David Young: Thoughts on Washington DC

The following blog is a guest post from David Young, the founder of Capstone Community Gardens in New Orleans. You can learn more about his work at www.capstone118.org

I had the opportunity to be in Washington D.C. from September 20 through 23, 2017. This was made possible by the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness and the Global Food Initiative. The main purpose was to do a presentation with Nathan Hosler of the Office of Public Witness, at the University of D.C. during their Urban Agriculture Symposium and Association of Vertical Farmers Summit. Our presentation topic was: Food and Faith; The New Orleans Story of the Church of the Brethren. It ended up being so much more than that.

One of the things the Office of Public Witness does is look at policy and how they effect Brethren and projects of the Brethren.

Having had previous meetings and discussions with Nathan he was familiar with some of the challenges Capstone faces as an urban farm. One of those is being in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Orleans Parish (county in other states) has a 100% urban designation by USDA which prevent us from using many of the benefits USDA makes available to those with rural designation.

Nathan and Tori from the Office of Public Witness arranged for me to meet with staff of the three legislators from Louisiana. Within a few hours of arriving I found myself on Capitol Hill, spending about 30 minutes with each staff person, explaining how federal, state, and local policy effect how we can operate with our mission to grow food and share it with those in need.

One of the most pleasant surprises was a World Day of Peace service at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. Multiple churches of different denominations worked together to coordinate the service on the evening of September 20th, a day early, since Nathan and I would be occupied at the symposium on the 21st. The garden theme was included as part of the service. It was a nice gathering with a handful of denominations represented as one worshiping and praying for peace.

The Urban Ag Symposium started with Nathan and I doing a brief TV interview about what the Office of Public Witness provides and the community mission of Capstone. Since the mid 70’s I have understood the important role our land grant colleges play with agriculture. The University of D.C. is the only Urban Land Grant College. I also found it surprising to hear the Dean of the University talk about the faith based involvement the university has.

Later that afternoon Nathan and I completed our presentation at the symposium which was well received. The symposium partnered with the Association of Vertical Farmers. There were presentations that talked about some of the various vertical farming systems. Capstone has a combination of in -ground farming, elevated farming (raised beds), as well as some vertical farming with the aquaculture systems.

The second day started the Association for Vertical Farming Summit. The make-up of those in attendance changed from the previous day. The Vertical Farmcing Summit included more people who held titles of Scientist, PhD, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).

There was dialogue and presentations on controlled environment, high capacity, 6 to 30-foot-high vertical growing systems. Complete grow systems self-contained in shipping containers. There was also an emphasis on using technology and Artificial Intelligence to analyze and evaluate plant needs. This ranged from mini drones gathering samples in mid-air to leaf mounted cameras and scopes.

Going back to when I was part of commercial agriculture in the late 70 and 80’s and currently doing urban farming I ask, what are you testing for? Most people I know now typically do more harm to their crops by overreacting to the test results. The group agreed with me. I’ve never tested much, I look at the plant and figure out what if any corrections I should take. The group said we don’t have that experience or knowledge to do that.

It comes very close to feeling like I’m watching a movie that was made a long time ago and this would have been considered sci-fi. I found myself in unfamiliar territory as I ask myself are these scientists, PhDs, and Artificial Intelligence people our next generation of farmers even though they admit they don’t have any experience in growing food. One representative from USDA said this type of farming will never replace conventional farming.

One three story vertical system in Jackson Wyoming cost 4.5 Million dollars to build. While they are at the other end of the spectrum of production and a for profit business I think back to my first two seasons with the gardens at Capstone. 4’x14’ and I spent $100 each growing season. If someone wanted to help I asked them to bring the plants or seeds they wanted to have grown. We’ve grown considerably since then. Going to the Garden Grants and Global Food Initiative grants have been beneficial to our success. Even as we continue to grow I feel we maintain a solid well-grounded relationship between the food we grow and our community we share it with.

On the last day, we took a tour of two urban gardens that were operated by Cultivate the City. These two gardens have a combination of raised and vertical farming and are doing some aquaculture. Even though both were rooftop gardens these gardens had a more familiar feel to them. At one farm the founder said we have people water the plants with a watering can. I feel it makes them more attuned with what they are growing. Quite a contrast to having micro drones collect samples.

Here is where I share my lack of following sports or having TV coverage. While I was in Washington I kept seeing a large cursive “W”. I kept thinking a certain large drug store chain was doing a lot of advertising. It was only when we went to the baseball stadium to see their roof top garden and the “W” was more prominent that I realized the “W” was for the Washington sports teams.

In D.C. there are many rooftop gardens because there is a storm water fee. If you allow storm water to openly drain away from a building or hard surface such as a parking lot you pay a fee on that. The roof top gardens make flat roof areas green space for growing plants or food which in turn offers relief from the storm water fee.

The University of D.C has a large green roof including a greenhouse. They grow succulents as well as produce. At the baseball stadium, the roof top gardens are on top of the concession stands. You open a gate on an upper level in the parking garage, climb up a ladder, down the other side of a wall, and onto the roof. It’s covered with hundreds of milk crates. Each milk crate contains a 5-gallon bag made of recycled material. This holds soil or compost and the plants.

One benefit to this type of garden is if you have to relocate the garden due to turning over ownership of the site or other factors you simply pick up the milk crate with the soil and plants, load them and move them to their new location. When we harvest honey, we put the 5 gallons buckets containing honey in a milk crate to make them more stable for transport and easier to handle.

While the material expense may be above our budget I think the concept in an urban setting is great. Having rehabbed a total of 40 lots in the Lower 9th Ward and returning many of them to families or organizations who decided it was time to develop that property it would have made things much easier in some cases to be able to just load the entire garden on a trailer and move it to another site.

I don’t know that my visit to D.C. is going to change anything or even influence any of the policy decisions. I do know the response from several of the smaller urban farms has been positive as we look to continue the discussion and enhance our relationships and collaboration.


Watching for the Spirit


Gardeners gathered for the Going to the Garden retreat and vision meeting. Photo by Growing Power

A reflection by Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Public Witness

It was late March a few years ago, and the winter chill seemed to be breaking. Since the day was beautiful and I was feeling good, I decided, mid-run, to go a little farther. After crossing the Anacostia River at the 11th Street bridge, I continued along the riverside trail. The morning sun was shining on my left shoulder and my back as I trotted on the bike trail, tall and dry meadow grass on both sides. I then saw a red-winged blackbird. It was perched and wobbling on a plant. The bird tipped toward me and then—as I caught a full view of red-orange patches illuminated in direct morning sunlight—it took flight.

A few days before Pentecost this year, I was running in the morning, again. This time it was in Wisconsin at a Going to the Garden retreat and vision meeting. On this particular run through the farmland I noticed a wild turkey take flight—fast, heavy, barreling through the sky just above the field. Upon returning to our lodging, I paused next to a flowering bush and watched hummingbirds flit and dip.

We had gathered to watch for the Spirit with gardeners from the lower ninth ward in New Orleans, Maryland, Alaska, and near a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Going to the Garden began several years ago as a way to encourage and support congregations to engage their communities and address food insecurity and hunger. This project has been a joint effort between the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., and the Global Food Initiative (formerly the Global Food Crisis Fund).

Most of the gardeners did not start with a grand plan but caught a glimpse of a new possible reality. In Alaska, a connection with people from the Gwich’in First Nation was formed through a shared experience of hunting, which led to a new relationship and an invitation to return. Through this relationship, we learned about the health challenges of the Gwich’in community, and consequently drew Brethren to garden there every summer for nearly 10 years.

From the Wisconsin gathering emerged the idea of garden advocates. Several interested Going to the Garden partners will be able to apply for funding through the Global Food Initiative to fund a member of their local community to become a garden advocate. These advocates will work to expand the capacity of the projects, engage with the Office of Public Witness in local and national level advocacy as it relates to food security and hunger, and provide additional support for publicity and outreach.

We have heard stories of efforts meeting community needs for food, connections forming between churches and their communities, youth being empowered, grandparents in Native American communities sharing food-growing knowledge with youth, and how valuable denominational staff have been for support. The movement of the Spirit has been evident and noted. Many of these stories have and will continue to show up in places likes Messenger magazine, the Going to the Garden Facebook page and webpage, and on YouTube.

The Holy Spirit often is pictured as a dove. I don’t want to claim too much for the red-winged blackbird, the hummingbird, or even the turkey, but the flight of these birds is a reminder of the movement of God all around us. While denominational structures shift, individuals in leadership change, and programs morph for new vision, the Spirit continues to move.

As we continue to watch for the Spirit, I invite you to support the ongoing work of the Office of Public Witness, and all of the ministries of the Church of the Brethren, both financially and prayerfully. Your partnership is essential for the ongoing work of these programs, and it is only through your support that these ministries continue.

Learn more about the work of the Office of Public Witness at www.brethren.org/witness or support it today at www.brethren.org/give .

Growing friendships

Squash harvested from the garden at  Mount Morris Church of the Brethren. Photo by Carol Erickson

Squash harvested from the garden at
Mount Morris Church of the Brethren.
Photo by Carol Erickson

By Carol Erickson, garden coordinator for the Mount Morris (Ill.) Church of the Brethren

Plans for our garden at the Mount Morris Church of the Brethren began on a snowy evening in 2009. Experienced and rookie gardeners, church people, limited income adults, and curious individuals gathered to discuss planting 32 garden plots across the street from the church. We decided that this garden would be dedicated to growing produce for the Loaves and Fish Food Pantry. Five years later, the garden has become not only a place to grow food but a place to grow friendships.

Many individuals have helped plan and tend our community garden. In January, we gathered to share favorite hot dishes, pore over seed catalogs, and brainstorm ways to improve the garden. A local farmer offered his Japanese beetle-free farm for growing sweet corn and winter squash. Elderly residents of the Pinecrest Community grew seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs that were transplanted to the garden in May. In the spring, members of the church and community planted 50 pounds of potatoes, 20 asparagus plants, 20 new strawberry plants, and more.

The “Going to the Garden” grant from the Global Food Crisis Fund and the Office of Public Witness, which empowers congregations to start or improve community gardens, has helped us reach our goals. Thanks to the extra funds, we have improved access to water by purchasing hoses and instruments to collect rainwater off the church. We have increased productivity by building new frames to contain each plot of vegetables, and by installing cattle gates to support the growth of tomato plants. We have also strengthened the community aspect of the garden by painting two weathered picnic tables and adorning them with umbrellas for shade.

To further improve the community of the garden, we offer planned activities. Gardeners gathered in June at the Mount Morris Senior Center to can strawberry jam. Monthly potlucks allow gardeners to prepare tasty dishes and share from their garden’s abundance. The garden is also available for picnics.

By harvest time, our community garden will provide over 5,000 pounds of vegetables to the food pantry, and residents of Pinecrest Community will receive two deliveries of sweet corn. We are so thankful for the “Going to the Garden” grant. It has helped us grow healthy, fresh produce for many, and cultivate meaningful relationships. It has helped us come a long way since that first snowy night.

“Going to the garden” is a joint initiative of the Global Food Crisis Fund and the Office of Public Witness. Visit brethren.org/givegfcf to support this ministry today.

(Read this issue of eBrethren)