These are the experiences of Bettny and Jenna, interns at Nuestro Huerto Urban Farm in Worcester, MA.
Urban Farming Sunsets
I bend down and pick a shiny, perfectly orange sun gold tomato with hands now covered in green and black dust from harvesting the copious tomato plants before me, plop one into my mouth, and thankfully sigh as the juices fill my mouth with the most wonderfully sweet taste. I look up across the garden beds and over the metal fence to see the urban canvas laid out before me. To the untrained eye it may seem like your average post-industrial city: neglected, overgrown fields spread out beneath dilapidated old coal plants situated next to a rusty train track with remnants of graffiti artists having a fun night in town with not much else to do. But to the artistic farmer’s eye it is so much more: Four vast, white towers that have filled our harvesting conversations with potentials for large granaries and water catchments, a train that fills in its part in the symphony of construction, traffic and Latin music that has become all too familiar as we harvest chard and kale, and the nighttime “urban sunset” against the reddish-orange dumpster that has turned from an inside joke to an actual highly anticipated moment in our late nights on the farm. This farm, which has become a sort of reprieve from the city, is coincidentally right in the heart of the boisterous city of Worcester, Massachusetts, situated in the parking lot of a kind and generous church. We get our fair share of honks and curious and confused looks from passers-by as everyone seems rushed to get from wherever they were to wherever they are going, as I gratefully continue my farm work in a place where time seems irrelevant even amongst the jarring city lights.
And this is what urban farming has become for me: a chance to appreciate the unappreciated, find beauty in the potentially unbeautiful, and enjoy that which has become long forgotten. Worcester has become a home for me in the past few years during my time here, but it was not until I became involved in Nuestro Huerto (Spanish for Our Backyard Vegetable Garden) that it truly stole my heart. This city is far from being free from its troubles. The epitome of a food desert, Worcester has its fair share of convenience stores, fast food chain restaurants, and candy wrappers and lottery tickets which litter the sidewalks every where you look. Food stamps are a common necessity, although what people buy with them can be limiting and therefore potentially unhealthy. This has become common in many diverse, lower class neighborhoods and an unfortunate commonality within the paradigm of those with money eat better than those without. Fortunately, the concept of food justice has taken hold in the city in the form of farmer’s markets, a mobile farmers market, farm to school programs, school gardens, an affordable, organic food coop, and a few urban gardens and farms.
Farming in any setting comes with its strife and unpredictability, yet in the city you may have the added problems of space, pollution, and awareness. For me, however, I see these challenges as room for more possibilities and the type of creativity and perseverance that is necessary when growing food in an urban setting. We terrace our tomato beds on a small sector of land that was once forgotten and full of overgrown weeds and rusted steel, we plant every inch of every bed that we have access to, and we make use of every cement pillar, fallen tree, and metal piece that we find. Resourcefulness and ingenuity have become helpful if not necessary in this type of environment, and we can feel proud knowing that we are making a difference in every way that we can.
I have worked on a number of gardens and farms over the past five years and have had my share of fantasies of living on a beautifully vast rural expanse of nothing but pure farmland. Nuestro Huerto is not the cookie cutter picture you may find on your organic milk jug (although in this day and age not much is, and that picture may have a wide range of hidden corporate labels within it). Yet it is picturesque in its own way. I look forward to the bike ride past the four white coal towers now cradled in vines, the colorful graffitied trains, and the copious overgrown lots full of wildflowers and edible weeds of every kind. I am grateful that I can be apart of a movement in which I can see the direct impact of my work, from the constant influx of kale of every variety, to the eager faces of the people who come to the farm to pick up their weekly CSAs. So here’s to a world full of more fresh, affordable, and healthy food, and a city that is beautiful in every way.
My alarm clock would go off at 5:30 AM five days a week. I woke up with the clothes I was going to wear to the farm already on my body, as I wanted to sleep until the last possible second before I had to walk out the door. I was a zombie walking down the hall, brushing my teeth and filling up my gallon of water before I was greeted by the oppressive humidity outside of my cool house. I started my car, drove 15 minutes down the road, and ended up at Longview Flowers a minute before 6am, the start of the workday. Once I was on the farm, I almost forgot what the hour was, that is until I saw the sun slowly rising above the tree line, allowing its rays to insulate the earth to a warm 90 degrees. The last summer at Longview Flowers was definitely the hottest one, sweltering days that were over 100 degrees, sunburns that never faded, and bug bites that multiplied hourly. The flowers loved the warm and humid climate, my body however did not. I spent three summers at 40 Bridge Road, Lumberton NJ, weeding, seeding, planting, harvesting, and arranging flowers to be sold at local South Jersey farmer’s markets. I learned to love the solitude of working on the farm, the feeling of the Earth graciously allowing me to poke it and pull it, planting seeds that will eventually grow to be beautiful cut flowers. I eventually had grown to appreciate the Earth in a way that most people do not in our 21st century world.
My appreciation was not reached by instant gratification by any means. After the first day of farm work three years prior, I didn’t want to end up back on Bridge Road ever again. My knees were sore, my body filthy, and I didn’t have anything to show for my first day of work. I began to think about how much I would rather work retail, where I could be talking to customers all day surrounded by goods I thought I needed. I stuck with working at Longview, mostly because I didn’t have any more options but also because my parents encouraged me to try something new. I’m glad I listened, because it wasn’t long before I knew I made the right choice.
Working at Longview Flowers opened up my eyes to the world of sustainable agriculture, food security, food systems, food justice, and urban (and rural) farming. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful boss who had a hand in incorporating Greensgrow Urban Farm in Philadelphia, as well as many other connections throughout the Tri-State area. I spent every summer during my undergrad time working at Longview, every year expanding my horizons and introducing new paths to take in my life.
Three summers at Longview led me to my final year at Clark University. I had been accepted into the Community Development and Planning Fifth-year program, and was moving along smoothly on my directed studies and practicum projects. Everything seemed to be going well, but there was still something missing. It was February 2012 when I received an e-mail from a past professor encouraging her students to apply for an internship on the Nuestro Huerto volunteer run urban farm on Southgate Street in Worcester. I eventually heard back from Amanda, and after a long phone call sharing our interests and objectives, I was the newest intern at Nuestro Huerto. Amanda wasted no time before giving me things to do, the first of which was to create a plan for the flowers that would eventually be planted on the farm. I was ecstatic, of course, since it was very similar to what I had done for three years. I spent time during my spring break trip to Las Vegas researching flower varieties and what would do well in our soil and climate zone. Upon creating the list, I sent it over to Amanda and we began collecting seeds. The summer, although still a few months away, was something to look forward to—I had finally gone back to my roots and would soon be starting an adventure I never actually thought would happen…I was becoming an urban farmer.
Urban farming is interesting to me because the farms themselves are usually located in areas that do not seem to be conducive to farming. However, for urban farmers, any parcel of land that is non-toxic has the potential to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers. For those who started Nuestro Huerto, the South Worcester industrial park that once was, was a perfect fit. I headed to the farm for my first workday in late March, where we spent most of our time pulling old pieces of steel, rocks, and other debris out of what would eventually be a dozen new beds that would produce a plethora of tomatoes, okra, eggplant, and basil.
Perhaps what drew me most to the Nuestro Huerto farm-scene was how open they were to new volunteers and faces around the farm. I always felt welcome and like my input was productive and appreciated. I enjoyed waking up early on the days I didn’t have class to venture to the farm and get dirty for four hours. I enjoyed biking home, dripping sweat, and having my roommates tell me I looked like I spent hours playing in the mud. I loved seeing the fruit of my labor, something I think all farmers can agree on, and eventually making meals out of the seeds I planted in March. I loved seeing the sunflowers grow to nine or ten feet tall, even if they didn’t start to bloom until August. There is something about farm life that is so simple, yet so complex that I cannot seem to leave. I have learned so much from being a part of two wonderful farming initiatives, and cannot even begin to write down all of the new skills I have learned over the past four years. Creating a just and sustainable food system is something I hope these farms can initiate in our communities, and I would love to be a part of something bigger than myself, helping others within the community who could greatly benefit from locally grown, organic produce. However, perhaps what the most beneficial thing I have learned over that past four years is that farming can be extremely personal. Farming helped me reach inside myself and find what I was passionate about, what I wanted to do with my life, and who would be able to help me. I spent hours alone at Longview cutting flowers all while listening to the sound of the cicadas surrounding me; I wasn’t alone in this world—I had myself and the Earth to support me and make me grow.