Friday, July 18, 2014

Community Gardening for Food and for People

At last night's meeting of the not-yet-one-year-old Cobb Community Gardens group, Bobby Wilson was the guest speaker. Mr. Wilson is past-president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA),current CEO of Metro Atlanta Urban Farms, and all-around long-time expert on community gardens. It was an interesting meeting, but a few things from his presentation stand out as being particularly useful.

One is that community gardens should have a two-part goal: growing food and building stronger communities. Mr. Wilson actually addressed that more specifically when he said that 10% of the effort should be about growing food and 90% of the effort about building community.

In the community garden attached to his urban farm, the community-building is partly through monthly meetings at which there are lessons in both gardening and leadership. The meetings offer an opportunity for fellowship and networking, and the meetings also are used to reach out to homeless people each month. Basically, the gardeners need a reason to come together on a consistent basis, and the monthly meetings provide that for this particular community garden.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has put together a Community Gardening Manual that explains the basics of setting up and running a community garden, and it probably is not a coincidence that the first "organizational consideration" listed on page 4 in the manual is "What is your purpose?" The purpose, to an extent, defines the group and is one motivation for the gardeners to be actively involved.

Mr. Wilson spoke briefly about food deserts, and it sounded as though providing good, nutritious food to people in food desert areas is a major motivator for many community gardens in Atlanta.

Another idea that really stood out was of the usefulness of attaching community gardens to small farms. Of course, Mr. Wilson didn't phrase it quite that way, but urban farms, unlike community gardens, are eligible for Federal funding through NRCS and the USDA for some property improvements, like water wells and high tunnels. For small, urban farms, it also was suggested that certification as Naturally Grown, a process that costs a lot less than organic certification, could be helpful in selling produce and gaining funding.

A third idea that is a project of the community garden at Mr. Wilson's urban farm was the publication each year of  a garden calendar that celebrates the group's achievements. He passed a copy of one of these calendars around, and inside there were pictures of the garden, including the year's garden King and Queen, along with a listing of milestones and accomplishments, and in the back there was a member directory/phonebook.

This was a wonderful document for the group that probably also helped promote active participation. The discussion about the calendar was part of a larger point about marketing the garden. My notes from the meeting include, in large print: "Marketing Your Program is Important!" The giant exclamation mark on my notepaper reflects the tone of voice in which this bit of advice was delivered.

Mr. Wilson brought a banner on which a pledge to work toward sustainable food production was written. He asked us all to sign it before we left. The pledge was this:
I pledge allegiance
to our environment
through sustainable
agriculture and practicing
good stewardship.
One very big announcement that Mr. Wilson made at last night's meeting is that the ACGA is planning to move headquarters from Ohio to Atlanta. We are all hoping that the move will provide access to some great training and other resources to keep our communities strong and well-fed!


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