How to support urban agriculture

TU Urban Farm members help weed, cultivate and harvest the school’s community garden located behind the Administration building at Towson University. Photo by Gabrielle LePore/TU Student

Pamela Hargest is a member of Towson University Urban Farm, a group of students on campus that dedicate their time to contributing to urban agriculture by maintaining a community garden located behind the Administration Building.

“[Urban agriculture] is a good way to make use of land that is not in use at all or is just a space where an abandoned building is,” Hargest said. “When you do agriculture on small scales and in these small lots, you can actually produce a lot of food for a community.”

Abby Cocke, the environmental planner for the office of sustainability at the Baltimore City department of planning said a number of cities, including Baltimore, have a lot of open and unused land that attracts trash and loiterers.

“Growing food is a great way to use vacant land,” Cocke said. “It provides jobs and income for people. It provides fresh, health, local food, and it cuts down on our greenhouse gas emissions because we’re not trucking food in from the outside.”

Urban agriculture offers food security by insolating ourselves from future changes, Cocke said. “If for some reason it’s much harder to get food from elsewhere because gas prices skyrocket and the price of food goes up significantly, it wouldn’t affect local urban agriculture.”

Cocke said there are many ways students can get involved in urban agriculture. Those who live on campus can grow their own food in their dorms.

“If you have a window on a ledge you can have herbs or small tomato plants,” she said. “Doing it is the best way to spread the practice. Volunteer at an urban farm or community garden, and help out that way.”

Christy Ottinger, the field manager at Real Food Farm in Clifton Park in Baltimore, has been working on farms since she graduated from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 2010. That summer, she had the opportunity to learn more about urban farming when she traveled to five different farms around the country with a volunteer program called World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farms.

“I just took part in daily life on these family farms, learning as I went,” Ottinger said. “It was great to see how many families are farming in their unique way, and making it work for them.”

World Wide Opportunities inspired Ottinger to pursue an apprenticeship at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in North Carolina. She lived next to the farm where she helped maintain and cultivate the land, and care for the livestock. She also worked alongside the program’s interns.

“We learned pretty intensively both through doing, as well as some more formalized teaching, all aspects of working on a diversified vegetable, small fruit, and livestock farm,” Ottinger said. “It was pretty mindblowing. I learned an absolute ton.”

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in the city, but for many students it might be easier to start by joining a more local garden near or on campus like TU Urban Farm, Hargest said.

“TU Urban Farm is alot easier to get involved with, especially for people who live on campus,” Hargest said. “It’s a good way to learn basic skills like how to grow your own food, how to cook. You can definitely learn a lot by being involved in our group.”

Ben Warner, the advisor of TU Urban Farm, said the group’s missions are not only to grow their own food, but to practice sustainability. By not using pesticides and herbicides, they don’t pollute the ground, and they catch their own water when it rains, he said.

“All of our water comes off of the roof of a shed and goes into a gutter. The gutter takes it into a series of eight rain barrels. We have many, many gallons of water stored in those rain barrels, and we use that over the summer.”

These methods are efficient because they use less energy.

“We grow it right where we grow it, and we eat it right where we grow it. The only energy inputs are the time and effort of the students that are farming,” Warner said.

TU Urban Farm also spreads awareness of urban agriculture by participating in volunteering opportunities.

“We promote it by doing it, by being visible on campus,” Warner said. “There’s a farmers’ market, so people can actually see what’s grown on campus. We also promote through outreach. Students in the past have taught classes down at the Ronald McDonald House [Charities of Baltimore] in Baltimore City about healthy eating and urban ag.”

In addition, the group donates a lot of the produce from the garden to the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, a program that helps local families in need, Warner said.

“It’s not just producing food,” Pamela Hargest said. “But it’s the idea of producing food together with a group of people who can work towards a common good. It’s things like that and projects like that people can actually improve community life.”

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