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Tour showcases urban agriculture in Charlottesville
New Roots Garden 1
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Refugees and New Roots Coordinator Brooke Ray (right)
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by Emily Berg | Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at 5:01 p.m.

Urban farmers opened their garden gates to community members Saturday morning as part of Cultivate C’ville’s Urban Farm and Garden Tour. The coordinators at each of the tour’s five sites were eager to teach visitors about their efforts to cultivate food and community in Charlottesville neighborhoods.

“Even though the dominant story we’re told is that we’re consumers, we all have the ability to be producers as well,” said Sarah Frazer, one of the tour organizers and worker-owner with C’ville Foodscapes.

The tour highlighted the diverse ways that urban agriculture can be incorporated into the Charlottesville community.

Frazer hopes the tour has helped people reconnect with how and where their food grows. But more importantly, Frazer hopes it forces the community to wrestle with questions of food access and how to guarantee that everyone has access to fresh, healthy food.

“How can we better integrate food into our local economy?” asked Frazer. “How can everybody withstand increased prices and food shortages due to climate change?”

Stops along the tour included the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, Casa Alma, the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Garden at Fourth Street, the garden at Buford Middle School, and the Fifth Street Community Garden.

Charlottesville Tomorrow visited three of the sites on the tour.

The Garden at Buford Middle School

A sign painted by students welcomes visitors to the garden at Buford Middle School. Plaques painted by individual classrooms mark the vegetable beds, and a circle of logs serves as an outdoor classroom and occasional jungle gym.

It is clear that students have had their hands in the garden’s dirt.

The garden is part of the City Schoolyard Garden project. CSG manages the garden at Buford and gardens at all six Charlottesville City public elementary schools.

The 4,000 square foot garden at Buford is home to countless plant types – peanuts, popcorn, cucumbers, peppers, beans, tomatoes, edameme, okra, birdhouse gourds, elderberries, kiwis – all at the fingertips of Charlottesville middle school students.

One of the garden’s main programming elements involves seventh graders in life science classes. Students compare plants grown in the garden’s hoop house and plants grown outside.

Emily Axelbaum, garden educator at Buford, praised the hands-on nature of the program to facilitate learning about the scientific method.

“It hits every student that comes through the school,” said Axelbaum. “And it meets core curriculum requirements for the teachers.”

Students at Buford also do a mandatory unit in the garden as part of their P.E. requirement. If students like the experience, they can choose to do more P.E. garden units.

“You can see that secretly they really like to pick flowers,” said Axelbaum of the students opting for more garden work.

Axelbaum emphasized that she wants to demonstrate to students that it takes energy to grow food.

“Our hope is for the students to have a greater appreciation and understanding for the natural world and where their food comes from,” said Axelbaum.

Axelbaum also spoke enthusiastically about the garden’s ability to serve as a team building and confidence building tool.

“If students are working together to dig a hole and laughing and trying to move rocks and asking for help, to me that’s way more valuable [than any gardening skill],” said Axelbaum.

The New Roots Garden at Fourth Street

Several refugee farmers bustle between raised beds in the New Roots Garden at Fourth Street, carrying watering cans to their plants. The air is thick with the sounds of languages from around the world.

The garden is part of the International Rescue Committee’s effort to help refugees rebuild their lives in Charlottesville.

“Almost all of the people that we have worked with come from farming backgrounds and have a lot of knowledge,” said New Roots coordinator Brooke Ray. “Our goal has been to help folks get land access to do what they already know how to do and to help them be successful here.”

Ray noted that the New Roots Garden is funded by grants, donation support and “elbow grease.”

The garden contains 23 raised beds cultivated by 11 refugee families. They have come to the U.S. from diverse places around the world like Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Not surprisingly, the garden is home to exotic international vegetables. Ray pointed out a bitter gourd plant, used often in Asian and Indian cooking.

“All of the refugees we work with really take a lot of ownership over their individual plots and the garden as a whole,” said Ray.

Families gardening in the New Roots Garden have the opportunity to continue working their beds year after year.

“It can be very therapeutic for them to have a place to stay,” said Ray. “New Roots is really about healthy communities, healthy people, and making a good transition for folks.”

Ray hopes the program will eventually extend to the neighborhoods where the people actually live.

The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville Gardens at Sixth Street and Friendship Court

The UACC gardens epitomize urban agriculture. Not ten feet from the edge of the vegetable beds hangs a line of clothes.

The UACC uses urban farming as a catalyst for social change in neighborhoods where many residents have limited incomes. The group hosts community gardening events Wednesday evenings during the summer.

“It’s a cool mix of people,” said operations director Todd Niemeier. “We get work done. We garden together. But we also meet one another in ways that we never would otherwise.”

Everything grown in the gardens is distributed free of charge to individuals in the community with limited incomes every Friday at “Market Day.”

Market Day operates under a token system, whereby people who spend half an hour working in the garden earn a token worth a large bag of vegetables.

“[The token system] takes the money out of the situation,” said operations director Todd Niemeier. “It’s not backed by gold. It’s backed by time.”

If gardeners choose not to keep all of their tokens, they can deposit them in the “pay-it-forward jar.” Because of the pay it forward jar, individuals who come to Market Day but who cannot volunteer in the gardens have a chance to get fresh vegetables.

“The jar results in an interchange where people are helping other people and maybe not even realize it at first,” said Niemeier. “But when they realize it, that’s really cool.”

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