I’m a little bored tonight, so I thought I begin a chronicle of tales from my year of service in Americorps with perhaps the most important story of all, how I became a farmer.
Our first spike (project) took us to the city of Baltimore and to The Samaritan Women, a nonprofit that was doing everything from an urban garden to a transitional residence program for former sex workers. Even though it was only an hours drive away, I fell asleep on the ride. Car rides have that effect on me in general and the prospect of leaving the 1079 and the Shewolves (my house and the point and my housemates) had been emotionally exhausting. I was terribly groggy when we piled out of the van in front of Hammond, one of the historical mansions on the site that would serve as my team’s residence for eight weeks.
I was amazed that we were still in the Baltimore City limits, because when I looked around all I could see was two huge houses surrounded by open land and trees. Sometimes driving or walking down the end of the street and becoming once again immersed in Baltimore traffic was a bit of a rude awakening, the Samaritan Women was this little island of peace in a chaotic metropolis.
We shuffled into the parlor of Hammond and, as we ate snacks (we loved the staff there, they always were giving us some form of munchies), Jeanne, Chris and Roy gave us an overview of the property and laid out the work we would be doing. The farm, which was to be our chief concern, was only in it’s second year, Hammond had just recently been mostly renovated and Ventinor (the other mansion) wasn’t yet habitable. There was enough work for ten teams and a professional chef who dropped off all sorts of goodies!
So here’s my confession of the day: I didn’t understand the concept of food deserts. Having lived a rather privileged life in a suburb, surrounded by grocery stores, until then I just assumed that people who lived in the cities were either lazy and liked junk food or just poor, in which case they should get a job.
The first thing I learned was that the nearest grocery store was two suburbs outside of the city, where the bus lines didn’t run. People in the city, if they didn’t have access to a car were literally shit out of luck when it came to produce.
The second I learned weeks later when I walked into a 7-11. There were some bananas by the cashier. The clerk didn’t know when they had come in and they were 79 cents each, while at the grocery store they were 69 cents a pound. Even the few places in the city that you could find a piece or two of fruits or veggies, you had no idea as to the quality and it was expensive.
The first big thing that surprised me was the first week Roy announced that at volunteer day that weekend he was putting me in charge of the volunteers at the Greenhouse. He could sense that I had a natural affinity for plants, he told me. That was news to me, I had never had a great interest in plants and was a city girl through and through.
But Roy was absolutely correct, some measure of my farming grandparents had made it into me and the plants and I thrived under Roy’s guidance and wisdom. Roy was a new convert to farming too and his passion was contagious. He was what some might call “Spiritual” and encouraged us to thank they bamboo stalks we cut down and only speak positively in front of the plants. I told stories and sang to the plants in the greenhouse, I helped pass the time in the field by telling Greek and Roman myths to my teammates
, I became a seed planting fiend, I taught volunteers the right depth to plant different plant species, how to enrich their soil, how to build raised beds, etc, etc. By the second week volunteers held me in such esteem I might as well have been Demeter and by the end of the round I was supervising most of the planting operations.
I loved it. And beyond that I knew that this had to be the wave of the future, having learned my two lessons in why urban farms are essential to the health of the city. Jeanne, Chris and the rest of the board could probably wax eloquent about how their religion calls for them to have the farm and whatnot, but the part that stuck with me most is Roy telling me that if you give people good things to put in their bodies, you’ll get good out. At first, it seemed simplistic to me that good food could raise the standard of living and general health of an entire population, but in eight weeks I saw it in action and was convinced.
At the end of eight weeks, when I was asked what I wanted to do after Americorps I always responded, “Urban Farming” without hesitation.
And in this political climate, when the majority of House representatives see Americorps as a program not worth funding I remember all that happened in my year of service. How many Corps members walked in thinking that it would be a nice break from “real life”, like I did, and walked out with a new direction in their lives? Not only that, but how many people in Baltimore now have access to fresh, good food where they didn’t before? This is worth it. So very worth it.