Urban farming classes move gardeners to farmers

Jul 3, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4546

Your backyard garden is challenge enough – imagine expanding that small lot and trying to make it a career.

Just like in rural America, the biggest challenge you face is finding available land in urban areas.

As Peter Tubbs shows us in our Cover Story, one university program is assisting newly certified growers with getting into business on any land they can find.

Ellie Angerame, Program Manager, Green Village Initiative: “Exactly. Sanitizer can sit on top of something dirty, something filthy, and sanitizing the scum on top, but its not actually a clean water bottle.”
A class on food safety is being taught on a Thursday night on the north side of Bridgeport, CT. The class is part of a year-long program to teach the fundamentals of urban farming by University of Connecticut Extension. The eight students pair classroom work with hours raising vegetables to qualify for certification that allows them to sell their produce at local farmer’s markets.
Mario Pena UCONN student: “I've always been an entrepreneur, and I've always loved fruit and vegetables and always wanted to gain more knowledge of how to grow them more and better and share them with my community.” 
Ellie Angerame, Program Manager, Green Village Initiative: ”I like to bring up salmonella because it is one of the most common food-borne illnesses.”
Tonight’s class is being held at Reservoir Community Garden, a teaching farm on a brownfield site of a former strip mall. While the vegetables produced on the farm are sold to the public, the focus of the Garden is education over production.
Christina Santolo, Executive Director, Green Villiage Initiative:  “And that's exactly what we want to prioritize is getting as many hands in the soil as we can and getting as many interactions, for example, with younger folks to work alongside high school age, urban farmers so that they can start to see a potential future and a potential career path.”
Green Village Initiative is a Bridgeport non-profit that coordinates 13 community gardens and 25 school gardens across the city. Empty lots are  converted to garden plots for the public to use. GVI staff discovered there were gardeners who wanted to grow vegetables as more than a hobby.
Christina Santolo, Executive Director, Green Villiage Initiative:  “We've partnered with UCONN extension to launch in urban farmer training program. So it's an intensive year long program. Um, we enroll about 10 to 15 people every year in that program and they use the site on the east side, um, as their training farm. So they're growing food. And then that group of individuals  has gone through the process of starting a small business and getting insurance and everything and the permits that are required to sell their produce and they come to our farmer's market, um, on Saturdays as well as other farmer's markets in the city to sell that produce.”
Bridgeport’s Downtown Farmers Market caters to workers looking for produce on their lunch hour. Under a Grown In Connecticut tent, urban farming students sell produce that was picked that morning from a garden in the city limits. The urban farming class arose from GVI’s work with the eight farmer’s markets around the city. 
Christina Santolo, Executive Director, Green Villiage Initiative: “We see our role in creating a just food system and creating opportunities for folks to grow, produce for their families, start selling produce to their neighbors if they want to. Through our partnerships with the other farmer's markets in Bridgeport, we were hearing that market managers started to hear requests for more Bridgeport grown produce, uh, from customers.” 
Growing produce in Bridgeport is possible due to the evolving local economy. The city was a manufacturing powerhouse from the Civil War through World War II, but the deindustrialization of the American economy hit Bridgeport hard. The loss of jobs and population has left the city with a large number of empty lots, which GVI is helping to convert to community gardens. The opportunity to grow produce provides both a degree of self-sufficiency and the potential for income. 
Khadijah Muhammad and Mario Pena are nearing the end of their first season growing vegetables in the garden behind Barnum School in the East Side neighborhood of Bridgeport. The opportunity to grow their own crops has broadened their economic horizons.
Khadijah Muhammad, UCONN student: “The universe has worked in my favor because my daughter actually, um, was part of four H and she was actually in the same garden.”
The call of the soil can be irresistible even on 1/10 of an acre.
Khadijah Muhammad, UCONN student: “I've been part of Girl Scouts all my life and stuff. So like it just, it's just something that's natural to me. So, and as I went to school in college, I eventually, um, I started, uh, backyard garden and stuff because my cousin, I, we both started backyard gardens because we was like, we need to sustain ourselves staying of sustainability instead of relying on the government and the state, like how can we feed ourselves?”
Teaching gardeners how to maximize their production also requires understanding their needs and the needs of the local produce market.
Ellie Angerame Program Manager, GVI: “There's a long running joke with a lot of the older women who come to our farm stand that we could convert the whole farm into okra and it still wouldn't be enough. There's a lot of beauty and being able to work with folks that are really different from you. Um, at least in my case, I was like a, a white farmer learning about, as I said, crops from all over the world, um, and building up that knowledge base.” 
The number of empty lots waiting to be farmed in the city limits combined with an audience hungry for local produce could mean urban farming becomes a common profession in the formerly industrial city.
Ellie Angerame Program Manager, GVI: “I would love for lots all over the city to be converted into, into farms, into orchards, into, and not just community ones, but those owned by the farmers who go through the urban farmer training course.  I want there to be so many farmers in Bridgeport that I'm not special for doing it.”
Richard Myers, Assistant Manager, Reservoir Community Garden: “What I like about agriculture the most is that, I tell people this all of the time, it may be a joke to some, but plants haven’t lied to me yet. People lie to me, but plants don’t. I can go outside and have a great conversation with plants and they won’t say anything rude to me, they won’t curse me out, they won’t lie to me. So treat them well, they treat me well. I love that about agriculture in general.”
Mario Pena UCONN student: “ And once you get your hands in the soil and you start to see how things grow, it does a lot to you as a person as well, because you are taking care of something that’s living.”
For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs. Twitter contact: @PeterTubbs

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