Turning Over A New Leaf: The transition to urban agriculture in the Whiteaker

Neighborhood residents put food security into their own hands. Literally.

By Alex Zielinski

When Lonnie Clark moved from Los Angeles to Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood in 2005, she had never encountered produce outside of her local supermarket aisle. Now, Clark has subsisted more than a year on eating fruits and vegetables exclusively from her own backyard.

“I didn’t even know what a broccoli plant looked like before this year,” said Clark, a 54-year-old, recently divorced accounting specialist. “I’ve spent my time simply learning what foods are, which sounds ridiculous coming from an adult.”

Clark had no interest in gardening before moving into her daughter’s Whiteaker rental, which was equipped with a little vegetable garden. After benefiting from a small fall harvest, Clark decided to expand the plot in the winter of 2008, with help from the local “Victory Gardens for All” program.

The 3-year-old program provides clients with backyard garden plots made from on-site soil containing a variety of plant starts and seeds for around $80. The program volunteers installed a much larger garden bed than Clark was prepared for.

“I kept second-guessing myself, like ‘What the fuck are you doing, Lonnie?’” said Clark, who was in the process of recovering from knee surgery at the time. “But then one winter morning I came out and pushed the snow off the beds and saw these poor little plants trying to grow. I fell in love.”

Clark beside a portion of her backyard garden.

Surrounded by a neighborhood rich in community and backyard gardens, Clark’s plot adds to a growing trend spanning the Whiteaker, if not the entire country: urban agriculture.

According to the National Gardening Association, 2009 saw an increase in backyard gardening from 36 million to 46 million households in the U.S. alone. This expansion appears to be in tandem with the Whiteaker’s trend.

The idea of an edible garden in a city setting originated in the U.S. during World War II, to relieve pressure on the public food supply going overseas. However, the present surge of urban agriculture appears to be less an act of patriotism and more a dependable form of food security.

“I believe that everything is going to change in the next five years,” Clark said, specifically referring to the oil-dependent transportation industry. “When the systems fall apart, I can say ‘okay, I can grow peas.’”

With more and more produce being cultivated further away from its ultimate destination, the relationship between the farmer and the consumer has been equally distanced. According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the average conventional produce item travels an estimated 1,500 miles from the farm to the table. Clark said this gap additionally weakens her trust in industrial agri-business.

Clark is not alone in her concerns.

Paul Adkins, a Whiteaker resident and renter of a family plot in the neighborhood community garden, agreed that the future of reliable food production is “iffy”.

“We need to prepare our children for whatever the future holds,” Adkins said.

The travel distance of produce, primarily by gas-powered transport, also poses as a global environmental threat. This fuel use contributes about a third of global carbon dioxide emissions, posing a threat to the world’s climate.

“We need to honor the planet, rather than use up its vital resources,” said Clark, who added that having such a close relationship with the earth has greatly increased her respect for its services. Living in a city blanketed in cement for the majority of her life, finding this natural connection was a relatively new process to Clark.

Charlotte Anthony, founder of Victory Gardens for All and a close friend of Clark, said that one main reason behind her clients’ requests for a garden is to cut back on global warming.

“It gives us all peace of mind to know we can slow down climate change,” said Anthony. “Having something to eat is a wonderful addition.”

Clark’s greenhouse, constructed by Victory Gardens for All, containing vegetable starts.

Clark said that Anthony’s business is an example of the ways the Whiteaker community is growing into a self-sufficient and supportive neighborhood.

“Everyone in the Whiteaker gardens now. Even in the short time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen a huge rise in involvement,” said Clark.

Clark also admitted that the shared interest in urban gardening helped integrate her into the somewhat overwhelming Whiteaker culture, thanks to her surplus of vegetables.

“I’m able to give away free food to my neighbors and still have enough to save for the winter,” said Clark. “How sweet is that?”

In addition to a progressive neighborhood community council, a sustainability council composed of Whiteaker residents meets once a month to discuss potential ways to maintain renewable resources in the area, including produce.

Anand Keathley, chair of the council, said he is excited about the abundance of new gardening projects sprouting up in the neighborhood: from self-grown vegetable trading to a public fruit orchard.

“I think people understand that the economy isn’t going to bounce back as quickly as predicted and are taking part of it into their own hands,” said Keathley. “It’s not a bad thing, though, as it’s helped us build a much tougher and cooperative community.”

Keathley, who also rents a plot in the community garden, has noticed a sharp increase in applicants to the garden, leaving many on a lengthy waiting list. The 500 square foot plots cost $60 a year to rent, a reasonable price compared to the cost of year’s worth of store produce.

A variety of plots in the Whiteaker Community Garden.

While urban gardening may come naturally to some, others, like Clark, have little experience working in the dirt.

“I honestly was afraid of my garden at first, I felt like it was better off without me messing around with it,” said Clark, who eventually caved in and asked for help.

Fortunately, the Whiteaker neighborhood council has had a history working with Oregon State University’s Extension Program to provide compost and garden education classes to the public.

Ross Penhallegon, horticulture specialist from the extension program, has specifically worked with local amateur gardeners in designing gardens for small spaces. Penhallegon said he’s seen a huge increase in his class enrollment after the recent economic downturn.

“You can save a significant amount of money from just growing your own fruits and vegetables, people are catching on, ” said Penhallegon, who added that this year already, more than one hundred community members have applied for the program’s “Master Gardener” classes.

Clark is also confident that she’s saving a considerable amount of money by depending one hundred percent on her backyard produce for her daily fruit and vegetable supplements.

While thriftiness is a top priority, Clark finds her time spent in the garden mentally calming, if not spiritual. Spending long days in a window-less office, she said daily visits to the garden beds have kept her sane.

“My garden is an area of peace, I honor both myself and the planet by taking time to work on it without any stressful distractions,” said Clark.

Many Whiteaker gardeners see their time spent in the garden as therapeutic, rather than simply required labor.

Molly Buckles has just begun renting space at the community garden after becoming fed up with living in a land-less neighborhood apartment complex.

“I had to get my hands in the dirt, have some kind of access to Mother Earth,” said Buckles, who confessed that she hadn’t had her own garden for a couple of decades.

Buckles, whose newly planted plot contains cucumbers, bush beans, zucchini and tomatoes, said her garden will most likely make up for only a small portion of the perishable foods she consumes.

However, some families are deeply dependent on their produce yield.

Nora Hernandez, living in an apartment complex in the Whiteaker, said her small fruit and vegetable garden beside the complex’s parking lot is crucial in providing her family with fresh, inexpensive produce.

“It’s the easiest way to bring healthy food to my kitchen,” Hernandez said. “It’s very expensive these days to always buy vegetables at the store.”

Her family often joins the others in her complex to share their produce and cook a meal together, a practice Hernandez said she introduced to the community after moving here from Mexico.

Looking toward a future of potentially irreversible and immeasurable changes, Clark said she believes she’s doing the best she can to prepare. With a sizable backyard garden, able to produce more than enough fruits and vegetables to carry her through the year, and a neighborhood equally committed to food security and environmental restoration, there’s no way she’s turning back.

“It’s funny to think that growing your own food was such a foreign idea to me for so long,” said Clark. “Now there’s no question of not having a self-sustaining garden for as long as I live. It’s just common sense.”

Gates to the community garden.

Global and U.S. Urban Agriculture Statistics:

-15 percent of the world’s food supply is harvested in cities by an estimated 800 million people

– Low-income urban citizens spend between 40 to 60 percent of their yearly income on food alone

– In 2009, households maintaining backyard gardens increased nationally from 36 million to 46 million (up 19 percent from 2008)

– 57 percent food gardens in 2009 were less than 100 square feet in size

– Fewer than two percent of Americans are rural farmers, with only 17 percent of the country’s population living in rural areas

(Source: National Gardening Association, 2009)

OSU Extension tips for starting a container garden, perfect for an urban setting:

– Start by finding a large container, at least six inches deep, with drainage holes at the base (cinder blocks, barrels, milk jugs, bleach bottles work equally as well as flower pots)

-Fill container with lightweight soil (not gardening soil), mix with compost for nutrients

– The ideal vegetables for container gardens are those that take little space, such as carrots, radishes, lettuce, and parsley or those that yield produce over a long period of time such as tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and eggplants

– Water seedlings and plants whenever the soil feels dry

– Use water-soluble fertilizer on soil after two months, every two to three weeks

-Keep indoors in the fall and winter, and outdoors in the spring and summer for optimal harvest

Container garden diagram (OSU Extension)

Local Urban Agriculture Resources:

– Eugene Community Gardens

OSU Extension Service

Gray’s Garden Center, in the Whiteaker neighborhood

– Lane County’s School Garden Project

Food for Lane County

Victory Gardens for All

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