patchwork farms saga

In our dreaming and scheming before and after arriving in C’ville, urban agriculture ideas were high on list. Amongst them was creating a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business in the city. The basic idea is to grow food grown in a number of small plots in people’s back or front yards, which is then distributed to share-holders who have paid for weekly produce deliveries at the beginning of the season. Neighborhood garden stands and farmers markets are other obvious possible venues for selling produce.

Given our relatively limited connections in town, and our definitively limited gardening experience, this quickly seemed to be a down-the-road kind of project. But then we heard a group of people talking about doing just such a thing!

We kinda crashed the meeting.  It was only the second for the fledgling group.  Even at that stage it’s easy for people to be attached to their vision of a project and to be wary of newcomers.  But Angel, Patrick, and Wendy were all very gracious.  It helped that Kassia had already met Patrick, I’d met Angel, and both of us had met Wendy (she is the partner of an ex-Twin Oaker).

We were very clear up front that we all wanted it to be a financially viable business.  But how exactly to approach this?  The question of ownership was addressed almost immediately, and after some initial tension we dealt with it very well.  We were able to agree on a general model that allowed for a collective of owners, and that valued labor investment equally with money. It didn’t take long for us to come up with a scheme where each person would be responsible for a total investment, including a minimum number of hours and minimum number of dollars.

We also determined early on that community organizing, neighborhood empowerment, and education were important aspects of the project.  To that end we decided to focus on a number of prospective plots in Fiffeville, where both Angel and Patrick live.

As the conversation progressed through meetings and over email, a couple things became clear.  One, we were all really excited.  The communication in the group was excellent.  Everyone was energetically taking on tasks and following through.  And, best of all, we all really liked each other.  But the other thing that became clear was that we were taking on too much.

We quickly decided to scrap the CSA plan for year one.  Setting up the infrastructure and having confidence in meeting the expectations of customers in that way seemed too ambitious.  Let’s just sell at Farmers Markets and in the neighborhood, we decided.  But then Wendy researched the minimum amount of legal business structure we would need to sell, period.  We realized that even that was beyond what we were up for year one.

In the first year, we’d need to get experience growing food on plots that had little to no gardening done on them in the past. And we’d need to set up our internal organizational structure and develop our internal relationships between each other.   In addition, we wanted to connect in with the larger neighborhood.  That all seemed like enough to bite off for year 1.

In the midst of all this re-tooling, Patrick had a conversation with a friend named Karen Waters, who is the executive director of Quality Community Council.  He’d taken a course with her about community organizing, fighting poverty, and dismantling racism.  QCC runs a high-profile community garden in a housing project in the middle of town.  Patrick went into the conversation expecting enthusiasm, and instead got concern:  Whoa, hold on, y’all are moving too fast, trying to take on too much, and going about this from the wrong direction.  When Patrick reported back to the group, we were a little surprised, but also agreed and thought we were addressing their concerns in how we were scaling back.

Cheerfully, we moved ahead, scheduling a ground-breaking work-party in a vacant lot that Angel had gotten permission to use.  The work-party was hampered by bad weather, but it was still exciting to be moving forward.  Several days later we had a second meeting with QCC.  They were not thrilled.

Having worked on urban agriculture projects, especially in the context of community organizing, they were aware of three things: one, there are a million details and a million ways things can go wrong; two, when urban agriculture projects go bad QCC gets the credit, even if the project had nothing to do with QCC; three, these kinds of things work well when the community is really involved from the ground floor, and this takes time.  For example, QCC had spent 5 years planning for the community garden at Friendship Court, which included a year of interest mtgs, cooking classes, and other events before planting anything.

QCC was also concerned about us using the vacant lot. It struck them as opportunistic and disrespectful. For one, they said, you don’t know the history of the neighborhood. There was clearly a house there that’s been demolished. There have been a number of demolitions in that neighborhood that people haven’t felt good about. Second, you don’t know who else in that neighborhood who might have been eying that lot, thinking about what else they might like to see happen there.

The obvious retort to the later is, well, anyone else could have found the owner and asked them to use the land. We just did it first. But this ignores the sense of entitlement that people of our demographic are taught to assume, and the sense of disenfranchisement that people of color and working class people are taught.

Also, we were, in a way, assuming proprietorship of the land. We would be the ones saying what was happening there and setting the terms of involvement for other people. All of a sudden it did seem like we were acting like a colonizing force, appropriating “unimproved land” from the native inhabitants.

You need to get to know the neighborhood first, without pretense, our QCC allies said. Then go and ask people what they’re into. Do they even want a garden there? Be ready to hear no and accept it as an answer. If people are into it, great, you’re chances of success will be a lot better off.

Kassia and I realized that we’d heard this before. People we’d interviewed in Portland had stressed the importance of relationships as the basis of organizing. Build the relationships, tell stories, and let the common interests and shared struggles come to the surface. Action will come naturally.

We’d been enlightened to the fact that oppressed people, in the US and around the world, have had well-meaning, white, middle-class people coming to them for a long time saying, “we know what your problem is, and how to solve it! Come join OUR organization and we’ll make things better!” All of a sudden we found ourselves getting ready to repeat that pattern.

Patchwork Farms has several more meetings with QCC to talk about what makes sense.  At this point it looks like the project is splitting in two; one that is focused on neighborhood gardening, and one that is a business.  The two of us are looking into working with QCC to start some small community-esque gardens in people’s yards here in our own Ridge Street neighborhood.  This could build towards a larger “farm” on public land for the Ridge Street area.  And, we are starting re-engage the process of creating a backyard-garden business, installing gardens at people’s homes and distributing the excess veggies.

It’s interesting that what started out as a conversation about developing a business model progressed into a more complex organism incorporating community organizing, and has now split.  Notably, one project is operating from a perspective of small-scale, geographically-based community, with an emphasis on developing relationships. The other deals primarily with the economic concerns of the “community” of Charlottesville.

We’re excited about the possibility of QCC  helping take our neighborhood gardening efforts to the next level by leveraging their years of experience working in various neighborhoods, as well as potentially acting as a resource hub.  While this would start with collaborative gardening and gardening support in people’s yards, the relationships, experience, and interest this could generate could lead towards more community gardens. We’re also excited about the renewed possibility of developing a business that would provide resources and income through an activity that is helps develop a more sustainable urban environment.

This project has already garnered lots of local interest despite its many morphings.  The process of working with QCC and our Patchwork Farms crew to wrestle with tough questions and re-invision our project has been incredibly gratifying and inspiring.  As our little Woodfolk garden starts to come alive with spinach, kale, peas and chard, we are looking forward to expanding our gardening efforts to include a wider circle of folks.  Here’s to fresh food grown locally!


~ by skybluestar on April 8, 2009.

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