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Sprout Farms: Community Building Through Urban Agriculture

Cultivating Community in a School Garden

In January of 2011 I co-founded Sprout Farms, an urban agriculture education nonprofit project. The idea for Sprout came from my aspiration to understand urban infrastructure and to develop means to make it sustainable. My partner, Katie Hope, a teacher with a master’s degree in early childhood education, brought expertise, both in the garden and the classroom. We shared a personal desire to expand our own gardening space beyond our apartment windowsills. Through Sprout we’ve learned how to mold public space into a catalyst for community connectivity. We’ve learned how to work with the public education system, and other city agencies. We’ve learned how to find funding resources and structure volunteer events. We’ve learned about food distribution in the city and the palpable ways in which food scarcity effects school children.

Pea Plants at Sprout Farms, Williamsburg Houses Beyond

Educational gardening is often a product of grants and donated space, time, and materials. These gardens have a relatively minor impact on the quantity of available locally produced fresh food on the citywide scale, but in the neighborhood where they are built, can create a seasonal food source for local families that participate in the project. Community and school gardens have the power to build neighborhood pride, healthfulness, and environmental stewardship.

Historically, abandoned lots have been fertile ground for community gardens. GreenThumb, a branch of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, was started in the 1970’s as a solution to the problem of empty and abandoned lots. Areas that once attracted criminal activity became beloved gardens for neighbors to enjoy the outdoors and get their hands dirty. These gardens were and still are often only accessible by membership and under lock and key, an understandable reaction to the realities of city life during decades of high crime rates. Now, in a thriving city with unprecedented growth, many of these long cared for community gardens face the threat of demolition.

One area ripe for urban agriculture development is schools, and it is here that a small but noticeable shift has begun to take place. While community gardens served to remove potential dangers from abandoned lots in the 1970’s, school gardens are built as learning tools to add value to public school education. In 2010 Grow-to-Learn was formed as a public-private partnership that aims to make gardens accessible to every public school student in New York City. There are over 1,700 public schools in New York City and currently 400 registered school gardens.

Students, Teachers and Sprout Farms Co-Founders

When Katie and I started Sprout Farms we looked for potential locations for gardens and began cold calling schools near where we lived and worked. We quickly connected with Coquille Houshour, the Sustainability Coordinator at The Green School. Through Coquille, we also began working with the other schools in the building, Lyons Community School, and Brooklyn Latin, which moved into the building this year.

The school building, which used to be home to I.S. 49, is now called Gaynor Campus, and sits centered on the large block between Maujer and Scholes Streets. To the South is Martinez Playground, which the schools use for recess and outdoor gym classes. The main entrance of the building on Graham Avenue sits back from the street, with a lawn on each side of a wide concrete entrance path. During the school day the fence on either side of the path is lined with teachers’ bikes. The lawns give the building a grand appearance but are gated off and not actively used by the students, teachers or community members.

At the back of the school, on Manhattan Avenue, is another lawn. Small and underutilized, it was empty save for a few saplings and coniferous shrubs. The space was, and remains, entirely open to the public. There is a gate at the entrance to Stagg Walk, which, in the three years that we’ve been there, has never been closed, let alone locked. Anyone at any time, day or night can use that space, yet no one was ever there. We met with the teachers, administrators and custodial staff and concluded that this is where we should locate our garden.

Gaynor Campus 2011, before Sprout Farms

In the Spring of 2012, after almost a year of planning, organizing, and collecting donations, Sprout Farms built a vegetable garden. Build it Green!NYC donated reclaimed lumber that in a previous life had been scaffolding used by the School Construction Authority. About half the soil was donated by GreenThumb and grants from Citizens Committee for NYC, and private donations paid for the rest. Volunteers, mostly from our existing community of friends and family, along with teachers, administrators and students from the schools, undertook the initial building project, but in the years since, the neighborhood has increasingly become a vital part of the success of the garden.

Sprout Farms, Build Day, Spring 2012

A patch of underused grass has been transformed, and now it is home to fifteen four-feet by eight-feet raised beds, each filled with their own unique mix of fruits and vegetables. One is a perennial herb bed. In some tomatoes and eggplants fill aluminum cages. In others beans and peas climb twine strung between bamboo stakes. Strawberries, squash, and cucumbers take shade amongst their own leaves. Grape vines wind their way up the trellis. Raspberry and blackberry canes line the South half of the Western fence. Cabbage, lettuces, carrots, garlic, onions, and beets are set in orderly rows. Around the edge of the school building donated pear and apple trees are taking root.

Sprout Farms, Planting Day, Spring 2012

The garden has become a vital learning space for students at each of the three schools in the building. The Urban Workshop, a program run by Lyons Community School teachers, built a tool shed in the corner. They also built a trellis for the front of the garden and two sets of benches, which allow multiple groups of people to enjoy the garden at one time. On Friday afternoons a reading class from The Green School uses the garden to discuss the latest chapter of their book. Several science classes use the garden to learn about the life cycle of plants.

Each week about a dozen students from all three schools get together for an extracurricular garden club and plant seeds, turn compost, weed, and water the plants. In the fall they harvest and prepare meals on a burner in a makeshift cooking space in the garden. In the winter they maintain the planting beds, keep the garden tidy, plan for the following season, and start seeds in their classrooms. Throughout the summer, Sprout employs two or three high school students as paid interns. The interns water the plants each day, build temporary trellises, trim back overgrowth, sift compost and keep the garden neat and welcoming.

Sprout Farms, Garden Club Spring 2013
Sprout Farms, Summer 2013

Educational growing spaces share a common challenge. Almost exclusively, all the work to maintain them is done for free on a volunteer basis. While large group volunteer days help get big projects completed, gardens need near daily care nine months of the year. School gardens often thrive and perish with cycles of PTA activity as children and their parents move on to the next school. Schools in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have a PTA with the disposable income and time for maintaining a garden. Burnout is a common theme in the nonprofit world and these valuable shared spaces, and the hands on education experience they bring to young people in our neighborhoods, need to be funded properly so the people who work day to day to keep them growing are reasonably compensated. At Sprout we value the work our interns do to keep the garden growing through droughts, scorching heat, and early frosts, and we compensate them for their efforts.

Sprout Farms Interns in the Garden, Summer 2013

Last summer, Sprout partnered with GrowNYC to create a youth-run farmers market at the corner of Grand Street and Graham Avenue, a couple of blocks from the garden. The Youthmarket was an opportunity to take over another piece of city owned land and turn it into a thriving community space. Each Thursday our interns, along with a GrowNYC market manager, set up tents and tables and sold food from local farms. We met local business owners like chefs that put our food on the menu, neighbors that visit the garden regularly but had never met us before, and others that wanted to learn how they could become more involved. We had regulars that would stop by each week, some of them bringing back their food scraps for our compost bin. For twenty weeks the sidewalk was entirely transformed into a community meeting space to share stories from the kitchen, favorite recipes, and news about the neighborhood.

Back at the garden teenagers congregate on the benches waiting for friends after school. Throughout the summer young men sit in the garden when they take breaks from basketball games and skateboarding in Martinez playground. Grandmothers that live across the street weed the raised planters and harvest tomatoes and cucumbers. When Katie and I are there working, neighbors that have moved to Brooklyn from all over the world tell us what different plants are called in their native tongue. Couples on romantic strolls stop by the garden at dusk. Parents patiently explain each flower, pea, strawberry and butterfly to their young children point to with questioning eyes. The once forlorn yard is now an active space, changing every week with the life cycle of the garden, and engaging the community in new conversations. It has become a gathering place for friends to meet, a community garden with no gate and no hours. The garden, on land that is owned by the city, now belongs to everyone.

Sprout Farms Interns with Neighborhood Kids, Summer 2013

Sprout Farms is a non-profit project with 501c3 status via the Open Space Institute. Sprout creates community based urban agriculture by building and maintaining food producing gardens on school grounds.

posted by Heather McKinstry