Posts By Karen Briner
For Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFI), farming was always a part of family life. Her grandfather, who came from Jamaica, set up his own mini farm right in Boston where he grew everything from grapes to a wide variety of vegetables. Her father then did the same thing in their home. Now as executive director of the Urban Farming Institute, a job that requires plenty of energy and enthusiasm, she is actively pursuing the organization’s all-encompassing mission.
Patricia recalls how recently students from a local university came over to discuss business planning. At one point the students said, “So you have to decide in your mission statement, which thing you’re going to do – are you going to work on the commercial sector and create the farmers, or are you going to engage the urban communities?” Her response was unequivocal: “There is no separation. We have to do it all. Because as you’re farming, your community is walking right by you and you want to engage them, get them involved. That’s the best way to do it.”
David King grew up in Kansas where, despite being very poor, his family ate very well because they grew their own food on his grandfather’s three acres. This was where David got his first taste of seed saving.
As founder and chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA), David’s been committed to teaching others how to save seeds. He says he was spurred into action to start the library in 2010, when the Obama administration approved GMO sugar beets.
“It was just too much,” he says. “I lost it.”
So on a cold, drizzly day in December of 2010, he held the first meeting of SLOLA. About 45 people showed up, more than he had expected, and 15 of the people who attended that first meeting are still active members today. As stated on their website, SLOLA was founded with the idea of enabling all who live in the Los Angeles area to have access to nutritious, pesticide-free, non-GMO food.
Jana Kinsman never anticipated that as a beekeeper she’d be the focus of news trucks and cameras. But when honey bees swarmed on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago this past summer, she found herself capturing them before a crowd of curious onlookers and journalists. “It was a great intersection of city life and the natural experiences that are all around us. It was a wonderful education opportunity.” Educating Chicagoans about their pollinators is something close to her heart and something the founder of Bike a Bee would like to do more of.
Jana always had an interest in bugs and a strong desire to get involved in urban agriculture. She discovered that she wasn’t any good at growing things, so she thought she might be better at the livestock aspect of it. Since honey bees are the smallest type of livestock, she took a beekeeping class with the Chicago Honey Co-op in 2011. The following year, she worked with a beekeeper in Eugene, Oregon, getting hands-on experience.
Only a bird’s eye view truly reveals the extent of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl; a city crossed by ribbons of highways supporting unending streams of cars, where even its river is mostly encased in concrete. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a fertile place of such abundance that its name conjured up images of vineyards, orange groves and orchards; in which neighborhoods were better known for their celery than their celebrities. A timely new book, From Cows to Concrete: the Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, by Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber explores Los Angeles’s past as the agricultural center of North America, tracing its precipitous path as it developed into a concrete metropolis. It’s a cautionary tale that also offers hope for the future in the form of the burgeoning urban farm movement and a renewed interest in community and backyard gardening.
Seedstock recently spoke to co-author, Rachel Surls, Sustainable Food Systems Advisor at the University of California where her job includes overseeing a volunteer program of 300 trained master gardeners who teach local communities sustainable gardening.
In a city of concrete that seems to extend forever, where every vacant lot looks destined for development, a patch of green is a welcome sight. Julie Beals, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council (LACGC) describes the response of residents of an East Hollywood neighborhood when they heard of plans for a community garden. “I had an older man break down in tears when I told him because they just expect the empty lot to be turned into a big apartment building.” She adds that in really dense neighborhoods people are thrilled when they find out they’re getting a community garden.
Speaking of the LACGC’s mission, Julie says, “We see ourselves as primarily community builders and we do that through gardening – it’s a way of bringing neighbors together, often for the first time.” The organization also encourages classes and programming in the gardens so that it’s more interactive and social. It’s not unusual for her to hear people say, “I lived here ten years, I never knew my neighbors and then I got a garden plot and now I know the people in this neighborhood.”