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Westchester Urban Farm – The Journey from Wasteland to Wholesome

June 28, 2012 |

The following is a post by Mary Lissone, a veteran gardener and one of the first to be recruited by longtime friend Karen George to help set up the Westchester Urban Farm (WUF) in Los Angeles, CA.  Lissone provides advice, content and design for the project, communicating the WUF story in multiple formats to get people excited.

As with all journeys, a reason for taking the first step is always needed. None could have been more earnestly felt than one mother’s wish to help rehabilitate the reputation of her son’s local high school.

Much was already in progress – in 2011 it became a magnet school, Westchester  Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM), specializing in Aviation & Aerospace, Environmental & Natural Science and Health & Sports Medicine; but it was receiving little attention as most of the community had already “decided” on its image and nothing short of an ET landing and benediction would change it. Even the impressive solar panel project in the parking lot (highly visible) didn’t seem to elicit any response.

However, there was one bit of magic that had not been considered – a quarter acre of garden from the early days of the high school (late 1940’s) when gardening methods were part of the curriculum. One of the teachers, Sue Sass, had kept it alive as a side project, tending to the existing old growth, but the greenhouse, lathe house and raised flower beds were in total disrepair and most of the land looked abandoned. In the dilapidated lathe house, she started a propagation project of native marshland plants – taking cuttings and seeds from the Ballona Wetlands Institute, with a vision of establishing a local nursery that would someday make these plants available to the community. The little natives thrived, and waited patiently for their moment of glory.

That is until Karen George, a farmer’s daughter from northern California’s almond region, and mother of a son soon to enroll in the school, came on the scene. George simply couldn’t understand why this land was not being used. It took more than a year of constant yammering in everyone’s ear – willing and unwilling listeners – to finally capture and ignite the imagination of a few avid gardeners, among them Rafael Quezeda, an urban farming champion of hydroponic and aeroponic techniques. Quezeda’s company, The Waters Wheel, which implements sustainable recirculating-water farming systems in global population centers to address hunger and food security, outlined a program and developed drawings. When he managed to get a small grant from New Orleans-based social-responsibility group, Projects With Purpose, it gave the project a much-needed stamp of approval.

Before and after rendering of the Westchester Urban Farm

In January of 2012 Westchester Urban Farm was launched with the intention to create a model example of how school gardens can transform the lives of students, teachers, community stakeholders and the environment. The goal is to give students a rich learning experience along with the peace that comes from working in nature, nutrition, discipline, and the pride of accomplishment, while also taking advantage of economic opportunities by selling the produce and flowers at the local Farmer’s Market.

But George not only wanted the land to be productive, she wanted it to be beautiful and inspiring – something the neighborhood could look at with great pleasure, since the school faces several residential areas. Once Projects With Purpose committed to an actual renovation day – May 20, 2012, everything started falling into place. Fliers went out via every conceivable communications method. Large banners with only the WUF logo were put on the fencing– subtly announcing that something good was coming. What could it be…hmmm….”farm”…. Now people no longer passed by without so much as a glance at the dismissed landscape. They were curious.

And it worked – other parents volunteered time, money and labor to help demo and prep the area for May 20. Community business leaders donated materials and products. Earth Day, April 22, 2012 was designated as the community kick-off, High school principal, Robert Canosa-Carr, managed to entice a group of students to volunteer their time – and WUF had its first work force.

Now it was time to get the big guns out – George enlisted her architect husband, Jed Zimmerman of AECOM to finagle some pro bono time from noted landscape architect, Esther Margulies, RLA to conceive a Master Plan for the project. The plan utilizes high-production growing, featuring re-circulation-water farming systems. Existing structures on the property will be rebuilt and materials re-purposed and recycled.

Thanks to Project With Purpose’s enlistment of sponsor Association of Corporate Counsel, May 20th yielded new raised beds and the dull auxiliary classroom buildings were painted a vibrant green. There’s so much more to do, but the idea and anticipation is firmly planted now. Further funding will be sought from neighborhood booster clubs as well as corporate sponsors and donations from individuals.

The moral of the story is that there must be at least one committed person – willing to tilt at every windmill– until someone finally listens. It’s also a good idea not to get bogged down or scared of answering such questions as, how much money will this cost? Who will do it? Etc. etc. Just put one foot in front of the other and walk. Everything else will fall into place by whatever magic – most notably that we have reached critical mass and the human psyche is very open to the idea. Even two years ago it wasn’t being heard. But it is now. Now when George tells her crazy story, people are inspired by the idea. Now is the time to start greening every square inch of a planet that has waited so patiently for us to come to our senses.  And Sue’s natives are going to have quite the tony lathe house in which to flourish.

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