Friday, March 25, 2011

Urban Farming Challenges #12 and #13

I have a hard time saying no to people.

When I first started preparing the soil on my first urban farm lot, I drove around on trash day in the fall and piled bags of leaves in the back of my pickup truck.  I dumped the leaves out on the lot as a mulch to conserve soil moisture and increase the organic content of the soil.  Pretty soon, a guy in a beat-up pickup truck drove by and asked what I was doing.  When I told him, he said he could get me a lot more organic matter for free.  How great is that!

Fast forward two years:

A pile of sticks, grass clippings, leaves, beer bottles, and a bed frame.  Pretty nasty.  Took us two mornings to clean it up.

Two challenges for the urban farmer: communication and trash management.

First, communication.  Here are my suggestions:
1) Be specific with what you want when people offer to help you.  (This guy also dropped off old Christmas trees one year until I asked him to stop.  He also drove up on my prepared beds to dump bags of trash.  I didn't do a good job of letting him know that I only wanted leaves...and where he could and couldn't leave them.)
2) Always get contact information from anyone who wants to help you.
3) Be proactive in keeping in touch with neighbors.

Next, trash management.  Here are my suggestions:
1) Keep the farm as clean as you can.  Trash begets more trash.
2) Our first farm location naturally collected wind-blown trash...find a way to create a wind barrier or just be consistent in lot clean-up.
3) If we were to farm on this lot again in the future, I would get the neighbors rallied around the farm.  No one likes to see a trashy lot, and with enough community support, we could have kept it looking much nicer.

Hope this helps!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Step Closer

Found the Land Bank office in the County Clerk Office in the County Court House this afternoon.  I'll have to write a travel guide for WyCo residents to navigate the complex labyrinth of government offices in downtown KCK.  That or build a teleporter to get people easily from one building to the one where they need to be...I can't tell you how many times I've been in City Hall when I needed to be in the Court House.

Anyway, started the process to free up land for an urban farm in our neighborhood.  Spent some time at the Register of Deeds (also in the Court House) last week looking up all the parcel numbers for the lots--twelve of them are candidates for the land bank.  We literally have over 2 acres of vacant lots in a one block radius from our house...and even more than that if we expand the circle.

Still thinking and praying and weighing the options, but this will at least make it legally possible to start if we decide to go this direction.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Urban Farming Challenge #14

I arrived at the vacant lot mid-morning, and something didn't look quite right.  The row cover was ragged, and the steel wire I had used to support it was bent out of shape.  When I lifted the row cover from the bed, I saw a set of footprints walking down the middle of the baby carrots and beets.

A month or two later, as I did field work, I noticed that there weren't quite as many pepper plants in the bed as I remembered planting.  Sure enough, closer examination revealed jagged holes where the pepper plants had been...and even the putty knife that had been used to dig them out.

Vandalism and theft are two frustrating challenges faced by many urban farmers and gardeners.  By nature, most growers are generous people and are more than willing to share the bounty of the season...which makes it all the more frustrating to be given the shaft by faceless neighbors.  Why didn't they just ask?  Why don't they respect my work?  What were they thinking?

To be sure, crop loss is not unique to urban environments.  Farmers in more rural settings have reported more devastation from deer, mice, and voles than I have ever experienced from humans, but the psychological effects of being stabbed in the back still smart.

Here are a few solutions that might help minimize the damage.
1) A fence.  I'm generally opposed to fences; they almost encourage vandalism more than discourage it.  However, Riet Shumack of Brightmoor Youth Garden recommended creating a beautiful fence instead of a barrier fence.  Maybe a natural log fence...or a living bamboo border.
2) Networking.  Be a neighbor.  Get to know the people who live around the lot, and be a part of the community.  It won't solve all your problems...but it will gain you friends (and even potential customers).
3) Keep it clean.  Weedy and trash-strewn lots attract vandalism like poop attracts flies.  Maintain your lot, and trouble will be more likely to leave you alone.
4) Be present.  The more you are at your site, the more you will be seen.  The more you are seen, the less likely someone will be to think they can sneak in and take something.
5) Smile.  Remember the important and beautiful things in life.  Even in frustrating situations, there are always moments to treasure.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Urban Farming Challenge #15

So, you want to start an urban farm?

You've found a level, accessible vacant lot that shows a lot of promise.  You start walking around it, and then you see this.  It's hard to grow vegetables where someone's driveway used to be.

You stick a spading fork in the ground, and it turns up eight inches of clayey subsoil--the topsoil was scraped off years ago when the neighborhood was being "developed."  It's hard to grow healthy vegetables when there aren't many nutrients in the soil.

Or maybe you're transplanting tomatoes.  You stick the shovel in the soil, step down, and "thud," you hit a big rock.  You start digging it out, and realize that it's a lot bigger than you thought it was.  You have it halfway out, and then you notice another rock...and another...and another.  It's hard for tomatoes to thrive on top of an old house's stone foundation.

Or maybe you're really thinking ahead.  You send some soil samples to the University of Massachusetts, and they come back with estimated lead levels of 900 ppm.  It's hard to sell vegetables to people when you fear that they may do them more harm than good.

Urban soils are one of the big challenges facing urban farmers, especially those farming "reclaimed" land in blighted neighborhoods.  On our urban farm, we're trying an experiment this year.  We have a new piece of land that has above-average urban soil, but there is a foundation of a building under the soil (the building was never completed, according to neighbors, and the foundation was simply buried in the soil).  Instead of tilling the ground and rooting out the foundation, we simply laid 3"-6" of compost on top of the soil and mulched it with an additional 6" of leaves.

This solves two problems: compost enriches the soil and helps mitigate the effects of (potentially) high metal content in the soil, and the no-till raised beds provide an extra layer of insulation between the crops and the rocks buried in the soil.

If you want to start or develop your urban farm, you will need to discover and address the challenges presented by your soil.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One less more farm?

Two days ago, they tore down the house across the street from ours.  I did the calculations on Google Earth, and there are now about 1.2 acres of contiguous vacant lots on this block.  Hmmmm...  :)