home Environment, Food, North America, Science & Technology The Rewards and Challenges of Working at an Urban Farm

The Rewards and Challenges of Working at an Urban Farm

Walking onto the site of the Noyo Food Forest on the brink of spring, you’re struck by the amount of activity going on; beds exploding with vegetables, volunteers building up compost and weeding, starts bursting out of their flats in the greenhouse. Founded in 2006 by Katrina Aschenbrenner, Kim Morgan, and Susan Lightfoot, the Noyo Food Forest aims to ‘cultivate a healthy local food system by providing opportunities for education, social enterprise, and community involvement.’ The primary production farm is located along the eastern border of Fort Bragg, a small town on California’s north coast, right next to the high school.

With three hoophouses, a greenhouse, and a growing number of production beds, the quarter acre site is capable of producing an astonishing amount of food considering its small size. Garden Manager Gowan Lester explains that they focus on grow biointensive agriculture, a method developed by John Jeavons. This labour-intensive method can be highly suitable for urban farming, because it produces a large volume of food in a small space.

There are some splits in the grow biointensive community. As Lester explains, some farmers believe heavily in producing compost materials on site, which requires dedicating beds to this purpose—up to 60% of the garden, in some cases. Others bring materials in from other sources, as Noyo Food Forest does, because they cannot afford to give up precious production space to compost crops. Those who are willing to bring in materials from offsite can find grow biointensive highly useful for urban farming. While this is not truly self-sustaining, as is the goal of grow biointensive farming, it can be the best option for urban settings.

Fort Bragg is not exactly an urban community, but Noyo Food Forest is run like a lot of urban farms, and it provides a real-world example of urban farming in action. The organization provides food to the local schools as well as some regional restaurants, and feeds volunteers as well. Although they also rely on outside suppliers, the schools take advantage of the favourably priced organic fruits and vegetables from the Food Forest; 2/3 of students are on the free and reduced lunch programme, and some eat only at school, making the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables particularly critical in that environment.

Aschenbrenner, discussing garden planning that took place in 2005, said that they heavily researched urban farming models when setting up the Noyo Food Forest, relying on case studies from across the United States to establish a sustainable and functional garden. She’s also thankful that they were able to reach a memorandum of understanding with the school district to work on school land, transforming the Food Forest into a vital community asset instead of simply a small production farm.

Photo by s.e. smith: volunteers and staff gather for a casual luncheon featuring foods from the garden.

Availability of produce from Noyo Food Forest has changed the food landscape at local schools. Lester tells the story of the decision to send fresh sugarsnap peas to the elementary school. Initially, the proposal met with opposition, because everyone said children wouldn’t eat fresh peas out of hand like snacks. They’re now the most-requested item, highlighting the fact that children, like adults, enjoy sources of fresh, flavourful food.

Volunteers are welcome at Noyo and they help with every aspect of food production, from seeding flats in the greenhouse to harvesting produce for the schools. Along the way, the hands-on experience comes with valuable lessons in grow biointensive and garden management, which people can take away to their own home gardens. People can also take home produce, providing an opportunity to work in trade for fresh food, which is especially valuable for volunteers who don’t have their own gardens and for low-income members of the community who might have trouble affording organic produce.

As a community space, Noyo Food Forest becomes a gathering place, but it’s a space with an important mission: connecting people with their food, and showing people how they can produce their own. Lester has plans to set up a chicken tractor, as well as bringing lambs and rabbits on site, expanding the scope of the garden as well as providing community attractions to draw people to the site. She’s also working on ways to ensure that members of the community aren’t left out and are actively welcomed through garden programmes aimed at them; for example, she’s developing a set of accessible beds for people who have trouble bending to work at ground level.

What I see as an occasional volunteer at Noyo Food Forest is a microcosm of possibilities; the site has tremendous food production potential and it’s staffed by people who are enthusiastic about farming and public education. Unfortunately, many of the visitors are already farmers and gardeners. Rather than being drawn to the farm by a desire to learn about food and farming, they’re there because they love working with plants and like volunteering their time.

This illustrates a significant disconnect that urban farmers need to overcome in order to be effective; they need to be reaching members of the public who aren’t interested in urban farming. One area where Noyo Food Forest has succeeded is in attracting youth. A class that started with a handful of students has been growing week by week as enthusiastic students tell their friends and encourage them to come by the garden. As students work in the garden, they acquire skills and want to learn more not just about farming but food preparation and food politics.

If adults could be infused with the same enthusiasm, Noyo Food Forest could be taking the community by storm. The organisation has established a number of community gardens at various locations with the goal of doing just that. By showing how much is possible in a small space, and how production gardens can be beautiful as well as useful, they hope to pull adults to the main production farm so they can learn more.

At the same time that I love working in the production farm, it’s also a constant reminder of the social and class barriers that can come into play with urban farming. The farm is mostly open during regular working hours, which excludes a lot of potential participants. Grow biointensive also requires significant labour, which may not be feasible for many community members, and could be a turnoff for people interested in producing food but unaware of alternatives. The farm lacks bilingual outreach and education, a significant problem in a community with a large Latino population. Like working in the garden itself, there’s always more to do when it comes to building up an urban farm and making sure it serves members of its community.

Urban farming has immense social potential, but it’s not for everyone; the question is how to shift the dynamic to make it more accessible to as many people as possible. Noyo Food Forest is working to show that there’s a place for everyone on urban farms, but everyone hasn’t gotten that message yet.