June 12, 2014

New Roots Urban Farm

New Roots is a loose collective that came together to create a localized, sustainable food system for their members and neighbors. They meet weekly to make farm decisions. And their decisions are made by consensus. New Roots Urban Farm serves as an incubator for community, an incubator for budding farmers, and an incubator for new approaches to agriculture.

The farm is about a third of an acre. It is small, because city lots are small. However, it is remarkably diverse for such a small piece of land. Rows of greens are separated by wood chips. Chickens have an area for themselves. There are two beehives. A picnic table sits near an outdoor food prep area. There's a greenhouse growing micro-greens. And more.

In case this doesn't come across as particularly radical, let me draw attention to how New Roots came to be. The founders were working at a rural farm, supplying food for farmers' markets and restaurants. They came to realize that they couldn't afford the food they were growing. The irony wasn't lost on them. In setting out to make their way out of this dilemma, they decided to go where food insecurity was the highest - right in the city. And they decided that they wanted to feed themselves and their community, but their focus was unrelated to making a profit.

I spoke with Mary Densmore, who has been a member of the collective that runs New Roots for the last six years. She explained that the farm seeks to meet all of their expenses through farm income. Their expenses typically run from $2000-$4000/year. This includes purchase of tools and seed, maintenance of structures, electric and water bills, etc. The farm runs a CSA that generates the income to pay these expenses. They have participated at a farmers market, but, according to Mary, the market itself was not well integrated with the surrounding neighborhood. All who work at New Roots Urban Farm are paid in food - food that is grown using organic practices.

I asked Mary if she thought New Roots Urban Farm could make a profit, if the collective chose to. She pointed out that the land is held in some kind of trust, so there is no mortgage. They don't use large farm equipment, so they don't have onerous capitalization costs. All they would have do would be to increase the size of the CSA and they would immediately see a profit. Mary, herself, is working on a startup called Bee Simple, which sells honey, microgreens, and soap. The New Roots collective is supportive of her efforts. For example, the beehives from which Bee Simple gathers honey are kept at New Roots. In a similar vein, many past members of the collective have gone off to work at other farms. Once they have learned the basic skills of running a farm at New Roots, they moved to rural areas to earn their livelihood from farming. Even though the farm itself is not making a profit, they are raising new farmers, who are now making a living at it.

I asked Mary what problems they have had growing produce without chemicals. She recalled that last fall, their greens had run-ins with harlequin bugs. The immediate solution was individually handpicking the little buggers - I mean bugs - off each plant. A very labor intensive approach. This year, they will try row covers before fall comes to see if that keeps the numbers down. Mary also commented on the increasingly robust bindweed. Since New Roots practices no-till farming, they simply cut down the bindweed, leaving the roots happily ensconced in the ground to grow another day. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" comes to mind. Many unwanted plants have this characteristic of resilience. And bindweed is a case in point. Left in the ground, the root thickens and then sends up more tiny cotyledons. It doesn't take long for the root to thicken into a woody mass as thick as a potato. No-till advocates point out that tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that often form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots and that tilling interferes with water penetration. But after ten years of no-till, New Roots may consider a good tilling to root out the bindweed (pun intended).

This hints at another valuable trait of New Roots Urban Farm. They are willing to try new agricultural processes. There is still a lot to learn about what farming techniques work best in an urban environment. Several years ago, New Roots got wind of aquaponics. A closed loop aquaponics system sounds miraculously sustainable. If most of the nutrient-rich water from a fish tank is used to feed vegetables and then filtered in some fashion, it can be returned to the fish tank in a clean state, ready to recirculate endlessly. The wastewater from the fish provides fertilizer for the plants. The plants clean the water for the fish. The system worked well, but the collective abandoned the project, because it added a lot to the expense side of their balance sheet. They re-purposed the aquaponics greenhouse for a new project - nutritious microgreens. They are experimenting with growing microgreens in a pure compost medium and having great success. New Roots Urban Farm is finding out which approaches to farming work best in their urban environment.

Mary told me that many of the folks in the New Roots collective have their roots in Catholic Worker communities. These folks protest injustice and violence in all forms. From their website, they are "committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and providing hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken [sic]." No wonder they have tackled food insecurity. And like most all of the farms I am visiting, they also stand as an alternative to the modernization of agricultural technology. They practice no-till farming and weed by hand. They stand as an alternative to the monocropping that large corporate growers practice as standard fare. Instead they grow a diversity of crops and animals at their small site. They are the flipside to farmworkers who are treated like so many cogs in a machine. Rather, they are creating community amongst their workers.

New Roots Urban Farm is not a profit-seeking venture, even though they could be. Rather, they are producing food for themselves and their neighbors. This is probably due in large part to the fierce, Catholic Worker belief in the God-given dignity of every human being. Within that framework, they are also cultivating community, budding farmers, and better urban farming techniques. That is something you cannot buy at your local Farmers Market, but you might consider emulating it in your own neighborhood. I'd put money on their willingness to give you some tips to get started.