seeds in the city
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Seeds in the City
May, 2013, Page 92
Photography by Laura Segall
Somalian immigrant Duniya Abdikadir, 24, works at Cross Connections, a community garden in Phoenix run by the International Rescue Committee.
Envisioning thousands of city gardens, urban farming educators aim to transform Phoenix into an oasis of edibility.
“Gardening in the desert is one great big grand experiment,” Greg Peterson says. The educator and urban farmer is instructing a group of gardening enthusiasts who’ve gathered for a citrus-grafting class at the new Root Phoenix, west of Piestewa Peak. He taps the root of a sturdy sample tree and instructs his students on the delicacies of grafting desirable specimens onto the root stock of heartier plants.
Ironically, Peterson began farming in the desert after a friend told him about an encounter on a tropical island. His friend was sailing in the Pacific and had docked on a small isle and wandered into town asking for the nearest grocery store. A villager gestured toward fields of ripe fruits and vegetables, where all of the island’s produce was grown and shared among community members. Go pick dinner, the tribesman said.
Greg Peterson, founder of the 10,000 Farms
Initiative and Root Phoenix
Now, Peterson – along with a cornucopia of activists, students, politicians, refugees, and backyard farming buffs – are grafting this grand community garden idea onto the surprisingly hearty root stock of urban Phoenix.
Phoenix currently supports approximately 2,000-3,000 urban gardens, a number that is likely to grow as the city draws back restrictions on urban farmers and implements a new plan to green vacant lots. In addition, Peterson aims to exponentially increase that number by educating locals on desert farming techniques, a grassroots movement he dubbed the 10,000 Farms Initiative. And he’s finding fertile ground in the minds of many Phoenicians.
According to the World Health Organization, more than half the world’s population currently resides in urban areas, and that number is expected to boom to 70 percent by the year 2050. With the decreasing availability of rural land, and agriculturists to farm it, edible backyard landscapes may someday help fill food-supply deficits. Hence, urban farming appeals to those with a prepper mentality or self-reliant streak. But others are making a statement: They’re supporting local farmers rather than international conglomerates. They’re promoting greenhouses over the greenhouse-gas-producing 1,500-plus miles an average crop travels before reaching the corner grocery store. They’re selecting fresh food that’s more nutritious than travel-weary produce. And they’re choosing the satisfaction of picking dinner from a backyard or community farm.
While Peterson says his goal of creating 10,000 urban farms falls well short of the 80,000 or more small farms it would take to feed every Phoenician, it’s a start. “I take on great, big, crazy, audacious goals. Who knows if it will ever happen? But that’s not the point.”
While Phoenix may seem like inhospitable terrain for a vegetable revolution, Roosevelt Row programs manager Kenny Barrett is sprouting produce in an even unlikelier place: the bed of a rusty, orange-red 1985 Ford pickup.
The truck is part of a national campaign to educate communities on urban agricultural methods, as seen in the Wicked Delicate film Truck Farm. Originally a community-funded Kickstarter project, this second incarnation of the Phoenix Farm Truck – christened in September 2012 and emblazoned with “RORO” (short for Roosevelt Row) over the original Ford logo – is funded by Chipotle, which sources produce from local and organic farms whenever possible.
Nine student “greenterns” from the nearby Bioscience High School planted carrots, Swiss chard, bok choy, and other vegetables from seed, along with thyme and kale plants for “instant gratification.” To decrease strain on the vehicle, crates and packing material were placed inside the bed, topped with a thin layer of compost and soil. Greenterns take turns tending the plants, setting up school visits and instructing younger children on growing techniques.
Barrett is no stranger to horticulture, having turned the front and side yards of his former rental house on Roosevelt Row into a community garden with small plots offered at $10 per month. Founded in 2009, Growhouse is as much a product of Barrett’s desire for personal knowledge as it is a catalyst for community bonding. “When I started, I wanted to know where my food came from,” he says. “I didn’t know what a Brussels sprout plant looked like, and that bothered me.”
Likewise, Bioscience High School senior Cassandra Valdez didn’t know beans about farming prior to her acceptance as a greentern. Since entering the program, she has become not only a skilled gardener but a proponent of education and self-sustenance. “I believe it is important for younger students to understand where their food comes from because it will allow them to make more educated choices [about] what they want to put in their bodies,” she says. Barrett plans to reward his inaugural crop of interns with a homemade meal incorporating the pickup’s harvest. The goal of the truck isn’t to provide food, he explains. “It’s mostly about the education and connecting the dots for the students.”
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