Earth Day 2020: Gardening and farming resources in the Capital Region
By Cassie Andrusz-Ho Ching, Ph.D. (seen above in her backyard garden with her dog Rio)
In the fall of 2019, the NYS Writers Institute's Albany Book Festival featured an event with author and skilled gardener Ken Druse for a gardening workshop and discussion of his new book The Scentual Garden: Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance.
Ken has published more than 20 books in the the last 30 years and has been called “the guru of natural gardening” by the New York Times. The American Horticultural Society listed his first large-format work The Natural Garden (1988) among the best books of all time.
Gardening has many benefits, Ken explains in his article Thoughts on Gardening: “the benefits of planting and tending plots of earth are abundant and available to everyone. Medical research shows that simply looking at a garden is good for your health. Watching butterflies and seeing colorful flowers lowers blood pressure. Fragrances stimulate us, as do colors–some are exciting, others calming. The psychological importance of connecting with nature, brought to us in gardens, also cannot be ignored.”
According to the World Health Organization, good health means more than just the absence of bad health symptoms. It means the presence of positive emotions, quality of life, sense of community and happiness. It can improve heart health by burning calories and staying active. In addition, gardening improves hand strength, good for those struggling with arthritis, as well as can build self-esteem and create opportunities for bonding with others, all which reduces stress which then can contribute to better sleep. There’s also a scientific reason that gardening makes you happy. Studies suggest that inhaling M. vaccae, a healthy bacteria that lives in soil, can increase levels of serotonin and reduce anxiety.
With the health benefits of gardening coupled with concern about the fragility of our food system under COVID-19 many have decided to try growing their own food for the first time, better establish their past gardening practices or support local farmers. Mark Russo, a farmer in Troy, shares “this crisis has uncovered a lot of vulnerabilities in the general food system that local producers are uniquely able to address. I'm committed to being a part of that transition and helping build an alternative food system to the degenerative practices that dominate the landscape.”
Russo is starting an urban farm in Troy called Tiny Urban Regenerative Farm (TURF), producing microgreens, quail eggs and rabbit. He explains he has been intimately involved in the local/regenerative food movement for 8 years and have taken on diverse jobs and internships at farms and food organizations in the region. (Listen to Mark Russo's interview on the Hudson Mohawk Magazine podcast.)
His recent profile picture on Facebook titled Neo Gothic pays homage and offers a social critique to the iconic American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. While American Gothic has had plenty of parodies, putting different people in the place of the iconic couple, who are seen in self-quarantine peeking out the windows of their home.
Russo finds inspiration in artist, activist and musician Pete Seeger, a pivotal figure in his life. He explained, “Seeger practiced what he preached, committing to a piece of land and living on it lovingly for a long time. I hope to find my own patch of land to love soon. The song I can't get out of my head is the cover of The Byrds' 'Turn Turn Turn'. So much of my life before COVID was just at (or past) the brink of overdoing it. That song is a wise reminder to see the sign the natural world is giving us, to slow down, to reflect on the time we have and how we are spending it.”
Russo sees COVID-19 as both problematic and an opportunity. Earlier this year, he planned to develop his farming enterprise to produce a livable income and leave his part-time job. Now that his job became obsolete due to the pandemic, he has taken it as a sign to give as much attention possible to growing TURF, understanding it will take time for the local food system to pivot and scale up production to the point that local farmers can compete with conventional supply chains and depend on loyal customers for financial and morale support to keep going.
“I don't want to be crass, but applause won't pay the mortgage," Russo said. "If we want to live in a world with a food system not based on exploitation of animals, soil and people, not to mention huge injections of fossil fuels and chemicals, we should expect that food will cost more and make the conscious choice to invest in it, day in and day out, and give it the time and space to grow organically. Most people understand that farming is hard, but most probably don't know that marketing and selling is just as much work as producing, if not more. The job requirements of a beginning farmer are absurd; in what other profession could one be expected to be intimately acquainted with biology, chemistry, weather patterns, hydrology, geology, mechanical diagnostics/repair, general construction, federal, state and local health codes, accounting, social media marketing, butchering, and a dozen other fields?”
Russo advises people looking to be more involved in their own food includes to build relationships and get to know local farmers. “Pick one or two plants you like - even herbs in a window box -and plant them, spend time with them, observe their patterns and characteristics," he said. "I know it sounds a bit ‘woo-woo’ but we can learn so much from just spending time with living things. Also, find a farmer you want to support, any good farmer will gladly answer questions about their methods, but please be considerate of their time and buy as much food from them as you can afford. Consider it an investment in your own health and the health of our local ecological/economic landscape that pays dividends in deliciousness.”
Russo is collaborative, supportive and transparent about his future plans. If you're interested in learning something new or sharing your skills, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the Capital Region, there are a variety of resources available for gardening support. Organizations that have been putting in extra work and time in response to the current health crisis include but not limited to Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, The Radix Center in Albany, 2nd Street Farm in Troy, Capital Roots in Troy, the Albany Victory Gardens and Sanctuary for Independent Media.
Soul Fire Farm, a Black, Indigenous and People of Color centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system has shared extensive information on their website about gardens, resources and skill shares available. The Soul Fire farm website explains they “are a survival and thrival training ground where people impacted by oppression can reclaim our ancestral right to belong to land and to have agency in the food system. We are a multiracial, people-of-color-led team of activist-farmers drawing upon the wisdom of our ancestors to uproot oppression.”
Cheryl Whilby, Administrative Program Manager at Soul Fire, shared the following resources below for community members interested in gardening and looking for support.
1. Soul Fire In the City: Increase capacity from 10 gardens to 34+ gardens in 2020.
2. Food & Land Sovereignty Resource List for COVID-19 hundreds of resources to support BIPOC Farmers in navigating the pandemic
3. BIPOC Farmers Community Skillshare on COVID-19 a collaboration between Soul Fire Farm, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, HEAL Food Alliance, and the Castanea Fellowship (300+ registered)
4. Ask a Sister Farmer 10+ Black womxn farmers rotate as co-hosts to share basic skills on raising food and medicine (1000+ attend per session)
In the South End of Albany, is the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center. On their website, they state their mission is “to promote ecological literacy and environmental stewardship through educational programs based around demonstrations of sustainable technologies.” They believe “it is possible to meet human needs while simultaneously restoring ecosystems. Good environmental stewardship is rewarded by better health, wholesome food, and strong communities. The Radix Center teaches practical skills that can be applied to create environmental and economic sustainability. An emphasis is placed on issues of food security, health, and the remediation of contaminated soils.”
Ben Atwood, Garden Coordinator at Radix, said “we are providing seeds, soil, and advice to south end growers as well as taking on new "garden chat" educational initiatives and starting a new production garden.” If you are a first time or beginner gardener, they also offer live videos on their Facebook page on topics such as seed starting and home and at home composting.
In South Troy, 2nd Street Farm, an urban micro-farm and market stand on the corner of 2nd and Harrison works to connect a post-industrial neighborhood of South Troy back to the land and the cycles of food production.
2nd Street Farm is operated by Dara Silbermann, who has transformed a previously vacant city lot into an intensively farmed plot that provides select fresh vegetables for the neighborhood on a Pay-What-You-Can model. She explains 2nd Street Farm reduces expenses compared to traditional farm and CSA models by building our own soil from collected food scraps and other organic material that would otherwise find its way to landfills.
In a 2019 interview, Silbermann said her goals are to “decentralize the food system from her community outward, to build communal respect for space, and reduce waste. I hope everyone can have access to their own community garden, putting vacant lots to use.” She said she is not creating a communal farm and CSA for profit, though it is important; rather, she prioritizes “people-based before profit-based,” emphasizing living better and building a stronger and resilient community for everyone.
Silbermann sees her role in the community as a listener and a resource, not just for gardening, but for other concerns the community may have too. In response to COVID-19 on her Facebook page she states “Appreciating my plant allies during this health crisis and calling on them to aid our community in these uncertain times!! With all this spring-weather-come-early, I'm going to bump up the timeline for opening neighborhood market. I'm putting seeds in the ground today that may yield a decent harvest in as few as 30 days if this weather holds. We should be up and running with limited offerings before the end of April! This will be a Pay-What-You-Can market, accessible to everyone and located in the heart of South Troy, where fresh produce can be hard to find. Want to support this work?” Become a sustainer or donate what you will here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/PWYC-Troy-Farmers-Market or you can contact her at 2ndStreetFarm.TroyNY@gmail.com
Also located in Troy is Capital Roots. They work to reduce the impact of poor nutrition on public health in New York’s Capital Region by organizing community gardens, providing healthy food access, offering nutritional and horticultural education for all ages and coordinating urban greening programs.
They were recently featured on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan recommended Capital Roots Community Gardens as a great way to get outside for people going stir crazy at home.
Within the current health crisis Capital Roots has extended their support stating “our organization has increased food access programs and hours to help anyone affected by COVID-19. We provide fresh, local produce, meats and eggs at wholesale prices. You can pick up from our Urban Grow Center Market in Troy, one of our Veggie Mobile® stops around the Capital Region, or in one of our Healthy Stores. We encourage you to call ahead to place an order at 518-274-8685 and view our current Market Menu here:https://bit.ly/CRMarketMenu. We are here for you.”
Whatever your motivation to dig into soil, or support someone who does, the Capital Region offers a great “bounty” to choose from depending on your motivations, goals, knowledge, resources, identity and beyond. Asian-American activist, author and feminist gardener, Grace Lee Boggs, said “we begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.”
As Russo said, this crisis is opening-up new opportunities, encouraging a rethinking, like how we connect with other people, in particular farmers, farmworkers, grocery store workers and others involved in our food system.
So, where do you fit in our “local living system”? What role do you play in our food system or what changes are you interested in making? What resources here best fit you? Do you have resources to add to this conversation? Share in our comments!!
Cassie Andrusz-Ho Ching holds a Ph.D. in the Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies Department at UAlbany specializing in food justice and social resistance. Her dissertation, A Hunger for Justice: Everyday Form of Latin Resistance in New York State’s Capital Region, examines community-based responses to food system inequities.
Her favorite writers are Gloria Anzaldua, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, J.R.R Tolkien and Diana Gabaldon. Her favorite recently read books include Freedom Farmers by Monica White, Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay and More Together Than Alone by Mark Nepo.