Dig It STL Summer 2017 Update

 

Dig It STL is Gateway Greening’s teen employment program where teens work for eight weeks on building knowledge about urban agriculture, food access issues, and community leadership.

 

On Dig It STL’s first day the team played a game where they had to name another team member when a blue tarp was lowered between them. The team, initially shy, warmed up as they raced to shout an opponent’s name as soon as their head peeked over the tarp. While the game is fun and spontaneous, it also serves a vital purpose in helping the crew begin to feel comfortable with each other.

The teens come into the program unfamiliar with each other and with a variety of interests. Some teens come into the program passionate about the environment and wanting to save the world. Others are interested in plants and growing food. And many want to learn public speaking and leadership skills.

Alana, a crew leader for Dig It STL.

First Week

In the Dig It STL program, the teens learn about all of these things and more. During the first week of the program the crew created a community contract. This contract details the ways they will treat each other and themselves. They also did a variety of icebreakers and team building activities so that the crew can begin to bond.

The program includes frequent workshops that focus on environmental, interpersonal, and farming skills. They range from Soils 101 to learning how to give a great elevator speech.

“My favorite part is the workshops because you get to see environmental science concepts applied to agriculture,” said Joe, a Dig It STL crew leader.

The teens also receive feedback from staff and other fellow crew members during an exercise they call “straight talk.” During straight talk, the teens also cultivate emotional intelligence by reflecting on their own progress and goals.

But it’s not all workshops and team building for the Dig It STL teens. They also take field trips to local farms, gardens and organizations. Joe says that he is particularly excited to visit Flower Hills Farm, a sustainable and organic flower farm. The field trips are designed for teens to learn more about sustainable agriculture.  They also get to see the variety of opportunities available to them in the field.

Daily Work

However, most of the work that the teens do revolves around keeping the Gateway Greening Urban Farm running. They do a lot of weeding, watering, and harvesting, as well as learning the practices required to keep an urban farm running. These practices include irrigation, natural pest control, and crop rotation.

Drachen, a Dig It STL teen, weeds.

All of this knowledge will aid the crew as they perform their final project as Dig It STL members, a teen led harvest. This will be the first year that the program will culminate in a teen led harvest. This will ensure that the teens both understand sustainable agriculture practices and have gained leadership skills through the program.

“The harvest will allow the teens to use the leadership skills they’ve gained, as well as use their knowledge about agriculture in a self-directed way,” said Carolyn, teen programs coordinator.

Program Goals

Ultimately though, building a loving community in which the teens can learn to both respect others and themselves is the goal of the program. Building community is vital in creating a city where people can collaborate to eliminate hunger and inequality. Within a loving community, it is possible to address these large issues because people are committed to the mission and each other, regardless of individual differences that could otherwise cause division and fragmentation.

Though not all of the teens will become best friends, that’s not the point. Fostering redeeming goodwill for all does not require friendship or affection, just commitment to improving the city and community one lives in. And solving issues like hunger requires such a commitment. Food and the natural world create connection.

And no one says that better than Alana, a crew leader of Dig It STL.

Malaak, a Dig It STL teen, harvests.

“When you bring people together in the outdoors, they bond.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We added a high school internship program to Dig It StL, read more here:

A Semester in Dig It STL Internship Program

 

The Process, Pros, and Cons of No-Till Farming

This is the first year that Gateway Greening has offered a high school internship program, in addition to our summer teen employment program. Through the internship, local high school students explore environmental issues, the St. Louis food system, and local urban agriculture projects, all while earning school credit.

 

Dig It STL Interns ask: “Why are you tilling the Farm beds?”

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In October 2016, high school seniors Adam and Anna started their internships with Gateway Greening through the Dig It STL program, spending a large portion of each week throughout the fall and spring semesters of their senior year working on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. From researching and creating a crop rotation plan for the coming year, to getting outside and performing hands-on tasks, they were an incredible help.

As Adam and Anna learned about soil structure and different soil management practices during their internship, they asked Teen Program Coordinator Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne: “why do we till the vegetable beds on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm?” As an urban agriculture organization, Gateway Greening teaches about no-till practices in our curriculum and discuss the benefits of no-till for microbial activity, soil fertility, and carbon sequestration. 

However, we have never tried using no-till soil management practices on our own urban farm. When challenged with the question, the staff thought about it and realized the main reason we haven’t tried no-till is… inertia. Gateway Greening has never directly used no-till and things seemed to be working fine, so it never entered our minds. 

As part of the Dig It school-year program, interns are required to complete a culminating project that demonstrates some of the knowledge they gained during their time with Gateway Greening this spring. Adam and Anna chose to put forth a No-Till Proposal for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm as their culminating project. The rest this article shares Adam and Anna’s findings and research, in their own words. 

 

The Process, Pros, and Cons of No-Till Farming

by Adam Mancuso & Anna Dotson

Traditional farming practices utilize tilling when preparing to plant new seeds in the ground. This is done in several ways, from large machinery to handheld tools, but the goal is the same: to loosen and aerate the soil in order to make it easier to plant and introduce nutrients. However, this process not only interrupts the natural soil building process that is occurring during the growing season, but also is not effective at reaching its goal, on account of smoothing over, crusting, and loss of the soil that occurs after heavy rainfall. This is why some farmers choose to instead use no-till practices on their farms, to maintain and boost the natural processes present, depending in part on what kind of soil is present on their farm. While till farming builds up the soil (using compost, pesticides, fertilizers, etc), tears it down, and builds it up again, no-till farmers instead continuously build up the soil throughout the year.

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In 2017, Hen bit and Chamomile did their best to invade raised berms on the urban farm.

There are a few things that go into a no-till bed or field. The first thing that needs to be done when preparing a no-till bed is to plant cover crops over the winter then use a roller or crimping tool to kill the cover crops once the growing season is 1-2 weeks away. After this is done, tarps should be put over the beds to cover them until planting time. If a roller or crimper is not used, then this process should be started 2-3 weeks in advance rather than 1-2. Once it is time to plant crops, add in about 4 inches of mulch during the initial seeding along with compost around the plants, making sure to pull the mulch away from the stems of young plants as they start sprouting. If there are perennial roots from other plants present in the soil, be sure to remove these from the areas being planted in so they do not come up and disrupt the growing of the plant that is supposed to be growing. Minimal watering through drip irrigation is the best way to water no-till spaces, and an important thing to keep in mind during the entire process is to compact the soil as little as possible. Compacting the soil is counterproductive as one of the goals of no-till farming is to build up the soil structure, however there is preliminary research that shows that soil in no-till systems are better at recovering on its own from compaction than soil in systems that use tillage. Growers also need to be mindful of any small weeds that may start to grow and to gently pull them out before they form large root systems.

Pros of No-till Farming

There are several pros when it comes to no-till farming over till farming. One of the main positives cited is very good erosion control, along with conservation of soil moisture and a buildup of organic material within the soil. No-till helps with erosion because the bulk of soil erosion in till farming comes from the tilling action itself, and because in no-till farming plant residue is left on the beds, the organic material builds up and helps with holding soil moisture and naturally promotes aeration and earthworm population increases (along with beneficial microbial life). Because in no-till the soil remains undisturbed, this also reduces the chances of accidentally bringing dormant weed seeds to the top of the soil (where they will then sprout), along with helping the soil to hold more carbon than it releases. No-till farming also has a hand in reducing loss of phosphorus in the soil. On larger farms, cutting out tillage also helps to cut out large amounts of fuel cost from the budget. In the long term, no-till helps provide larger yields during years without much rain while also helping farms save on water costs.

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Left: No-till bed. Right: Till bed planted with the same crop.

Cons of No-till Farming

Because building up soil structure is a slow process, there are certain benefits that can take up to 6 years for the effects to be seen at all. Another con to no-till is that there is no incorporation within the soil, meaning that compost added to the top of a bed stays on the top and the materials in it do not go far beyond that layer if root systems and/or microbial life do not transport them. In addition to the lack of incorporation, a con of having high organic matter content is that the organic matter ends up holding the soil together, which, if there is a poor earthworm count (or other microbial life), will not be broken up which can result in packing in of the soil and that could make it harder for plants to thrive in the soil. The increased ability for the beds to hold water is a bit of a double-edged sword as well, meaning that while holding more water is useful in terms of water costs and plant survival in dry years, in wet years the beds can end up over-saturated which then can result in slow warming in the soil if there is poor drainage. Poor drainage in no-till areas are typically caused by compaction of the soil. This can be solved by minimal use of “vertical tillage” to break up small areas of the soil that were previously compacted.

Project Conclusion

Two major parts to the no-till farming system is incorporating crop rotation and cover crop into the farming schedule, two things that are already being done at Gateway Greening. The main aspects that need to be increased are the amount of mulch and compost used. No-till farming increases soil structure, ability to hold water, and reduces soil erosion over time and is therefore a positive system for Gateway Greening to adopt.

 

Sources Cited

5 Steps For Successful No-Tilling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/blogs/1-covering-no-till/post/4898-steps-for-successful-no-tilling

Duiker, S. W., & Myers, J. C. (n.d.). Better Soils With the No-Till System. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.chesco.org/DocumentCenter/View/6537

Eartheasy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://learn.eartheasy.com/2009/01/no-till-gardening/

No-till agriculture offers vast sustainability benefits. So why do many organic farmers reject it? (2016, June 02). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/02/no-till-agriculture-offers-vast-sustainability-benefits-so-why-do-organic-farmers-reject-it/

No-Till Pros Outweigh Cons For Growers. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/no-till-pros-outweigh-cons-for-growers

Pros and Cons of No-Tillage Farming. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://greentumble.com/pros-and-cons-of-no-tillage-farming/

University of Nebraska-Lincoln | Web Developer Network. (n.d.). Advantages and Disadvantages. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://cropwatch.unl.edu/tillage/advdisadv

What is No-Till? (2013, April 26). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://thefarmerslife.com/what-is-no-till/

 

Discover more about the Dig It STL Program: 

April on the Urban Farm with Dig It STL
A Semester in the Dig It STL Internship Program
No-Till Proposal by Dig It STL
USDA Awards Grant to Support Green Jobs for St. Louis Teens

From School Year to Summer with Dig It STL

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Dig It STL 2017 Interns installed new beds in the Demonstration Garden made from upcycled materials found in the local community.

This week, our first year of Dig It school year internships came to a close as our interns graduated from high school. In the 2016/2017 school year, our crew of 16 seniors from McKinley, Collegiate, and Soldan high schools racked up a cool 560 hours of service on the Gateway Greening farm, and they can see the impact. The garlic they planted in the fall is almost ready to be harvested, the fruit trees they pruned are filled with tiny green cherries, plums, and peaches, and in the words of one intern, “It’s sad we have to leave just when it’s getting good out here!”

Our teens explored a wide range of topics this year, including hunger and food insecurity, no-till soil management, medicinal herbs, and food policy. This highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of urban agriculture, and the connections between our farm and the diverse fields of ecology, biology, food science, public health, and business or nonprofit management. These are topics many teens don’t even know they’re interested in! One intern said, “I just signed up for this internship so that my friend wouldn’t be the only one at the info session, but Dig It has been interesting and fun and had made me more interested in environmental farming.”

Working on the farm also allowed interns an opportunity to reflect on their own health and habits. During our last-day reflection, many of our interns said they felt inspired to eat more fresh foods after this experience, and to seek out food grown organically, despite the fact that healthy eating was not a topic we explicitly covered. Some students came to the farm right after a difficult chemistry class and expressed how relaxing and peaceful it was to be able to spend part of the day outdoors, a feeling substantiated by research on green space and mental health
Blog | School to summer with Dig It 5/2017
Just as the soil food web in this no-till bed interns researched and implemented supports a spinach seedling, may the web of connections and experiences students had on the farm support them as they grow.

Work-based learning programs like this can result in higher lifetime earnings and better postsecondary outcomes for youth, and we are incredibly grateful to the Career and College Readiness team at Saint Louis Public Schools for their support. However, Dig It STL school year internships benefit Gateway Greening as well. We have the opportunity to train the next wave of nonprofit staff and citizens that will keep our St. Louis food projects running for the long haul. Young people who never would have sought us out on their own have the opportunity to realize that they are interested in our mission. Even if our interns never set foot on a farm again, we hope we have cultivated an affection for land and food that sticks with the students for life.

PS: We’re excited that two of our school year interns, Adam and Caroline, were hired onto the summer Dig It STL crew! Stay tuned for more when the Dig It STL summer session kicks off on June 14th.

 

Written by Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne, Teen Programs Coordinator

 

Discover more about the Dig It STL Program: 

April on the Urban Farm with Dig It STL
A Semester in the Dig It STL Internship Program
No-Till Proposal by Dig It STL
USDA Awards Grant to Support Green Jobs for St. Louis Teens

Rainy Days on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm

Rain Garden or Urban Farm?

Blog | Rain Garden or Urban Farm 5 2017 01We probably don’t need to tell to you that it has been an incredibly wet and rainy week on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. The vegetables are getting a good drink, but unfortunately so are the weeds so we are mentally preparing ourselves for some heavy duty weeding in the near future. There are even some persistent puddles in the aisles and walkways have not dried out for weeks.

This week we said, “enough!” and started digging out around flooded areas to redirect water down-slope towards the rain garden. You can do this in your home or community garden too!

 

Keeping Busy on Rainy Days

Despite being driven inside by the rain the City Seeds clients kept busy as we studied Irrigation Systems and Ornamental Plants, like bulbs, vines and grasses in class this week. The highlight of the week was our food demo with Chef Margaret from the Chef and Child Foundation, where many clients tried kohlrabi for the first time, and actually liked it! Spread the word: kohlrabi slaw with avocado dressing is absolutely delicious… You are welcome.

Blog | Rain Garden or Urban Farm 5 2017 02Aside from classes and the dramatic weather, the Gateway Greening Urban Farm is finally starting to look more alive and productive, and less like a barren graveyard, as one client observed. It is very rewarding for everyone to watch all the progress and growth—now they can see their hard work paying off!

We are excited to get rolling with harvest season and hang up the raincoats for a while. Next week we would like a little sunshine, but not too hot (for the bok choi’s sake). Cross your fingers!

 

Written by Emily Leidenfrost, Horticulture Instructor on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm

 

Learn More:

Learn more about the Gateway Greening Urban Farm and City Seeds, the therapeutic job training program offered there.

Struggling with drainage issues? Rain gardens are often considered a cost effective, attractive, and environmentally friendly solution. Stop by the Missouri Botanical Gardens and Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District websites to learn more.

 

April on the Urban Farm with Dig It STL

Interns from Soldan International High School painting row signs for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

The appearance of April on the farm coincides with the mysterious disappearance of sufficient hours in the day.

Dig It kicked it into high gear last week, cutting, assembling, and painting 96 wooden signs to mark the beds on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. What we thought might take two days turned into four days of feverish cutting, drilling, and painting.

Dig IT STL intern Adam and AmeriCorps VISTA Genesis planting on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

A quick side trip with a few interns to plant half a bed of greens became several hours of aphid-squishing after we discovered the pesky pests had already invaded the seedlings. While we were there, we thought we’d check on the no-till bed whose cover crop surely would be nice and dead by now. Can you tell what part of the bed the holey tarp was on? Hint: it’s the part that still looks very much alive.

Cover crops that survived due to hole-filled tarps.

We re-crimped the cover crop, and found a long roll of black landscape fabric to replace the offending tarp. By then everyone was late, breaking into a slow jog to get the Gateway Greening Urban Farm cleaned and locked up.

Despite the frenetic pace of the final weeks of spring internship, the world right now is certainly mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful, as e.e. cumming wrote. Our interns are already asking about volunteering on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm after graduation, a suggestion that they too have caught the farming bug. I hear it’s pretty contagious.

Written by Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne, Teen Programs Coordinator 

 

Discover more about the Dig It STL Program: 

A Semester in the Dig It STL Internship Program
No-Till Proposal by Dig It STL

A Semester in Dig It STL Internship Program

 

This is the first year that Gateway Greening has offered a high school internship program, in addition to our summer teen employment program. Through the internship, local high school students explore environmental issues, the St. Louis food system, and local urban agriculture projects, all while earning school credit.

 

Here at Gateway Greening, we’ve been talking about the Dig It STL internship program and sharing pictures for months. Yet many people still find themselves wondering – what do the teens that participate in Dig It STL do exactly? For those who are curious to see what a semester in the Dig It STL internship program looks like, here are the highlights of what these youth have been doing, from October 2016 to April 2017.

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Dig It Interns from Soldan International High School spent a sunny day mulching fruit trees on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

October 6th: Plant Identification & Plant Families Workshop on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

October 18th: Healthy Soils 101 Workshop: We built a compost pile and tested our soil’s water-holding abilities and aggregation.

November 1st: Interviewed for TV by KMOX on the farm! We aren’t sure if the segment has aired yet, but it was pretty fun.

November 10th: Helping Forest Park Forever’s Nature Reserve Steward plant spring ephemerals in the forest.

November 22nd: Helping Farm Manager Jackson draft the crop rotation plan for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm’s next growing season.

December 8th: Mixing up a batch of Fire Cider to ward off the common cold, and learning about the healing properties of plants from Dani Gallagher of Roaming Soul Apothecary.

January 5th: Watching and discussing ‘The Garden’, the story of the South Central Farm, the largest community garden in the US (note: this is a great and educational film, but not a happy one! Tears were shed!)

January 12th: St. Louis Food Policy Council’s Melissa Vatterott introduced teens to the process of making policy in the City of St. Louis, and how policy affects food access.

January 17th: Dr. Ellen Barnidge and Dr. Stephanie McClure from St. Louis University gave our interns a crash course in hunger and food insecurity in our region.

January 31st: Our first planting- green onions!

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Interns Anna and Adam taking soil samples on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm, as part of their no-till capstone project.

February 3rd: The no-till culminating project begins to take shape.

February 9th: One of the many days that Dig It helped Community Garden Manager Dean build beds, sheds, benches, and more for community gardens. Power tools are awesome.

March 1st: 12 interns from Soldan International Studies High School begin their 8-week internship.

March 9th: Dig It led a phenomenal tour of the farm for a funder.

March 16th: Helping out at Global Farms, a farm project for resettled refugees through the International Institute (we worked with them once a month all year).

April 4th: All no-till beds have had their cover crops killed and are tarped off- now we are just waiting for the frost date to pass so we can plant in them!

 

Thanks to our many awesome partners in food, farming, and ecology who have been guest speakers or led working field trips for our teens! It has been a fantastic experience.

 

Written by Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne, Teen Programs Coordinator

Greening the STL Map Room

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Gateway Greening staff members worked with STL Map Room Site Coordinator Emily Catedral to mark current St. Louis LRA locations as part of their contribution to the STL Map Room project.

This week the Gateway Greening staff found a new way to highlight school & community gardens throughout St. Louis City – by teaming up with the STL Map Room project!

STL Map Room is a collaborative project between COCA (Center of Creative Arts) and The Office for Creative Research. On March 3, the partnership took over the shuttered Stevens Middle School in St. Louis, MO to create the St. Louis Map Room: a community space for creating and exploring original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.

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Gateway Greening Youth Educator Meg Holmes marking school garden locations throughout St. Louis City.

Last Thursday several Gateway Greening staff members spent the morning working with Emily Catedral of the STL Map Room to create a 10’x10’ canvas map of St. Louis City which our experience as urban agriculture advocates in the city.

It was a powerful experience as Catedral worked with staff to pull up a range of map data dating back to as early as the late 1800s and covering a range of topics: public transportation, residential and industrial zoning, racial distribution, public income and healthcare census records, and more. By adding a selection of school and community gardens throughout the city and projecting historical map data over top, it didn’t take long to observe how the locations of currently existing community gardens often correlated to St. Louis City’s zoning and financial policy decisions made as far back as the early 1900s.

After a great deal of debate and discussion, our staff narrowed down the list of possible data points that could be included to focus on current LRA land distribution, existing public green spaces, and a selection of school and community gardens throughout the city. The Gateway Greening map has joined others created by schools, non-profits, and the general public from around St. Louis and will be on display at the Stevens Middle School until April 9, 2017. Afterwards, the maps will be displayed in various locations throughout St. Louis for an undefined amount of time before being added to the City Archives.

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Gateway Greening’s contribution to the STL Map Room project, highlighting many of St. Louis City’s school & community gardens, public green spaces, and LRA land.

Discover more about this fascinating project by visiting the STL Map Room website, or find out how you can participating by contacting Emily Catedral at [email protected]

No-Till Proposal by Dig It STL

Dig It STL Interns ask: “Why are you tilling the Farm beds?”

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Since October, Dig It interns Adam and Anna have been hard at work on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. From researching and creating a crop rotation plan for the coming year, to getting outside and performing hands-on tasks, they’ve been an incredible help this spring.

As Adam and Anna have learned about soil structure and different soil management practices during their internship, they asked Teen Program Coordinator Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne: “why do we till the vegetable beds on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm?” As an urban agriculture organization, Gateway Greening teaches about no-till practices in our curriculum and discuss the benefits of no-till for microbial activity, soil fertility, and carbon sequestration. 

However, we have never tried using no-till soil management practices on our own urban farm. When challenged with the question, the staff thought about it and realized the main reason we haven’t tried no-till is… inertia. Gateway Greening has never directly used no-till and things seemed to be working fine, so it never entered our minds. 

As part of the Dig It school-year program, interns are required to complete a culminating project that demonstrates some of the knowledge they gained during their time with Gateway Greening this spring. We are excited to announce that Adam and Anna have chosen to put forth a No-Till Proposal for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm as their culminating project. 

 

 

Gateway Greening No-Till Proposal by Anna Dotson (McKinley High School) and Adam Mancuso (Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience)

Traditional farming practices utilize tilling when preparing to plant new seeds in the ground. This is done in several ways, from large machinery to handheld tools, bu the goal is the same: to loosen and aerate the soil in order to make it easier to plant and introduce nutrients. However, this process also interrupts the natural soil building process that is occurring during the growing season. This is why some farmers choose to instead use no-till practices on their farms, to maintain and boost this process. While till farming builds up the soil (using compost, fertilizers, etc), tears it down, and builds it up again, no-till farmers instead continuously build up the soil throughout the year.  We will be testing out no-till farming on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm this season in three different beds- lettuce, okra, and butternut squash. The process we will use on those beds is as follows:

  • Use a crimper to crush the stems of the cover cropBlog - No Till 2017 Img 02
  • Use tarps to cover the no-till beds and smother remaining cover crops (1-2 weeks)
  • Add 4 inches of mulch during initial seeding of bed
  • Remove perennial roots from soil where seeds are being planted
  • Incorporate dead vegetation back into the mulch
  • Pull mulch away from stems of young growing plants
  • Add more mulch as plants grow
  • Spread compost around plants before adding more mulch on top
  • Water beds minimally using drip irrigation
  • Educate visitors: “Don’t compact the soil my dudes!”

 

Before and after the beds are planted, we will be measuring several aspects of soil health through soil testing (pictured in attached pix), and we will compare tilled and no-till beds of the same crops for diseases, pests, and yield throughout the season.   

Farm Manager Rachel Deffenbaugh says Farewell

Blog, Rachel Deffenbaugh says Farewell

Gateway Greening Urban Farm Manager Rachel Deffenbaugh, teaching harvesting techniques to City Seeds Therapeutic Job Training ’16 clients. Photo Credit Deer Hart Photography.

 

Dear Gateway Greening Community,

 

It has been my sincere pleasure to work with you for the last 6+ years. I started as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Gateway Greening in 2010 and in 2011 I became the Farm Manager for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. I have grown and evolved, along with the scope of my position. As of February 27th 2017, I am transitioning to manage the Therapeutic Horticulture program at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

This change is bittersweet for me. I am excited for the new opportunities and challenges that will be afforded to me at the Missouri Botanical Garden. However, Gateway Greening has been a formative and inspirational place to work. It will always hold a place in my heart and I hope to maintain a strong relationship with the organization and the people involved.

Genuinely, thank you for making my time with Gateway Greening a valuable and impactful experience.

 

Sincerely,

Rachel Deffenbaugh

 

2016 – Ten Years on the Farm

A look back at the founding, building, and overall impact of the Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

The Gateway Greening Urban Farm (formerly known as City Seeds) started out as most things do – as a “what if?” floating around the organization back in 1998. For a nonprofit dedicated to addressing food security issues through the establishment of community gardens, starting a farm that could produce more fresh produce and reach a greater number of people seemed like a natural extension of their existing programs. Pretty soon, that “what if?” transformed itself to a “how?”

Building Partnerships

To figure that out, the Gateway Greening staff went on a retreat to brainstorm what a St. Louis based urban farm should look like, and how it could be used to serve and benefit the surrounding community. The staff quickly realized that by partnering with other nonprofits and public organizations, they could significantly expand the opportunities the farm presented. With a wish list in hand, then executive-director Gwenne Hayes-Stewart began to reach out to organizations they’d like to partner with. Many of the potential partners she approached to play a role responded with an “oh cool, yes!” – provided that funding could be found to support it. According to Gwenne, it was a fun time, but a lot like starting a whole new organization.

Ultimately, Gateway Greening formed a coalition with St. Patrick Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Master Gardeners, Public Policy Research Center (PPRC) of UMSL, St. Louis Community College at Meramac, and Operation Food Search. By combining their unique resources and skill sets, the coalition was able to secure a Community Food Project Grant through the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) to fund the project’s initial starting costs and early operational budget.

Under the original CSREES grant, the urban farm’s mission was listed as “Improve access to fresh food at low cost, improve self-sufficiency for people overcoming addiction.”

Roles of the Original Coalition Members: partners-grahpic

 

Building the Gateway Greening Urban Farm

Everything seemed to be coming together: the project had a solid plan, a coalition of organizations that would work together to make the project a success, and the funding to make it happen. What they didn’t have was land.

Hayes-Stewart recalls this time period with a sense of frustration. All of the sites originally proposed had major impediments, from extensive sidewalks and hardscaping throughout the plot to deep shade caused by surrounding buildings. Fortunately Kevin McGowan, a Gateway Greening Board Member, had a solution. At the time, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) had a sizeable piece of land bordering an on-ramp for Highway 64/40, just a stone’s throw from downtown St. Louis. Coming in at 2.5 acres, the plot turned out to be an ideal location – plenty of sun, highly visible, and located close enough to St. Patrick Center to be accessible to the clients who would be working there. The contact at MODOT thought it was a great idea, and agreed to lease the property.

farmcollageTo use Hayes-Stewart’s words, they were the “most fabulous partners.” MODOT worked with the coalition to prepare the space, fixing up a fence along Market street – a busy street which borders the property on one side, as well as to enclose a large, open sewer in the middle of the site.

Although the land was perfect in many ways, the soil was not. Soils in most urban areas are typically referred to as ‘brownfields’ meaning the soils are poor quality and are often contaminated with industrial chemicals or other pollutants. At the time, Gateway Greening had a board member who worked in the marketing department at what is now Spectrum brands, who was able to arrange for a donation of soil that could be used to create raised berms. This would allow the farm to grow healthy food above the site’s contaminated soil. The initial plan was to create 10 berms each year over the life of the grant (3 years) for a total of 30 beds. However, that’s not quite how things played out.

One of the many things that Spectrum has sold over the years is bagged potting soil. And much like food, potting soil must be appropriately labeled in order for a business to legally sell it within the US. At some point in time, Spectrum’s production line had mistakenly bagged a large amount of potting soil in the wrong packaging, rendering it un-sellable. It sat stockpiled in a warehouse in Kentucky until the Spring of 2006. Thanks to the generosity of Spectrum and a dedicated volunteer base, all 30 of the Farm’s planned raised berms were built over a period of 2-3 months using 6 tractor trailer loads of mislabeled bagged potting soil and humus. According to Annie Mayrose, the first Farm Manager, the soil for most berms had to be laid by hand, one wheelbarrow at a time, because it wasn’t possible for heavy equipment to reach all areas of the farm, nor was there enough room for a skid steer to operate in-between beds. Ten years later, she’s still grateful to Horstmann Brothers Landscaping for donating their time and equipment to move pallets of bagged soil as close to their eventual home as possible.

Working with St. Patrick Center Clients

The beds weren’t the only thing to see explosive growth in the first season. In addition to growing food, the Farm was intended to be a place where individuals who were dealing with mental illness, overcoming addiction, homelessness, and other challenging circumstances could work part-time in conjunction with their therapy programs. The idea was that by working on the farm, clients would be able to reinforce their personal and therapeutic goals by seeing first hand what they were capable of – growing food. That would help at-risk individuals in their community, gaining self-confidence as they accomplished tasks and saw their crops thriving, and developing a healthy relationship with food,learning soft skills and the importance of a nutritional diet. The grant originally intended to serve 10 clients the first year, however, 53 clients passed through the program before the first November.

cityseeds_05262006-2As the first full-time farm employee, Annie Mayrose has vivid memories of 2006. “That first year was rough. There was no irrigation, no shade, little storage for supplies and the harvest… we were relying on hydrant keys and 100s of feet of hoses to water everything by hand!” Beyond the physical challenges of caring for the crops, Mayrose also spent countless hours researching and building the programs offered for participating clients. “It was clear from the start that clients were having a very positive experience at the farm. There is something magical that happens when people work together, create or grow something with their hands. “These days, Mayrose laughs and groans good-naturedly when she talks about those experiences, but she’s also quick to acknowledge that even during the earliest stages, the farm had incredible volunteer support. From installing beds and watering crops to caring for the farm’s very first biodiversity initiative – growing all their own seedlings from heritage and heirloom seeds on site – volunteers played a crucial role in making the urban farm dream a reality.

 

Fact: The berms of the Gateway Greening Urban Farm are not straight rows, but gently undulating lines. The design was done by Master Gardener Sue Chaires to mimic the movement of the Mississippi.top

 

Between the combined efforts of clients, staff, and volunteers, the Gateway Greening Urban Farm produced 2,200lbs of produce in its first year. Much of the produce was sold at the nearby Tower Grove Farmers Market as a way to introduce the clients to retail sales and customer service while improving their self-confidence and putting food into the community.

Pilot Food Box Program 

2006 was also the year that the Gateway Greening Urban Farm partnered with what is today City Greens and other existing Gateway Greening community garden sites to pilot a food box program that sought to connect rural, low-income farmers with people living in St. Louis food deserts. This endeavor was essentially a subsidized Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It was a great idea, but needed a bit of tweaking. It quickly became obvious that many of the food box recipients had no experience with many of the fruits and vegetables they were receiving, so seasonal recipes and cooking resources were quickly implemented to meet the need. The Pilot Food Box Program did well for a number of years, but eventually the funding that made the subsidies possible ran out, making the boxes too expensive for the individuals who needed it. When that happened, the program became the foundation for what is today City Greens: a grocery Co-op that keeps prices affordable for everyone in their community!

2007-2009

city-seeds-discussion-lectureOver the next few years the farm continued to expand. A grant from the USDA led to the addition of a native plant nursery that was installed along Pine Street to serve as source material for St. Louis community gardens, and also to attract local pollinators to the farm. Drip irrigation and other key infrastructure also began to appear as the demand for both produce and slots for new clients grew.

When asked, Mayrose is honest about the growing pains experienced during this period. She went on to explain that each year the amount of produce grown increased, causing a scramble to find enough refrigerator space to hold the food until it could be distributed. The office was quite a ways from the farm, meaning that the harvest, mowers, gas and larger items had to be loaded up into a truck and carted across St. Louis at least twice a day. And the temporary shade structures being used kept being destroyed during surprise thunderstorms.

Despite these challenges, there were hundreds of daily high points too. Mayrose also talks about what it was like to see people interacting out on the farm and the joy and sense of accomplishment the work brought to everyone. Mary Fitz, a former client who completed the Job Training program in 2008, agrees: “My life really started changing there. To see nothing, then, I was taught how to plow, to turn over the soil, and I even helped build an irrigation system. You know, I learned to garden…it was just an amazing experience.”

Even during the early years, the Gateway Greening Urban Farm drew volunteers from everywhere: Corporate CEO’s, people struggling with homelessness, high schoolers, retiree’s, and even international visitors from the hotel next door! The shared life experiences and interactions from these diverse groups made even the most daunting, physical farm task fun and meaningful.

Did you know? The Farm’s current location was formerly a backup landing pad for the nearby Children’s Hospital in the event high winds prevented a normal landing. During the early years, helicopters still occasionally landed on The Farm!

 

2009 – 2010 – Awards & Grants

The original CSREES grant ended, causing several changes as some organizations parted ways, and others, like Food Outreach, were added. By bringing in new partners and expanding the farm’s official focus to include more defined roles for both food distribution and education, the coalition was able to acquire a second CSREES grant that would serve as the primary funding of The Gateway Greening Urban Farm for another 3 years. While the CSREES grant was important, it wasn’t nearly as fun as the Pepsi Refresh competition!
pepsi today show contest on Gateway Greening Urban Farm 2010-5In 2010, Pepsi launched a philanthropic social media campaign that pledged to give millions of dollars to groups that were working to “refresh” their communities through new and innovative means – winners would be decided by the general public, who would nominate and vote for their favoritegroups. Gateway Greening made not only the list, but was selected as one of 6 organizations as a ‘runner-up,’ awarding them with $50,000 infunding and national recognition. “It was a big deal” Mayrose recalls. “The Today Show came out to the farm for the bigreveal. It was live across the nation, so we had to get as many people as we could out on the farm at 5 am. It was really exciting.” Thanks to the Pepsi Refresh program, Gateway Greening was able to make critical infrastructure improvements.

At the same time, it became apparent that St. Patrick Center clients who had worked on the farm were getting hired by local landscape companies and nurseries because of their experiences growing crops. Willie McFarland hardscaping on Gateway Greening Urban FarmThe farm staff discovered that there was a demand for people with basic landscape skills in the St. Louis area. As a result, 2010 was also the year the Jobs Training Program for St. Patrick Center clients was formally established creating a unique program where clients could focus on learning both basic job skills and green industry (landscaping, gardening, horticulture) skills at the farm in addition to receiving career counseling at St. Patrick Center. Willie McFarland was one of the first participants to go through the newly arranged program. At the time, McFarland had recently been released from incarceration, and is the first to admit that he didn’t have any skills or experience that would allow him to get a job – a key requirement of his parole. With the help of his parole officer and St. Patrick Center, McFarland found himself enrolled in City Seeds. A few weeks later, he was recruited by Horstmann Brothers Landscaping for a job – before he’d even finished the training.

The program was initially funded by a one year grant through the Wal-mart Foundation, then sustained long term when St. Patrick Center was 1 of 6 national winners to be awarded a Green Jobs Training Initiative Grant by the US Conference of Mayors. The Therapeutic Horticulture Program continued as a separate offering.

Beehives were also added to the farm in 2009, and production jumped to 10,000lbs a year as soil quality continued to improve.

 

6 Years In

Gateway Greening Urban Farm 01By 2012, the Gateway Greening Urban Farm had become a well established presence in downtown St. Louis, providing thriving job training and therapeutic horticulture programs, extensive education and volunteering opportunities to the general public, and continuing to increase its food production and distribution by leaps and bounds. The site’s infrastructure continued to improve as well thanks to special grants and individual donations. The three biggest structural changes that came about were:

1.     The addition of a large shade structure, courtesy of a Specialty Crop Grant through the Missouri Department of Agriculture. This structure shelters the outdoor classroom, making it the perfect day for class on rainy days and offering a crucial cool space for clients and volunteers during the worst of summer’s heat.

2.     The Mobile Mini shed was also added for secure tool storage after the site experienced multiple break-ins and robberies, resulting in the loss of expensive landscape equipment.

3.     The installation of a rain garden in the center of the farm by then AmeriCorps VISTA Rachel Deffenbaugh. Although they’re well covered with grass and plants today, the farm is a network of french drains that move excess water to the rain garden where native plants trap and utilize the water, filtering it before it permeates back into the ecosystem. This project was crucial to reducing standing water on the site.

 

Changes on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm

City Seeds on Gateway Greening Urban FarmRachel Deffenbaugh came on board as the Farm Manager in 2012, following her work with Gateway Greening as an AmeriCorps VISTA. From 2012-2016, she was the driving force behind the farm’s success, managing a small team of seasonal staff, AmeriCorps VISTAs, clients and volunteers to keep both the Gateway Greening Urban Farm and its programs running smoothly day to day. Since coming on board full-time, she saw a lot of changes at the farm, starting with funding. Since the end of the CSREES grant support in 2012, the original coalition of supporting organizations has disbanded and the Gateway Greening Urban Farm has transitioned to rely on support from a variety of small grants, CSA proceeds, Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) Tax Credits, and individual donations.

Programming on the farm has evolved as well. For a time, the job training track included the Veterans Go! Green Job training program (created in conjunction with St. Patrick Center) which provided struggling military veterans with hands-on green industry job skills training and a basic horticulture education.

“We were all sharing a common bond. We all started getting attached to these plants, and the amazing process that not only the plant were going through but we were in ourselves experiencing the growth and the change.” – Greg Roger, former client.

 

What hasn’t changed is the Gateway Greening Urban Farm’s commitment to continuing to serve St. Patrick Center clients who are working to overcome homelessness, addiction, mental health issues and recidivism. As the economy recovered from the 2008 recession, our staff has seen a higher concentration of clients who need both the job training and therapeutic horticulture programs, resulting in the blending of these two distinct programs in 2016.

In a recent interview, Deffenbaugh was asked if there was a client that particularly stood out in her memory. “Several” she admits, “but Allen, a therapy client from 2012, probably stands out the most” (name changed, for confidentiality reasons). Before joining the program Allen had been a single parent, supporting his kids by truck driving. Like many drivers, Allen began to abuse drugs in order to stay awake and on the road longer in an effort to get his runs done quickly, and wound up addicted. From there, things spiraled out of control. “He’d had a rough time of things,” recalls Deffenbaugh, who has stayed in touch with Allen since he successfully completed the job training program in 2013. “When he started the program, he’d been sober for maybe a month – he always credited the program for helping him stay sober.” After completing the program, Allen went on to rebuild his life, finding both a stable home and work that allowed him to spend more time with this family. “He still volunteers with us” Deffenbaugh mentions at the end of the interview. “He’s always a big help when he visits.”

10 Year Impacts:

Over the last ten years, the Gateway Greening Urban Farm has produced more than 105,000 pounds of fresh, nutritious produce that has been distributed throughout the St. Louis region: to St Patrick Center clients and volunteers, to CSA and market customers, to food pantries, to food-security non-profits and to the City Greens cooperative. The Therapeutic Job Training Program – across all its incarnations – has helped more than 633 men and women to develop valuable technical and interpersonal job skills, as well as to develop coping skills in order to address challenges with mental illness and substance abuse. And the Gateway Greening Urban Farm has brought together thousands of volunteers from all over the region (and world!) to share stories and experiences as they work side by side between the berms.

When it’s all said and done, I could quote numbers: production quantities, volunteer hours, and employment rates galore, but the true impact of the Gateway Greening Urban Farm isn’t measured in numbers. It’s found in people like Mary Fitz and Willie McFarland. Eight years after finishing at the Farm, Fitz is still putting her skills to use at Global Market, where she preps, wraps, and displays delicious peppers and other produce in their produce department, and still loves to garden at home. As for McFarland, he’s been back to the farm on several occasions as a teacher, training new groups of clients in the skills and techniques he regularly uses in his work for Horstmann Brothers Landscaping. I can’t help thinking that he summed up the entire farm experience best when we spoke last: “It opens up doors, so many other doors to opportunities that weren’t there. When I look at the options this opened up since I learned this… I literally got a skill I can use that betters the whole situation, for me and everybody associated with me.”

 

Researched and Written by Erin Wood, AmeriCorps VISTA

Edited by Annie Mayrose, Rachel Deffenbaugh, and Jenna Davis