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Growing Urban Agriculture at Rooting DC

March 1, 2013

There are some events that follow the same pattern year after year, which although worth attending, are remain essentially the same. Then there are those that surprise and delight you with their growth, such as Rooting DC, the Washington area’s annual free conference for urban gardeners.

While Rooting DC has been around for quite a while, it’s experienced tremendous growth in interest and originality in the last few years. When America the Beautiful ran it, it largely focused on helping home gardeners cultivate ornamental flowers and trees. A few years ago, the group received a grant that required it to focus on growing food. While the first year of this direction was a bit shaky, it’s gained a lot of positive momentum in the last two.

They’ve opened with a great keynote speaker each year, each with a very different perspective. The first year it was the fiery Gordon Clark from Montgomery County Victory Gardens, then last year, Washington D.C.’s sustainability manager. This year, we went national with Audrey Rowe, the USDA’s administrator for Food and Nutrition Services. While food advocates have rightly criticized Obama’s USDA for short-sightedness on systemic change, it seemed like she understood holistic nature of the problems we face. Describing obesity and hunger as “two sides of the same coin,” she talked at length about how the USDA supports community level food programs, from using SNAP benefits at farmers markets to installing People’s Gardens. The most inspiring example was from Pembrook, Illinois, a traditionally agricultural and African-American community. She said the school lunch there was so terrible that she couldn’t force herself to eat it. After helping farmers obtain ownership information and qualify for grants, 30 new farms have opened in the area. Since then, the cafeteria food has gotten exponentially better and even the school established a garden. I’m a huge fan of federal efforts that support community-level programs, so it was great to see her talking about the strength of that model.

This year’s workshops were also particularly well-organized, offering five different tracks: beginning gardening skills, advanced gardening skills, teaching about gardening and sustainable food, cooking and food preservation techniques, and community/social aspects of gardening. While I couldn’t make all of the ones I wanted to, I did attend five good ones that mixed and matched almost all of the categories.

The first two fell into the “community/social” aspects of gardening category: recruiting and maintaining volunteers and expanding urban agriculture. The volunteer workshop was an obvious one for me to attend – it’s a problem no matter what type of community organization you’re in. Taught by school garden group City Blossoms, it presented a creative way to cultivate a small but extremely dedicated core group of volunteers. Essentially, they recruited people the way you would for a paid job (even including interviews) but provided non-financial incentives instead of actually paying them. Specifically, they put on educational workshops and attempted to match the garden’s needs to that group of volunteers’ specific interests. Even if I never create a volunteer effort with quite so much commitment, it’s always helpful to get advice on increasing motivation.

The second workshop was understanding the foundational ways we can “make the pie bigger” for urban agriculture. Originally labeled a “manifesto,” the founder of Compost Cab discussed the fact that if everyone is scraping by and competing for the same grants, urban agriculture will always be stifled and insignificant. He brought up some excellent points about what we can do on the institutional level – share best practices for running urban farms, organize local networks for a louder voice, change regulations to help rather than limit us, gather data on urban agriculture, and even lobby Capital Hill. It reminded me a lot of the work I’ve been doing at my job on “soft costs” – bringing down the price of everything except the hardware, so that it’s easier to get permits, establish new projects, and train people. While seeing the on-the-ground results of a community garden can appear more fulfilling than working on policy, agreements that allow that garden to stay in place instead of getting evicted are essential in the long run

Jeremy Brosowsky of Agricity at Rooting DC

Jeremy Brosowsky of Agricity/Compost Cab, speaking on “Making the Pie Bigger” for Urban Agriculture

While I’ve left my professional teaching days behind, my next workshop was definitely in that realm. I chose to attend “Kid-Centered Theme Gardens” because once the munchkin is old enough, I’d like to start a kids garden at the nearby community center. Most of the people in our neighborhood have yards large enough for their own gardens and so don’t need community plots, but a kids garden would create a lot of educational opportunities. You could run workshops, provide kids a place to explore food, and allow them space to mess around in the dirt with plants. The presenter, who was from the Washington Youth Garden, presented a number of neat ideas, including a “Poptart garden” where you grow some of the ingredients in Pop-tarts (corn, soy, strawberries) and inspire a conversation about the differences between processed and relatively unprocessed food. She also got us to loosen up a bit, having us sing a song about bees that involved flapping our arms and waggling our butts.

My last two workshops were more traditional, focusing on advanced gardening skills: drip irrigation and permaculture design. The drip irrigation workshop had a particularly useful hands-on session where we clicked together pieces of tubing like Tinker Toys.

Tubing for drip irrigation system workshop at Rooting DC

Tubing for the drip irrigation systems we constructed.

The permaculture workshop didn’t cover a lot I didn’t previously know, but did give me some ideas for replacing our giant bush in the front yard with a fruit tree.

Rooting DC info fair

Rooting DC’s info fair, with organizations and businesses throughout the region

Every year, Rooting D.C. has grown to match the scope and diversity of the urban agriculture crowd. Both the schedule and audience reflected a level of racial and cultural diversity I hadn’t seen before, including quite a few older folks. Even though I probably won’t be able to attend next year, I’m definitely glad I was able to make this conference. It leaves me with plenty of food for thought for the coming year and beyond.

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