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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Urban Farm Collective Converts Vacant City Lots into Edible Gardens, Exchanges Food for Hours Worked

Urban Farm Collective Converts Vacant City Lots into Edible Gardens, Exchanges Food for Hours Worked

March 7, 2013 |

Photo Credit: Urban Farm Collective.

It all started with a simple idea: bring neighbors together to transform vacant city lots into neighborhood food gardens. Why? To improve the quality of food available to the community. From that little seed, the Urban Farm Collective (UFC) has grown into multiple working gardens throughout the Portland, Oregon area.

“In the seed stages, it was very much just a handful of friends,” says Urban Farm Collective Director Janette Kaden. “We had yards and we thought we’d  share them and turn them into gardens.”

But it took some creative thinking to cultivate that seed idea into the strong community network it has grown to be.

“In 2009, we started with one garden,” Kaden says. “About a dozen people came to the table to talk about this idea of transforming vacant lots into gardens. But, out of that, only one or two people would show up at the garden to work.”

Kaden laughs when she says this, but it was clear that this was a problem that needed to be addressed. Those early planners reasoned that so few would show up to actually do the gardening because, though the idea was supported, the people needed guidance from experienced gardeners, Kaden explains.

“We put the word out that we needed experienced garden managers,” she says. “Then they started contacting us and offering to help. We’d do some vetting to make sure they were confident and qualified and knew enough to share their knowledge.”

From out of this grew the UFC’s Apprenticeship Program. Handled in a very individual way, the Apprenticeship Program allows the garden managers to have the freedom to teach as they feel works best for them, according to Kaden.

“We do have some basic guidelines we give our garden managers,” she says. “But it’s fairly loose. Each manager does it a different way. We’re all volunteers and there’s a lot of freedom regarding how the teaching is done.”

In 2012, the UFC became affiliated with the Oregon Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust (OSALT). This gave the UFC the infrastructure to provide tax exemptions as well as other benefits such as liability insurance for land-sharers, according to Kaden. It also ties in with the UFC’s bigger picture.

“Our mission is about bringing neighbors together to grow their own food,” Kaden says. “We hope to have a garden every few blocks. Right now, we’ve got 14 gardens in Northeast Portland and 17 gardens, total, in the greater Portland area.”

From out of the success of the UFC’s growth sprouted the issue of how to distribute the food that is produced. UFC members did not want to use the dollar as currency. They  preferred using a direct form of time-trade.

“We developed a barter system of exchange,” Kaden says. “It was a difficult process. The model we used was the Portland Time Bank, which uses time as currency. We developed our own time-banking exchange. Folks enter their hours [worked in the garden] and we exchange those hours for food.”

The UFC manages what it calls a Barter Market, a weekly food market stocked literally with the fruits and vegetables of the gardeners’ labors. Any leftover food is donated to one of their strongest supporters, Saint Andrews Food Pantry.

“The larger picture here is that, if we can get a critical mass of a collective that is outside the cash-for-goods economy system, well, that’s kind of the culture of the UFC, in general,” says Kaden. “We’re working toward helping to create a culture that is about reusing things and  sharing resources.”

The long-term goal, according to Kaden, is for the UFC to become a closed-loop system.

“We’re firm believers in the fact that Mother Nature really knows best,” Kaden says. “The commercial agricultural complex is the other way. They don’t recognize the damage they’re doing to the microbiology of the soil. We [the UFC] use integrated test management strategies  that involve crop rotation, the planting of companion plants and planting beneficial flowers that attract birds and bees that pollinate. We use ‘good pests’ that eat the ‘bad pests,’ the pests that are bad for the plants. For example, aphids will eat your whole cauliflower but ladybugs will eat the aphids. This way, you don’t need pesticides. It’s all more to do with creating bio-diverse ecosystems that are balanced. To that end, one day, we would like to incorporate some chickens so that we can have the eggs, of course, but also the fertility that comes from their manure.”

The very long-term goal of the UFC, according to Kaden, is to inspire and help educate other urban communities to follow suit.

“We want to have some kind of resource that other cities could access,” she says. “Right now, we’re sharing the model with other gardens in Portland and we hope to make our model available to other cities, to have some kind of deliverable handbook, especially including the barter economy.”

The benefits of communities growing their own food are plentiful, says Kaden.

“We’re trying to teach people how to grow food in a sustainable way and to be self-reliant in regard to the food they eat,” she says. “I feel like there’s a shift happening. People are getting away from consumerism. Neighbors are engaging with each other.”

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