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Growing in Community

I think the question of land access may end up being the central political issue of the coming century. In both the rich world and the poor world, we’ve systematically deprived people of easy access to land. We have driven up the price of land in the rich world by encouraging sprawl, and thus forced out agrarian populations that previous fed cities. We have pushed people into cities in the name of globalization and industrialization, and claimed their land for speculation. The system is no longer working very well – there are now a billion hungry people, and the bust cycle is upon us – but land access remains constrained. The poor sent to cities who can find no jobs can’t go home again in many cases. The moderate income people who need land most to sustain their families no longer have access to the credit necessary since prices were artificially raised.

As time goes on and energy and resources are more constrained, the anger of people who cannot access land against those who can is likely to be an issue – it always has been through human history. We have pretended over the decades that land was no longer wealth, that there could be such a thing as an information economy, but we are still caught in the old material economy, where the earth and its resources are the root source of our wealth – and they are increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer people, who care little about the future. This makes those without access angry indeed.

But as yet, most people at least in the rich world, do not see these issues as political – whether you can afford to buy a small house with enough dirt under it to feed your family regardless of the state of the economy is deemed to be a purely personal question.

So we are brought to the question – how do you grow food if you don’t own land, or don’t own enough land? How do we get access to land if we are poor, or if prices are out of our range? I meet people by the dozens and hundreds who want to own land, who are saving for a day that may or may not come – and it is good that they are. But not owning land is not, for most of us, the end of the story – but the beginning. If you want to grow and don’t own, there are places to begin.

Whatever you do, remember that allies are the key to success – you can do many of these things alone, but you don’t have to. Chances are that if you care about the beauty and food security of your neighborhood, at least a few other people do too. If you’d like a garden, a few other people may never have thought about it, but would be glad to see one and would like to help. If you are struggling with landlessness, look around you and see who else needs access to land – poor college students, immigrants, the working poor – all people who may well want to grow, even need to, but can’t do it by owning land. Seek allies among the powerful – sometimes they don’t care, but surprisingly often, they get it – they care about food security, they just haven’t had someone pushing them to put it on the priority list. It may not be as hard as you think to change the zoning laws, to get that land reallocated, to resist development, to start an easement program, etc… Civic engagement counts.

First is the obvious – community gardens. In some places, starting to garden is as simple as going and signing up for a plot. In others, it may be more complicated – in many areas, community gardens are under assault from development and regulation, or there are long waiting lists. But they are a starting point.

If there is no community garden in your community, then you’ll need to start one. Begin looking for likely public spaces, and researching what you will need to do (contaminated urban spots, for example, may need you to truck in safe soil or do substantial soil remediation). Talk to your city council and zoning officers. Or, skip over public lands and go to private owners – talk to businesses on large lots and churches and synagogues. Often offering to donate a portion of the produce is a possible solution. Private large landowners may be interested, or you may be able to raise money to buy land for a community garden by soliciting donations.

Don’t assume hostility – right now a lot of cities and towns are strapped for cash, and civic improvement that can be done cheaply (and three community gardens are a heck of a lot cheaper than a stadium or a conference center or even a new courthouse) and with volunteer labor are attractive – couch your proposal in benefits for the community, for local food security and improving the neighborhood. Point out that last year there were 8 *million* new gardens in the US and that vegetable gardens are a sign of a good neighborhood. Remind them that no one is building new houses anyway, so you might as well beautify that old industrial spot, or talk about conservation easements.

If you can’t get permission, consider doing it anyway. Guerilla gardening allows you to start growing in untended spaces *now* – you can plant ornamentals or do soil remediation by night. Yes, there’s the risk of being run off and losing your investment – but often property owners or the city are happy to see run-down, abandoned or underutilized areas transformed into liveable ones. Think big and small – that place where the big box store got demolished, or that old parking lot, but also traffic circles and the strip of grass that runs along your sidewalk that doesn’t officially belong to anyone. Look around – are other people doing it? Once your eyes are attuned to food growing, you’ll be surprised.

Guerilla gardening and these other techniques aren’t just for urbanites – there are rural dwellers without a lot of land. In many rural areas, you can rent a few acres for very little money – a few hundred dollars a year, and you may well be able to run livestock and garden on that land. Some farmers will barter with you. Or you could consider guerrilla farming – I know people growing vegetables in state forest land (yes, they are vegetables!) and in areas with absentee landlords. Just make sure the local culture isn’t “shoot first” for trespassers.

You could consider growing other things than veggies and herbs – what about tree crops. Your city probably plants dozens or hundreds of street trees and park ornamentals every single year. What about a campaign to replace ornamental trees and shrubs with fruiting ones – and a matching gleaning campaign to make sure the fruit doesn’t become a nuisance?

Or talk to your neighbors – yes, you have a tiny lot and so do they. But four lots together make a nice sized garden – you probably have neighbors who don’t have time to grow food, but would like a small share of produce for the use of their yards. You can get to know your neighbors and expand your garden at the same time. You might even begin a commercial farm this way – growing in multiple yards, each being given a share of the produce, with some to sell. Consider marketing this to the city as a solution to a small portion of the local hunger and unemployment problem, and you may have more help than you know what to do with – the city can offer incentives, help and even tax breaks to property owners who participate!

What about foreclosed properties – many cities have an abundance of these and it costs the city a lot of money to maintain them, and they cause a lot of frustration by lowering property values and calling on resources the city doesn’t have. Offer to maintain a couple of them – mow the lawn and trim the bushes in return for the right to grow food there.

While not every resource in your community will be helpful, nor everyone you contact will aid you, you should remember that there are some remarkable resources out there. For example Soil and Water Conservation groups often have grants to help bring water to rural areas, or to protect wetlands – you may be able to draw on these. Your local cooperative extension agent can help you with everything from finding other chicken owners with whom to get together to change zoning to helping you figure out how to grow mushrooms. They are a resource past price, and if governments did no other good, they’d be worth a lot. Your local university may have allies in agriculture, ecology and other programs.

Your local non-profits may be interested in helping as well – food pantries and religious groups invested in food security issues can help make the case for local community gardenings, or they may have sources of funding or land to donate. Remember, many people don’t actually oppose growing food – they just haven’t thought about it much.

The reality is that sooner or later, all gardeners need community – it is never a wholly solitary pursuit. We need other gardeners to trade seeds and plant starts with. We need other gardeners to share stories and advice with. And most of all we need a community of people who recognize that the disdained and disregarded soil under our feet, whether in cities, suburbs or the countryside, cannot be allotted only the rich and fortunate. We need to find ways to bring the untended land back into the hands of people who preserve and nurture it, and we can do this only in community with one another.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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