Urban Farmer Seeks to Spread Passion for Growing Food

November 8, 2008 at 8:23 pm 6 comments

Fresh out of a six-month farm apprenticeship program in Santa Cruz, California, Karen Washington, 54, was fired up with all her new-found knowledge. Why buy apples from Chile, she asked, when New York is a top producer of apples? 

The manager of a weekly farmers market on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx manned one of the three stands loaded with apples and pears from two upstate New York farms.  Her stand, though, offered something even more local:  herbs and produce grown mostly in a community garden down the street.  Washington shuffled the sage and oregano, while three neighborhood matriarchs — all urban growers — chatted among themselves.  

“I came back a changed woman,” Washington said, describing her experience at “farm school,” an adventure that required her to live in a tent.  Washington recounted how she learned how to grow food organically, using beneficial plants and other techniques to control pests. 

Karen Washington manages La Familia Verde Farmers Market in the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx.

Karen Washington manages La Familia Verde Farmers Market in the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx.

Washington, a physical therapist and an avid urban farmer, grows food wherever she can — in the backyard and front yard of her house and at a local community garden — the Garden of Happiness – which she started in 1988.  That garden, along with 15 others in the neighborhood, form a coalition of community gardens known as La Familia Verde.  Five of the gardens participate in the farmers market. 

Tremont Community Garden, one block away from the market, is one.  The garden is 17,000 square feet and has 40 active gardeners, said Grover Fuller, a six-year gardener there.  As expected in early November, the plots have turned into a tangle of dried and withering plants. Still, a few tomatoes poke through the crunchy foliage and fresh young stalks of red chard pierce the soil in one patch.

Life springs back in April, maybe even March, said Fuller, when gardeners begin to return to their plots.  He starts even earlier, usually in February to prune the fruit-bearing trees.  Fuller says he’ll soon be putting in cover crops — things like winter rye and clover — to help protect the soil during the winter.  In the spring, the cover crops are tilled back into to earth, a natural fertilizer, Fuller explained. 

In the heart of a concrete jungle, urban farmers like Fuller are rare, but Washington hopes to change that. 

A self-described community activist, Washington wants to spread her passion for growing food to others in the neighborhood.  She is working closely with Just Food — a local food advocacy group — to develop a hands-on urban agriculture program.  Her goal is to encourage residents to use their yards, if they have them, to grow food, and to join community gardens.  Even apartment dwellers, she said, can grow herbs in their kitchens. 

The point, she added, is that people see the connection between food and their health, citing orange soda as an example.  “Where’s the food it in?” she asked.

Sounding every bit the local food champion, Washington noted that ever since consumers started relying on outside sources for food, they lost their connection to food and how it’s produced. 

“People,” she emphasized, “have the right to ask where their food came from.”

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Local Food Production, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Freaky Fruit Freaky Fruit

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Vera  |  November 20, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Which training program did she attend? i enjoyed the article! i bet it’s the program through UCSC, which I was just looking at yesterday. Seems everyone should go to farm school!

  • 2. mcorreia  |  November 21, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Hi Vera. Thanks for writing and the good feedback. I’m pretty sure it was the program offered through the University of California at Santa Cruz, but I’ll see if I can confirm that for you. Thanks again.

  • 3. Margaret  |  January 15, 2009 at 7:43 am

    I actually became great friends with Karen while she was here in Santa Cruz, so Yes, it was the UCSC program.

  • 4. karen washington  |  March 28, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    yes it was the UCSC program in Santa Cruz. I’ve been home now for almost 5 months. Time goes by so fast. The next class starts this April. Since I’ve been back I have been traveling around the country speaking about urban agriculture and social justice. Heading back to Cali at the end of April for another panel discussion on community bases farmer’s market.
    Soon to be planting my own crops after learning so much in Santa Cruz.
    To all Happy Gardening and Farming
    Peas out,
    Karen

  • 5. mcorreia  |  March 30, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Have fun in Cali!

  • 6. Urban Farmers Here to Stay « New York Bounty  |  December 19, 2009 at 12:18 am

    […] York City may soon even have an official farm school.  Ever since she returned from a six-month farm apprenticeship program in Santa Cruz, Calif., Washington could not get the idea of a “farm school” out of her […]

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