haven, as well as successes and failures conquering “food deserts” in town.
These range from the acre-plus market garden at Common Ground High School in the west to the six raised beds of greens of the year-old garden behind the Clinton Avenue School. There kids from the nearby Quinnipiac Terrace apartments like Timothy are growing, and eating, the first zucchini of their lives.
The tour drew some 40 people, including many gardeners involved in the collaborating organizations such as Common Ground, Solar Youth, City Seed, Yale Sustainable Food Project, and the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT).
The NHLT flew Allen in from Milwaukee, where he presides over the 23 farms of his Growing Power organization and is an apostle for increasing productivity through composting and worms.
He headlined the rolling out of a food action plan for the city, created by the city’s all-volunteer Food Policy Council and unveiled at a “summit” downtown on Friday.
According to Common Ground Executive Director Melissa Spear, some of the action plan’s goals include increasing access to healthy food, strengthening the local food economy through marketing and education, and celebrating urban agriculture and its impact on daily life in the communities of the city.
And thus the tour.
As Timothy peered at a few tiny red wrigglers in his palm, Will Allen looked down and declared, “If you had 30 of these, you wouldn’t have to do anything else to the soil. It’s all about the soil! Tell that to your parents.”
Throughout the tour, gardeners peppered Allen with questions large and small. For example, New Haven Farms’ Rebecca Kline wanted to know how to take the next steps to grow her operations.
Allen’s advice: “It’s hard to combine education with production. Keep them separate. If you want to produce a hundred pounds of salad greens a day, don’t let those interns inside [the commercial] fence.”
What about dealing with a universal problem here in town—the contamination in much of old industrial New Haven’s soil? Try raised beds?
Allen doesn’t like those. “Kids can hurt themselves on the corners,” he said. Excellent compost, with those trusty worms, will take care of most of the petrochemical contamination beneath, on its own, he said. The soil will also stay in place. “When the soil is rich enough, you get rid of the wooden boards.”
Therein lies the problem, and his overall advice not just to Timothy but all New Haven urban agriculture: “New Haven is like everywhere else. The enthusiasm is there, [but] there’s not a lot of production. They have the people. The second phase is scaling it up. Get kids properly trained. Programs are in place [in New Haven, but more is required.] You need to make an investment of dollars,” he said in order for urban ag to have increased impact here on people and even to become profitable.
“Good compost costs 85 dollars a yard,” Allen said.
It was a sunny Saturday perfect for the planting of garlic at the New Haven Land Trust’s Ivy Street community garden, the tour’s first stop. There kids from Solar Youth, having trained for a week at the Yale Farm, dropped “soft silver white,” “inchelium red,” and “Romanian red” varieties into furrows of prepared, rich, dark soil.
You have to drop it in point up or the root won’t develop, Janoah said. Then both kids proceeded to work under the approving gaze of visitors measuring from outstretched pinky to thumb at least the six inches required between plants.
They both enjoyed the work, but differed on points of use: Damaris is in general not fond of garlic, but she does like it on a cheeseburger. Janoah prefers onion on his burger.
New Haven Land Trust’s Chris Randall said that of the 50 or so community gardens in NHLT’s portfolio, the biggest producer by far is Bob Wright’s Starr Street garden in Newhallville. There Wright presides over a small crew of volunteer farmers who annually put in three crops. They give away to neighbors the harvest of potatoes, collard greens, and other vegetables familiar to the palates of New Haveners like Wright, many of whom emigrated to New Haven after World War Two from North Carolina and other points south.
Will Allen towered over the proceedings and said if the soil were top notch, “you could get another row in and plant the garlic closer together and get ten times the production.”
The Big Farm
At the market garden at Common Ground High School, the recent harvest was on display. By far the largest operation in city limits, the produce feeds all the students in the cafeteria, stocks a new mobile market that is bringing the bounty of the earth to the elderly in nearby Ribicoff Cottages, and supplies compost and other materials to starter gardens around the city.
Here too students like sophomore Shantel Ratchford were busy popping garlic. Never mind that she wants to be not a farmer but a Women’s National Basketball Association player—or failing that, a vet. She was enjoying the garlic popping. That’s the technical term for separating the clove from the head and readying it for planting, which will take place next week.
The more serious agricultural action took place down the rows of string beans. There Maritza Rodriguez was part of a crew picking the string beans that had wilted badly because of a killing frost Friday night. “We’re picking it because they’re dying,” she said.
It was her first time at such a chore; she was efficient at it. She offered visitors the wavy yellow beans off the vine. “They’re really tasty,” she said.
West River Beckons
On to the Little Red Hen garden adjacent to the Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School. Although this site is three years old, this is its first productive season, and ubiquitous activist Stacy Spell was leading the erection of a hoop house to grow garlic and other winter crops.
When Will Allen arrived, a crew of volunteers had already raised the two 16 by 16 by 8-foot frames.
They included half a dozen men working with Alvin Chappell, a staffer with Project More‘s green programs. He said the ex-offenders are working off ten hours each of their required community service through assisting to build the hoop house and generally helping Spell and the half dozen local families who use the garden.
Allen pronounced the soil rich, and the hoop house very promising, although he advised Spell to add four additional purlins for support of the structure.
Come what may with the hoop house, Michelle Streater pronounced her experience at the Little Red Hen garden “awesome.” She lives nearby and grows vegetables in one of the family plots. Just this morning her daughter asked for an omelet, she reported. She prepared it with broccoli, tomato, and onion, all grown at Little Red Hen. “It does taste better when you grow it yourself,” she said.
When Will Allen walked into the corner triangular lot of New Haven Farms at Clay and Shelter streets, he took in the lines of rich soil between the prepared furrows, the absence of any raised beds, and declared: “This is one of the more impressive gardens. I’m impressed with your beds,” he added, augmenting his mantra that if you compost right, the soil stays in place and no wooden borders, dangerous to kids and shins, are required.
Blood Pressure Lowered By Raising Veggies
That was good news for Nancy Dennett, co-owner of Chabaso Bread Company. With her husband, Dennett started the flagship garden of New Haven Farms four years ago in the plot behind their business on James Street. The Clay Street garden is the seventh urban ag site New Haven Farms has developed.
Click here for an article on how wanting to help the pre-diabetic and hypertensive among her 250 employees led to the collaboration between her gardens and the Fair Haven Community Health Clinic. The clinic writes formal prescriptions for its patients to do physical work in the garden and to eat its bounty.
Dennett engaged in a technical discussion with Allen about dealing with the arsenic and other chemicals beneath the soil. He assured her that six to ten inches of wood chips, on top of which two feet of top-grade compost is dropped, would do the trick. “The micro fibers of the roots [of the plants] won’t go into it,” he assured her.
She said she still worries about the poison leaching up. He advised her continually to check to see if the plants contain traces of dangerous elements.
She was less worried about chemicals and more about the next steps for her gardens. “We need community organizers,” she said, to get local people on the immediate blocks working the garden and having a sense of ownership. She praised the city for helping turn unused land to productive use, but, echoing Will Allen, conceded new dollar investments are now required.
“If we had the money we could hire someone to do it.”
On next year’s urban agriculture tour City Seed‘s Nicole Berube said, she would like to see progress measured in part by having more of the 500 currently unproductive vacant lots in the city producing food.
The festive tour had to speed its way to conclusion so Will Allen could catch a plane back to Milwaukee. There, he said, he has 50,000 cloves of garlic to deal with.