Field NotesRefections and insights. Things we thought about while we were outside.
I asked Sarah Newman to write a bit about year as our AmeriCorps VISTA Member, and what is new for her this fall with Seedleaf.
As it is with many things in life, my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the last year flew by quickly. I spent many days working with volunteers, meeting neighbors, and reaching out to grantors and donors. I learned a lot, especially that there is still much more good work to do. I am really thankful that I get the opportunity to continue my involvement with Seedleaf as Project Manager.
My new role is to help make sure that Seedleaf projects are supported financially and by the many helping voices and hands in our community. I am excited to work beside our neighbors, Ryan and Christine, as we strive to make our food system more equitable through growing and sharing food. You may see me at the Castlewood Community Garden on Monday evenings or at community events, and you will still hear from me when you’re ready to also join in this good work as a volunteer. You can reach me via email, email@example.com.
Or better yet, let’s meet in a garden, because I learned something else during my year of service as a VISTA: our soil grows more than the seeds we sow. It fosters humility, shows us our strengths (both collective and individual), breaks barriers, and connects us to our neighbor. Our soil grows community. Yeah, let’s meet in that space. I hope to see you soon.
We are so glad to continue to have Sarah’s talents and passions in on our work of Nourishing Communities. You can help us keep that good work going for the next growing season with your donation today.
I drove the last block towards my home through the end of a summer shower. The sun considered reemerging. As I parked I saw a pale green fruit lying in the shade of the pawpaw tree beside the shed. It had not been there when I left in the morning. But there it was now. I passed through the gate and reached into the shade through the large leaves, deep green and wet. I paused for a photograph. I looked around for a dry place to sit. I found none. Everything remained soaked, even as the clouds broke. I sat on the tailgate and studied the pawpaw in my hand. It was unbruised, though it was now starting to take on my finger prints. It smelled like a beach, or like some too-sweet drink that comes with a straw. I broke it in half lengthwise with my hands, having no knife or spoon. The sweet smell burst forth now. I looked again at the pawpaw, yellow flesh and deep brown seeds. The seeds are preposterous! I bit into the fruit. Glory! The thing is like nothing else I have had. The pale peel, I came to realize, is not bad. Soon all I have are six cleaned seeds and a short stem.
This was a real fruit I encountered on a recent afternoon. No veil was lifted. There was no angel band. But I did have the good fortune and the great privilege of eating a thing from a tree I planted. This was nothing I could deserve. In fact, deserve may be the very last word that would occur to me just then as I studied the wet pawpaw seeds.
I spent a recent weekend with activists and artists and helping professionals at the Kentucky Rural Urban Exchange, which is a series of three weekend conferences designed to cultivate connections, exchange ideas, and work across the geographical and cultural boundaries that often isolate Kentuckians. We were shown some of the fantastic work going on in and around Bowling Green at places like the FFOYA House, the Bosnian Islamic Center of Bowling Green, and some of the natural features and underground waterways in Cave Country.
Saturday’s trip in the late afternoon to Need More Acres Farm was particularly stunning. After Michelle Howell welcomed us to her 200 year old farm house, she led a tour of some of the fields where they grow fresh food all year round for ten families. The hoop houses allow the Howells to extend the harvest season through the winter. Michelle explained their presence at their local farmer’s market, and other outlets for their produce. I was especially struck by the small self-serve store where folks could come pick up their weekly share (including protein) of farm-raised food.
And after the tour, a feast. Our group was blessed that afternoon to find a table full of fresh sweet peppers, tomatoes, and melon grown on site and chopped for us. In fact, the peppers were just arrayed on a platter, not cooked or cut, but simply beautiful. There was a plate of local cheese, homemade bread, and several juices and ciders to share. A string band tuned up and started to play as we gathered on blankets and straw bales. The sun began its decent in earnest, and the shadows lengthened, and I quietly witnessed some magic underway. I was inspired.
I don’t want to sing too fondly of the merits of inspiration. I have been troubled by this beauty before. I felt this way after visiting David Wagoner and Arwen Donohue at Three Springs Farm. My first visit to their place occurred twelve years ago. And I was similarly inspired when I visited a community garden designed with and for people without homes in Santa Cruz, California. That one happened nearly twenty years ago. These visits, and the memories they create, are a touchstone, and part of my continuing education. I see things that, gratefully, I can’t unsee. I observe some solution that only seems to work there, and that was only discovered after years of experimentation. Many times, I see something that I would just love to have for our community. I see these head-turning things in other places and I can’t help but want that for our place too.
(This past week, I was comparing notes on this visit with my friend, Rebecca Self, who told me about the kitchen she and some folks from FoodChain saw there at Need More Acres Farm. The Howells are able to process their food on site and to make food available to a number of emergency food organizations. In doing so, they have created several jobs for local community members. Rebecca too was beyond impressed with what she saw.)
Still, for all the trouble it may cause me, I am very grateful for the Howell’s work and gracious hospitality. We shared that meal. We saw the work underway there in Scottsville, Kentucky. We sensed the pride of place there, which felt like permission to return home to our work, and to remain faithful to our places.
Earlier this year, I was asked by the folks at the Kentucky League of Cities to write a piece for their summer magazine on why people may be interested in a community garden. I thought, going into the late summer, and considering a fall garden (which can be great in our climate for those who are not overly tired) it would be good to revisit some of the important Whys of gardening together. So here is what I submitted.
I am an amateur gardener. I grow food in a small city, and I take great delight in this activity. In fact, I found it to be so life-giving that in 2007, I started a nonprofit organization called Seedleaf, whose mission is to nourish communities by growing and sharing food. We do this by caring for 15 free u-pick community gardens throughout the north side of Lexington. We then welcome neighbors to harvest any green thing they recognize. As we go into our 10th year of growing food together, and despite our setbacks and our many “learning opportunities,” I am writing to heartily recommend to any reader that community gardening is a worthwhile task for a number of reasons.
The first and most obvious reason to grow a garden is for food. In my gardening, I lean heavily on recommendations from the UK Cooperative Extension’s publication called “Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky” (ID-128). In it, a beginning gardener can get an idea of what to plant when, and how much a row of a particular crop may bear. For example, if a person planted 100 row feet of tomatoes, that person could expect to harvest 100 pounds of fresh tomatoes over the course or a summer. This simple equation (which masks the miracle that is vegetable gardening) speaks to an initial argument in favor of growing a garden, namely, we want a garden because we want 100 pounds of tomatoes!
And growing vegetables is linked closely with another popular activity: eating. I personally eat three (or four) times each day, and the quality of my food varies over the course of the year. During a span of the year, the growing season, a portion of my diet comes straight from my garden. These greens, or tomatoes, or berries, are not just fuel for my body. Eating one of these items sustains me in a deeper way. Each item is a reminder of my role as a steward of a piece of land. Each item is a reminder of the capacity of a small part of the earth to produce a surprising amount of food. When we grow food, and especially when we grow food together, we engage in some mindful consumption, a remembering. Not only do we want to have 100 pounds of tomatoes, we want to eat 100 pounds of tomatoes and recall all the sunny harvest days that go with them.
Or maybe we don’t want to eat that many. Confessionally, I have been one to grow tired of a particular row of plants that were more productive than I needed them to be. There have been days in September when I look at that row of tomatoes and I feel like I need a pep talk (though it feels like a betrayal to mention that when I write these words in the winter). In a good year, I will pick them and share them with a neighbor. In this way the food becomes a blessing again. And here is another good reason to grow a garden: so that we can share 100 pounds of tomatoes.
Still, some of the greatest rewards for starting a garden with a group of people have little to do with the nutritious food. Through the work of Seedleaf, I have had the good fortune of seeing neighbors share work in a garden, weed plots together, water through the dry season, commiserate over some recurring pest, and celebrate an abundance together. All of these small acts help cultivate social capital, civic engagement, and neighborliness. To gather in a garden and share work in what was a neglected space helps sustain people in small and meaningful ways. Just as microscopic organisms conspire in healthy soil to promote vegetative growth in a garden, so can neighbors work together over the course of weeks and months and growing seasons to build or rebuild a local identity, a local food culture, a sense of pride in a place. This all points to yet another compelling reason to grow a community garden: to build positive and sustaining connections with and among a network of neighbors.
I have observed another benefit of sharing the work in a community garden. So many people have a vague but deep concern about our society, our families, our institutions. Yet we feel powerless to affect positive change with regard to these concerns. To attend to a plant, or a row of plants, and to harvest and share a crop alongside a group of concerned citizens can help prove that our work matters. In the garden we can find others who share our values relating to health, and community. Our work together can affect a small measure of growth and healing. Many times I have looked up from a row I was weeding on a hot day only to feel a gladness at all the volunteers in the garden there with me. Our work matters, and we are not alone in our care. Here is yet another reason to grow a garden: to cultivate a sense of self-efficacy within a person or a group.
This year, people across our Commonwealth will become motivated again to get their gardens started. They will bring their unique knowledge to their garden spaces, and plant with their needs and longings in mind. I have some idea about how our Seedleaf gardens will start to look, and what we will plant because we know what our neighbors like. But there is always variability. One of my favorite moments from 2016 was an occasion when three community gardeners from Murray, Kentucky, visited Seedleaf, and had an informal tour of several of our gardens. When we met up for a discussion, our guests lamented about some of what they saw us accomplishing, and how that could never work in Murray. But it seems to me that places like Murray may have a few advantages over places like Lexington: more recent collective memory of food production and home food processing; more willing hands and idle tillers; more potential seed donations; less concrete. It is my experience that gardening in community will draw on a diversity of skills and strengths within a community, and will address a number of glaring needs in an ennobling way. For all of these reasons, and no matter where you are, or where you’ll begin, I would encourage any reader to go get in a garden, and for any prospective fall gardeners to get back in the garden.
Whenever I am orienting new volunteers to the garden work, or giving a tour in one of our 16 free u-pick gardens, I often forget to talk about our end user, the person or people who will eat all this fabulous fresh stuff we are growing. But this question rises from the small group in front of me, probably from the gardener who has been blessed (cursed!) with too much produce all at once. Where does the food go? It also seems to be important to grantors and stakeholders who need to know how far their donation goes to alleviating hunger. And they are right to wonder. It is a great question, one for which I do not have a great answer. Our gardens, with one exception, have no fences or gates around them. They are free, open, and available to any neighbor who recognizes this or that crop and cares to take it home. So maybe I should say, for the most part, I don’t know.
But I do know what I have seen. This summer I have witnessed area youth get surprisingly excited about some of the things they have harvested. Through our SEEDS program, a group of middle school aged gardeners have helped us care for the raised beds at the North Pole Community Garden, the Castlewood/New Beginnings Community Garden, as well as the new community garden at the Seedleaf Urban Farm. They watered and weeded a variety of plants in June and July. It may be that our students’ investment of care gave these harvested items more value in their own eyes than we had observed in summers past. We also experimented with some market research. Our students took bundles of onions to share with their neighbors, and got good feedback about what neighbors would pay for this produce in seasons to come. There was so much excitement on potato harvest day that we committed to take two boxes for this crop next year!
Another layer of sharing occurred recently when I met two parents of a few of our SEEDS students. One woman taught me that the young squash leaves can be sautéed and cooked with or as greens. She did not take too many, as the plants were still able to grow the squashes we had an eye on. The father of two of our guys was harvesting sweet potato leaves into a bag he had brought, also to be sautéed. These folks were finding healthy greens they could eat where I only saw sprawling vines. I was glad to observe these students and their parents getting the food that week.
On a recent Saturday afternoon with loads of potatoes and onions on the truck, I made a delivery to the Lighthouse Ministries. Much of the harvest came from the London Ferrell Community Garden, just a block away on East Third St. It had been harvested by volunteers. Lighthouse Ministries prepares a hot lunch six days each week, and a dinner on three days each week. When we make this delivery we know that neighbors living with profound food insecurity are getting the food we grow.
I went on that Saturday to take some of the potatoes to a neighbor on Ohio Street near our garden there. She later described them as, “righteous,” as in, “When can I get some more of those righteous potatoes? They were so good!” What a great descriptor for a humble tuber! Here again, neighbors are the ones receiving the food.
I mentioned that our volunteers help with the harvest. When we work in the gardens and see how generous the earth is, and we see the fruit of our healthy soils, I always want that message, that lesson, to hit home with those who are doing the work too. To that end, I always invite volunteers to take some of this stuff home with them. Many times even this good stuff gets regifted–its just too good to keep to oneself!
This past week our friends at GleanKY sent a group of volunteers to clean up the Southland Christian Church Garden. They harvested cabbage, cucumbers, beans, some corn, tomatoes—a great variety of things. And we know they take the produce to a number of feeding organizations where it is most needed. Harvesting is a big part of the work in a garden, and we were so glad to share the work on a hot week!
Then there’s me. I see lots of produce that is imperfect, but very much edible. I see splits in the tomatoes that dramatically shorten their shelf life. I see cabbage that had wanted to bolt, but would still make great kraut. I am grateful to take some of this stuff home and to get ready for the next crop in that row.
Who gets the food? I can ask our current food system the same question. It looks like the best food goes to the highest bidder. It looks like a lot of our neighbors living with food insecurity are asked to be content with low quality food, or with food that is highly processed to increase its shelf life. It looks like an interruption is in order.
In our gardens we are doing our best with a small staff and a motivated group of volunteers to welcome all of our neighbors (not clients; not service recipients) into the garden to see what is here and to imagine how best to use it. Who gets the food? We do. We all get the food.
Yes, I received the emails. I saw the posters. I understood that someone had declared last week to be some new holiday season called Burger Week, and that I was expected to go out and dutifully eat one or several hamburgers, photographing my food along the way. But since I am such free-thinking and modern man, I quietly rebelled. I for one would not be getting involved. And I took some little pride in my resolve. I continued to walk right by the posters, and to scroll past the burger-centric posts.
However, my partner did not share my resolve. The steady drip of photos and nudges did their work. On Thursday morning, my wife, Jodie, told me in so many words that a certain photograph of a hamburger had compelled her to make the following bold decision: we would be eating at County Club that evening, and that our daughter and I could meet her there at 6pm. I grinned (maybe I grimaced) at the announcement and said, Yes, darling; let it be so.
DeeDee and I learned a couple of key lessons about the dinner hour that day. We observed that 6pm in Lexington in July is every bit as hot and sunny as 2 or 3pm in Lexington in July. That is to say very sunny and quite hot. We also found that 6pm seems to be just the time when throngs of Burger Week people converge on the burger purveyors. We were not alone in this family decision of ours. We had joined the crowd.
As we sat at our sunny table, Jodie made eye contact with another mom. We welcomed this woman and her daughter to join us, as there were no other tables available. They too were hot and tired from a busy summer day. We did not know these folks, so some initial small talking ensued. They had not been to this place, so we told them what we liked. DeeDee spoke up for the deviled eggs. We all tasted the sauces on the table to see what would best suit our fries. We heard about the young woman’s day at an amusement park, and her school. We heard about her siblings. I don’t know how it happened, but as we drank our sodas and ate our burgers and shared a table, somehow, we were restored.
I am ashamed at how often and how completely I forget about the power of food. Because of food we had this really lovely and surprising meal with strangers. Because of food we forgot about the heat and we transcended all the inconveniences of a summer day. Because of food with these neighbors we were not allowed to focus on our own family, but to broaden our circle of care just a bit. Because of food this all seemed very natural, common, and good.
We did not photograph our food. Somebody snuck this one picture when I literally wasn’t looking, but took no proper family selfies. We did not write a review. In our way we said yes to Burger Week, and this human moment was our reward. Once again, the joke was on me.
On the hottest and longest days of summer my mind returns to my tried and true Why questions: Why are we busy doing this? Why do we think this will make any difference? Inconvenience wears me down. I am no patient learner. Sometimes a message breaks through as I visit the gardens, watering and weeding. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I hear.
Today it was a year-old offering from a podcast called Invisibilia focused on non complimentary behavior, stories about people who encountered evil and interrupted the cycle by responding. with kindness, with love. Brave people who faced fearful things, dire things, but who did not respond in kind. What happens when people do the unexpected, when they change the tone of a conversation? Apparently, if you believe everything you hear on radio shows, amazing things start to happen.
Hearing these stories did a work in me. I had to think about my reactions to problems and concerns in my own life, big and small. Personally, I do not do this very well. I respond to my angry/disappointed children with my own anger and disappointment (seasoned with sarcasm, which never helps.) It is so hard to breathe through even small conflicts and to retain a deeper view, a grounded perspective that could cultivate some non complimentary behavior in me.
But in my work, in subtle ways, I think Seedleaf may be about this work of interrupting negative cycles. Where healthy food is scarce we are growing and sharing it for free. We answer the world’s old story of scarcity with small plots of abundance. Where waste is piling up around us, we are composting, that is, recycling organic material to benefit our gardens again. We are finding and creating value from landfill-bound kitchen scraps.
At the end of a summer day, our systems of oppression remain largely intact. The wealthy continue to eat well. The earth continues to suffer. Many of our neighbors are priced out of the privilege of healthy food and will face significant diet related health problems as a result. These stories are vast, shrouded in an air of inevitability that feels as stifling as July’s humidity. We at Seedleaf, our staff and volunteers, alongside our neighbors, are undaunted. We are watering these gardens. We are picking up compost. We recommit ourselves to these small acts, not from desperation, but from a deeper place. With a stubborn hopefulness, we remain engaged, glad for a chance to work in resistance to a loud and constant drumbeat of scarcity. We have heard the story of the shrinking pie. But look at all the potatoes in this twenty foot row. Look at all the flowers on the tomatoes and the okra plants. These small signs are just that; these gardens will not solve everything. They are simply the contributions of a group of people who recognize that our response to big problems is not predetermined. In the face of scarcity, we need not settle for fight or flight. We can respond creatively. In fact, we have lots of work to do.
Most mornings I do not leave the house looking for inspiration. I miss the miraculous things happening within the reach of my gaze. I am too busy for all of that. I don’t make time to just wander. That is not part of my privilege these days. I have a head full of lists. I have tasks and obligations, commitments, longings. All of these things blind me to most of the loveliest, quiet little amazements on display.
It was not the case yesterday as I walked through our sleepy neighborhood a bit before sunrise. I attended the sidewalk in an unhurried way, and I was distracted by our park, and a low-lying layer of cloud hugging the bowl beneath the baseball fields. Walking through the park was not the direct route to my friend’s house, but since he is not overly concerned with punctuality, I proceeded toward this fog bank.
All the landmarks were there: the young trees, the play area, the picnic tables. But they took on some otherworldly importance with this blanket of cloud, a shroud. The air was cooler than it had been on the sidewalk. The light was softened. The grass was thick with dew droplets, and the ground already full from yesterday’s soaking rain. This cloud would be pulled back with the sunrise. But for now all was veiled.
What did this mean?
I cannot say. I was only an observer. But I saw what this beautiful, temporary thing was doing to me. My pace slowed. My lists were gone. My breathing became deeper and more complete. I took it all in, as best I could, knowing I could only leave it all there. I took a photo, but it doesn’t bear sharing.
This is the way it always goes with inspiration. I moved through the cloud and into my morning, and I knew I was cleansed of distraction. The fog brought great clarity. The obscured light helped me see our common neighborhood park in a new light. The beauty knocked me off course. Now I could proceed humbly, grateful, ready to practice resurrection.
I know–it looks like a bunch of grass. It looks like something that will take a long time to mow. It looks like something I would talk myself out of. Except that it also looks like a fantastic opportunity. I recently signed a lease that will allow Seedleaf to use 2 acres of land that is currently a field of grass. The land is within New Circle Road on North Limestone, across the street from a package store that sells highly processed food, alcohol, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.
This acreage currently represents an opportunity for Seedleaf to offer education and food production on a bigger scale than ever before. We will be able to grow more food, share more food, and even have areas where we grow for market. We will be able to host more participants in our SEEDS program, allowing more area youth to come learn about growing and cooking their own food.
While we have come to an agreement with the landowners, we also plan to reach out to nearby residents to gather ideas and concerns about a proposed garden space. Specifically, we’d like to meet our new neighbors and hear their ideas about varieties of vegetables that would be most important for them, items we can grow in the community garden areas (which will be free and open, u-pick spaces).
The board and staff of Seedleaf are all very excited about this open door, this new project. As we begin our 10th summer in operation, we feel qualified to begin something on this scale. And we are glad for a chance to have the Seedleaf Urban Farm in the heart of our service area.
We would love to have your partnership in this endeavor. Please keep an eye out for a chance to come volunteer at the Seedleaf Urban Farm this summer. Or, if you can’t give your time, please make a one-time donation or a recurring donation to our work!
As the director of a community gardening organization, I have to plan most of my weeks to accommodate meetings and administration work, as well as some physical labor tending to the gardens. Except in winter. We are not tending gardens currently, and that makes winter an ideal time to sit around in a heated space and enjoy some snacks for a morning of visioning and planning with others interested in the work of nutritional justice. And that is exactly what we did all morning last weekend. Though I have had over a week to think about our Now What, Seedleaf? event on Saturday, January 14, I am not sure my thoughts have caught up with all the encouraging feelings coming out of the morning. It all felt like a quietly invigorating success.
It started with some ground rules regarding an Open Space meeting, which I won’t explain here. The short version is that we facilitate a self-organizing conference and allow people to gather for work sessions pertinent to their concerns. We had no guest speaker. Any attendee could propose a topic. And after the agenda was set, we got to work. Here are just a few of the things I observed:
- The group was energetic. It took us very little time to propose a number of topics to discuss. Participants came with different backgrounds and entry points to Seedleaf’s work. We had three board members, and several garden coordinators who are our boots on the ground. I heard lots of great ideas about how to make our gardens even stronger in 2017.
- The snacks helped. We had contributions from A Cup of Commonwealth, Great Bagel, Sunrise Bakery, and Stella’s Deli.
- The rain helped. I caught myself looking out of the windows at the Sayre School Buttery and feeling grateful for the rain, and grateful for indoor work to do.
- Some groups were large. Community engagement was a topic that drew a big group, and is something we at Seedleaf want to do much better in the seasons to come. Another important topic was Seedleaf’s sustainability, or as one participant asked, How can we support Seedleaf to continue to play its role in our foodshed?
- Some groups were small. I remember finding a group of just two, two friends who had a common bond through community gardening, and the love of growing things, and the love of our community. They had not met before Saturday, but they both appreciated the connection. I wonder what goodness can come from a connection and a conversation?
There was much more to observe and enjoy, and this post does not capture it all. But we did take some good notes (and I am happy to share those with you, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org).
And you can join in on the conversation. We are planning to have two follow-up meetings to this big group meeting. On Saturday, February 4th, 10-noon at the Plantory, the Now What Committee will spend some time pushing some strong ideas forward. Please let us know if you are interested in joining us for that one, though space is limited. We will do another on March 15th at 11am, also at the Plantory.
Special thanks to all who came to share the work, who cared enough to come and listen, and to add their perspective, their experience, their contribution to the slow work of healing a food system. On some Saturday mornings I have felt more than a little lonely about the work still left to do to nourish our communities. But last Saturday I was not alone with the work. I was among friends, at a banquet of ideas and energy, excited about what we can do next.