On the transformative potential of community-scale food production
In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
This spring, someone transformed the vacant lot across the street from my in-town apartment here in Cortez, a town of 8,000 in southwest Colorado. Until the transformation, I had never really noticed the parcel of land. It wasn’t an after-hours hangout, was never vandalized, and was thus invisible to me as I ran, biked, or drove by it nearly every day.
That all changed in May, when the piece of ground formerly cloaked with the standard vacant-lot quilt of red clay dirt and desert weeds got plowed. That expanse of newly-turned, fresh red dirt, baring its face to the desert sun, was hard to miss.
At about the same time the plowing occurred, the dead and dying elm trees surrounding the lot were cut down. The place now had full sun, and was transformed not only physically, but also in my imagination. I walked over to the fence separating the field from the street, gazed at the empty field and thought to myself, could this be a future garden?
I sort of doubted that the plower’s intention was to garden the space. People here have lots of heavy machinery, and sometimes they seem to use such machinery for things like plowing a field under just for kicks, or to kill the weeds, or maybe to show their kids how the tiller connects to the riding lawnmower.
But then one day a lone man in jeans appeared, with a truckload of tomato and pepper plants.
In the space of a couple evenings, he placed the plants in the ground. As the weeks passed, a sprinkler appeared, squash sprouted, and rows of sweet corn lined up at the garden’s periphery. I saw the gardener harvesting out there one night, beer can in hand. Since he didn’t seem to be around all that much, plenty of weeds made their home in the space as well. But the cultivated plants survived, and by August I could look out my front window and spy a well-heeled garden just across the street. It was kind of inspiring.
I’ve always enjoyed growing plants, but this year particularly, I’ve noticed the power of a simple garden — to feed, to teach, to inspire, to beautify. And gardens here are growing and thriving, and, importantly, they’re everywhere. This year, as I’ve taken regular runs around the neighborhoods that comprise Cortez, I’ve seen tomatoes plopped amidst front-yard ornaments and smiled at squash plants spilling out onto city sidewalks. Having only lived here a year, I can’t say if the prevalence of front-yard gardens is a growing trend or simply a quirk of small town life, but man, people here are growing food, and it’s exciting.
Why? Because gardens are transformative places. It’s magical to find a dark purple potato deep in the soil. I still get excited every time I pull a fresh, crunchy radish out of the ground just four weeks after planting a pinhead-sized seed. It’s easier to understand what food is and where it comes from after having a garden, and gardens are jump-off points for conversations about the greater world — an interaction between two people about which type of pepper does best here can start a whole dialogue on local foods. Additionally, a gardener can easily look at a product — in the grocery store, or at the farmers market — and recognize it as real food (could I grow, make, or preserve that?), or something else.
In the rural West, gardens seem like an agreeable space for change to occur. Growing your own food fits with the rugged homesteader mentality that persists in many Western minds. Gardening doesn’t have the elitist tinges that many in the “flyover” states associate with the coastal alternative food movement. It’s gritty, down-to-earth, and anyone with access to a bit of land (plentiful here), rudimentary tools, and seeds can start one just about anywhere.
I’m involved with a group of people who want to start a community garden in our town. (For those interested in learning about community gardens, the American Community Gardening Association has a lovely web site.) We’re hoping to get land donated, and are applying for grant money to pay for materials, irrigation, dirt, seeds, etc — all the parts that go into building a garden. I hope it happens. If it does, the culture of food in Montezuma County certainly won’t change overnight — but families and individuals will have a space not only to produce food, but to come together as producers, to learn from Master Gardeners who will volunteer teaching time, and to experience a food chain, from seed to table, right in their hometown.
Although a community garden does not address all the problems with our food system, it has the advantage of being more accessible than a conference but more engaging than a purchase. We already have a gardening culture in Montezuma County, and people here seem to want a community garden. It makes sense to work with what we have, to use our preexisting heritage as a Western town full of do-it-yourselfers with a lot of moxie, but maybe not a lot of money, and start something that might work at the rather slow rate of change that exists in the rural West.
And over the course of a season of planting, weeding, and harvesting crops, a lot of conversations can take place — about food, the environment, what to do with that funny-looking kohlrabi, and, heck, maybe even about how to make the world a better place.