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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Local and statewide information on a variety of current topics for home gardeners and market growers.

Goals for expanding urban agriculture in Bloomington-Normal by Reid Young

Goals for expanding urban agriculture in Bloomington-Normal

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – It is as accepted as any long held horticultural practice that people in the U.S. are disconnected from the source of their food, regardless of whether the population is urban, suburban and, increasingly, in rural areas as well. Thankfully we have many schools, non-profits, restaurants and even corporations making incremental changes to close the gap between grower and consumer. But there is a long way to go, and local community-based solutions can enrich the fabric of neighborhoods, educate youth, train adults, feed families and provide exercise or therapeutic benefits.

It was under this guise that we began a food production garden at the Unity Community Center in 2015. Gardening was not new to the youth of the Orlando/Northbrook neighborhood in Normal. Programs run by Master Gardeners have been successful in the after-school programs and summer camps at Unity since 2003 when the center opened. We wanted to bring more opportunities to connect with the working and non-working adults, students, parents and their children, veterans and many individuals with disabilities that we see pass by our building every day.

While our primary goal was simply to grow more food, and give more of it away where it is needed, we, of course, wanted the project to serve as an opportunity for education and youth development. We considered the below goals to ensure long-term success, which might be considered for any community-based agriculture project:

Value the Product and Our Resources: Central Illinois has some of the best soil on Earth, capable of producing vegetables and fruits that smell and taste as good as anything grown anywhere else; and with local production, we get the dense nutritional benefits of fresh food.

Satisfaction = Work + Fun: At our planting and harvesting parties, we ask our neighbors to help us seed trays for transplant, make furrows in the soil, turn compost, haul mulch and pull weeds amongst the dozens of other tasks required to get growing. But we also offer food we have harvested, give cooking demonstrations, play fun music that spans the generations and we plan activities for children. Two of our most successful activities: a garden scavenger hunt and an insect circus. If we engage the children, the parents will engage as well.

Develop Community: We want to be a welcoming space for neighbors to gather, learn, eat and work together. It is a slow process. Trust, community and friendships are not often built overnight. For years we have collected contact information of neighbors, put out yard signs and flyered the neighborhood to get people to utilize the resource and educational opportunities we provide. Much more important, we are realizing, is getting the community to connect to each other, and on a consistent basis.

Put Knowledge to Work: We planted, harvested and distributed about 700 pounds of produce in 2016 (with barely any tomatoes, but that is another story). And believe it or not, a large part of the garden's work is done by children, mostly between ages 8 to 12, who attend Unity's summer camps. We spend the first weeks taking slow walks through the garden, making observations, writing and drawing, and developing task lists. By the end of the summer, the youth are independently developing lists of needs and prioritizing tasks. Once youth know what to do, it is hard to get them to stop!

Evangelize: In the six years I have been doing work at the Unity Center, it has been common to meet neighbors who tell us they miss being able to garden, or that they grew up on a farm and would love to work with us if only they had known we were there. The limit for the project is set only by the individuals who wish to work with us—we tell our friends and neighbors "we grow food at Unity, and if you need it, or just want to come and work outside, you can come and get some too!" We are there, and we will continue to be. We want to grow food with our neighbors!

Securing Land: We are slowly repairing the land that had the topsoil scraped decades ago. Satellite pictures show us that since the mid-90s, the soil has met little organic matter, and plenty of discarded gravel and concrete clean-outs (we could barely get grass to grow before 2014). Our hope is that for 2017, and for many years to come, we will offer our neighbors 10x10 plots to begin the transformation from a production garden to a community garden; from barren, exposed till to rich generative soil.

In the meantime, most of Bloomington-Normal's neighborhoods would benefit from inviting agriculture into empty lots, fence rows, untended yards, corners of parks, the side yards of our businesses. Once you invite the neighbors to come harvest with you, your community may grow a little richer.

And besides, why spend so much time mowing? Let's eat!

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