Last April, the New York Times magazine had an articled titled, “Why Bother?” questioning whether all the CFL light bulbs and conservation related to global warming was really worth the effort. I was surprised to see author Michael Pollen’s conclusion: “Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.”
Think of it: Ripping up one-half of your back yard turfgrass and replacing it with a vegetable garden that provides a bounty for your own dinner table and the rest you sell to neighbors craving fresh, local organic produce.
Martin Barret shows off his own vegetable garden-turned-business in Portland, OR.
Last month, I was fortunate to attend to a fancy, six-course dinner party with 30 people in Portland, Oregon. The white linen table cloth dinner was held in the vegetable garden of Martin Barrett, co-founder of City Gardens Farms.
City Garden Farms uses next-door neighbors’ backyards to grow the food, rather trucking in from a a rural farm. Barrett, along with co-founder Dan Bravin came up with the idea while drinking beer in a local Portland pub.
Just before I met Dan and Martin, their company was featured in an article in TIME magazine.
I interviewed Martin Barrett (insert his thick Scottish accent) and Dan Bravin:
What, in a nutshell, does your organization do?
We grow seasonal produce for a 30 member 22 week subscription program. All the food is grown on a diverse collection of sub care lots, plots and yards within the City if Portland. It’s about as local as you can get.
What do you grow?
We grow produce in line with the transition of the seasons. Salad greens, radish, scallions, carrots, beets, beet greens, peas, onion, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, broccolis, cabbage, root crops, beans,
Who buys your produce? Where is it sold?
We have an established customer base of 30 subscribers who ‘pick up’ a weekly ‘box’ at two Portland Locations. We have sold at farmers markets and are dipping our feet into the restaurant world.
How many gardens in Portland do you use as urban farms?
We currently have about 12 gardens being used for a total of about 1/2 acre’s worth of land.
What inspired you to start City Garden Farms?
Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivores Dilemma” was my inspiration to explore and embrace local food production. It made too much common sense to me and I could not shake it out of my mind. Dan and I had a conversation about that book where he declared “Y’know Michael Pollan is my Jesus” which led to us inspiring each other with regard to how we could take fuel out of people’s food equation and then how much food could we grow? Where would we grow it to remain as local (or as fuel free as possible) what farming method could we use? how could it become viable as a business? what did we need to do to get started, what would the benefits to the community be…etc.
Why is it important to eat local?
Eating local can mean using less fuel to produce/transport your food.
It keeps more $$ in your local economy,
It creates community,
It can taste a whole lot better than store bought food,
It fosters local food culture,
It creates a connection with those who produce and consume thus creating trust and accountability and
It keeps people aware of where food comes from and how it’s grown.
What are “food miles?”
Food miles are the number of miles food travels from field to fork as it were. Currently it stands at about 1500 miles for the average US consumer. For a city garden farms customer it’s about 1O miles (sometime less and sometimes more) never the less a huge reduction.
What kind of an impact has City Garden Farms had on the local community?
We have created very vested customers and very enthusiastic landowners who love what we do with their yards. Everyone we have talked to about this project thinks it’s the most sensible thing they have ever heard of. In summary I think we are creating connection positivity, community and participation.
Can you (now or eventually) quantify the good that you¹ve done for the environment through City Garden Farms (i.e. how much CO2 your gardens have absorbed, how many vegetables have you harvested, how many people have you fed, water reduced, how many ³food miles² have you saved)?
Wowee! CO2 I don’t know. I have probably created more methane gas on account of my increased intake of vegetable ‘roughage’.
In the first 8 weeks of this our first ever season I think we have grown approximately 3,000 vegetable ‘bunches’. I think we have fed 25-30 families a week and introduced our produce to well over 1,000 people. We have saved a huge number of food miles albeit for a small number of people. Our water usage is minimal.
What do you hope to achieve through City Garden Farms? Is this about building a small community of urban farmers or making Portland self-sufficient in fruit and vegetable (or eventually all food) production?
I’d like to create a successful urban farming enterprise that others could use as a model for their own CSA program. I’d like to be part of community of urban farmers who could support and learn from each other. Ultimately I’d like to see Portland develop an urban farming operation much like those in Cuba where a huge amount of the city’s food is produced in the city. I’d like to be part of that. When we talk of development it shouldn’t necessarily mean building houses but developing ‘food security and food sustainability’ It would do SO MUCH for Portland in many different respects.
Would you consider starting a City Garden Farms in another city?
Today Portland, tomorrow the world? I’d love to see City garden farms in another City but the question might be how? I have dreams of City garden farms becoming it’s own brand though in terms of urban produced food.
Do you eat local food exclusively? We’re doing what we can. My veggies grow 20 ft from my cooker.
Martin Barrett and Kevin Tuerff drink a toast in Barrett’s garden.
Martin and Dan have a great idea that I hope will grow as a national urban gardening movement. It’s a variation of what Austin’s Sustainable Food Center already operates. Farmer’s Markets are now a booming across the country, and many local farmers operate cooperatives that deliver fresh vegetables to your doorsteps.
What do you say?