Farming. Given the snow and freezing temperatures we are experiencing here in New York, I doubt this subject has crossed many of your minds much; however, longing to retreat from the chill to my home state of sunny California, I’ve been thinking of it quite often. I miss gardening. I miss feeling the warm soil in my hands, smelling the deep, rich aroma of the earth and watching baby buds grow into beautiful organisms after much care and cultivation.
I miss the fertile land of California. Though California’s Central Valley feeds two-thirds of the nation, numerous gardens and farms are also maintained in California’s cities, particularly in the temperate Bay Area. Urban farming not only feeds neighborhoods in the middle of food deserts, but also cultivates a cooperative, nurturing environment that is beneficial for all in the community. Urban farms cultivate a family of people who are engaged in their communities, care about the environment, and are dedicated to providing food security for their neighbors.
One urban farm I have come back to again and again is Canticle Farm in Oakland, CA. Canticle Farm is a small, humble group of houses in East Oakland, forming an “intergenerational, interracial, interfaith community” (Canticle Farm, “About”). In the middle of a high-crime food desert, Canticle Farm sticks out as a haven for all in the area. In fact, the farm sits right in the middle of rival gang territory, yet has never experienced any sort of violence. The farm does not even have gates surrounding the area, unlike neighboring houses. Residents and workers are welcoming to everyone looking for a safe, peaceful, restorative space.
Like many urban farms, Canticle Farm is not just a place to grow fruits and vegetables, but a socially just space. The farm prioritizes restorative justice and the breaking down of barriers between people, in addition to education and service. Canticle Farm houses former inmates who are recovering from the trauma of incarceration, those without homes or families to which to return and all others who are seeking guidance and support. The farm opens itself to anyone seeking respite and looking to give back to their community. Though it was founded by Catholics, the farm community accepts and seeks to learn from people of any religious identification.
The first time I visited Canticle Farm, I knew it was a place where I could be completely open and vulnerable. Upon entering, I was greeted with a sizeable, yet homely, kitchen filled with jars of grains, homemade medicines, herbs, fruits and vegetables. Residents cooking in the kitchen welcomed us warmly, treating us not like strangers or even as visitors, but as old friends. Immediately, I felt I was already a part of this community.
Walking down the steps to the garden, I was greeted by groves of trees and growing strawberries, kale, chard, herbs and peppers. Surrounded by nature, I no longer felt as though I was in Oakland. I felt completely removed from city life, transported to a healing space abounding with nature, love, acceptance and opportunities for self-growth. I sat in the shade of an oak tree for an immeasurable period of time thinking about nature’s great capacity to care for us, our duty to care for nature, and nature’s call for us to take care of one another.
At Canticle Farm, I encountered dreamers, realists and individuals still figuring out what they believe. Meeting people from a variety of backgrounds, I was able to connect with those fighting to stay in this country, those healing from former incarceration, those without homes, those without families and those who simply needed safe lodgings. Canticle Farm offers a safe space for people of completely different backgrounds who never would have been able to meet in daily life to relate to one another, and even to become friends.
Observing the real work that Canticle Farm does for my city inspires me to take part in the action.
In addition to offering food security for the surrounding neighborhood and housing for those in need of solace and healing, Canticle Farm also offers meditation classes, workshops on non-violence and other spiritual experiences. Canticle Farm hosts students from nearby schools, allowing them to farm and connect with others on a spiritual level. The farm teaches students about overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, as well as the social structures that must fundamentally change in order to accomplish this. Urban agriculture projects are rooted in egalitarian and equitable ideals. In favor of a cooperative, local economy, Canticle Farm recognizes the harm of modern capitalism and strives to serve as an example of the kind of peace and unity humans can form without greed and consumerism. These values are present in the residents and volunteers, all of whom strive to give back to their local community and beyond. Many of the residents with whom I spoke had gone back to school to pursue degrees, hoping to eventually help those suffering from the same experienced they had gone through.
Canticle Farm is just one project that has helped many in my own community. There are countless other urban farms all over the country. The goals of urban agriculture are simple: to use abandoned or vacant land to grow crops and increase food security, to teach neighborhoods about health and wellness and to center communities around a mutual desire for justice. Urban agriculture combats a variety of problems plaguing communities, such as violence, food deserts, gentrification, mass incarceration and a lack of education. Though not the sole solution for these problems, urban farms serve as havens for individuals and for communities and act as beacons of peace in neighborhoods.
Luckily, the Vassar community has a farm within walking distance of us: the Poughkeepsie Farm
Project on the Vassar Farm. Though not identical to Canticle Farm, the 12-acre Poughkeepsie Farm Project strives to “cultivate a just and sustainable food system in the mid-Hudson valley” (Poughkeepsie Farm Project, “About”). By producing food for the surrounding area, training future farmers, educating local students about wellness and sustainability and increasing access to locally grown food, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project does a lot of good for the local community. Farmers visit local schools and help them in establishing their own gardens and offer classes for children to learn how to grow and make their own food. In 2015, the farm donated nearly 20 percent of its 183,366 lbs of produce to the community. As a co-op, the farm provides subsidized Community Supported Agriculture shares for low-income families. The farm also offers workshops on a variety of topics and farm visits weekly (Poughkeepsie Farm Project).
The Poughkeepsie Farm Project is always welcoming volunteers, especially in the warmer months. Volunteers can help with agriculture production but also to educate the local community about sustainable living practices, wellness and what it takes to create and maintain a just food system for all. Likewise, the farm has partnered with Vassar to offer work study and field work positions. A number of Vassar students have already gotten involved, working as crew members, garden assistants and garden educators.
As Vassar students, Poughkeepsie residents and dwellers on Earth, we have a duty to care for give back to those in our community and to care for the environment. Whether you buy locally, have your own little garden or participate in cooperative urban farming, you are helping both the environment and your community thrive. Both here in Poughkeepsie and wherever else we call home, local community-building and economy-building are extremely important, not only to give back to where we come from, but to invest in where we are bound to go.