Civic Agriculture: Sowing the Seeds of Community

April 1, 2013 | By More

The church social hall is crowded with an eclectic group of people. The gamut runs from college professors to a bearded character sporting a brown canvas jacket and a Jed Clampett hat. A macaw sits preening on his right shoulder, and the big parrot’s flamboyant red, blue, and yellow plumage gathers a crowd. The collection of citizens is a fair representation of the community, except for that gaudy bird. Fluorescent birds aren’t an everyday sight in the River Valley, particularly among an agrarian crowd. But, this isn’t a typical agrarian crowd. 

The occasion for the gathering is a community seed swap. A seed swap is exactly what the name says it is. Various farmers and hobby gardeners bring various seeds left over from the previous growing season and they swap them with each other. It’s also a seed giveaway; even the newbies to horticulture that wander in seedless leave with free seeds. The unwritten rule is to give back next year.

The point of all this swapping and giving is twofold. First is the pragmatic need to preserve heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are passed down through the generations and are proven growers in the area. They have thrived in the regional soil and climate for generations. They are also the key to maintaining biodiversity in the face of large-scale monoculture. Reason number two is not so complex. The seed swap is also a place to visit with other members of the community and swap ideas as well as seeds. It’s part of a growing movement called civic agriculture.

Civic agriculture is the modern name for the community based farm economy and the community relationships that were the standard only two generations ago in our nation’s history. There are varying depths of thought within the movement, from the knee-deep philosophy of just being more self-reliant to the immersing notion that community agriculture and food sharing is a path to moral, sometimes spiritual, enlightenment. Better nutrition and environmental awareness fill out the middle depths. The seed swap at the All Saint’s Episcopal Church, on this cold Saturday afternoon in February, only gets your feet wet.

The seed swap is part of a bigger vision and the vision belongs to Suzanne Alford-Hodges. A book by Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse — a restaurant ranked among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – cultivated the inspiration. The book is titled “The Edible Schoolyard.” Waters has been called the mother of American food and one of the most influential figures in food of the past 50 years. She is a tireless proponent of organic food and changing the eating habits of Americans. “The Edible Schoolyard” also titles a program Waters developed for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. The book and the program planted a seed.

Suzanne and her husband were driving into the church parking lot one Sunday when the seed started taking root.

“I looked at the church and the land past the parking lot and had a thought,” said Suzanne. “We needed to have a garden here.”

Suzanne passed the idea along to others in the church and the community. The seed stemmed and leafed into become something even bigger.

“We started thinking about having a food and faith fair with programs on everything from gardening to just knowing where your food comes from,” said Suzanne. And, in September of 2010, the church hosted the Food and Faith Fair.

The Food and Faith Fair was an educational event as well as a community outreach. Presentations about nutrition, the local food market, and gardening were focal points of the event. The fair drew about 200 people and sparked more ambitious ideas.

From that one and only Food and Faith Fair, three community- minded activities grew. The seed swap, the Community Garden, and a Saturday lunch called the Neighbors Table.

The Community Garden started with a box of herbs on the heels of the Food and Faith Fair in 2010. It has grown to several plots and the plot gardeners range from children in the local neighborhood to the mayor of Russellville.

The Seed Swap was a natural addition to the churches vision and was added in 2011. It’sajointeffortbetweenthechurch,which hosts the event, and the UCA student group, CAAH (Conserving Arkansas Agricultural History). CAAH founder, Dr. Brian Campbell, is responsible for the development of seed swaps in Arkansas.

The Neighbor’s Table is a community lunch provided by the church every Saturday from noon until 1p.m. It’s open to anyone that wants to sit down to a meal with fellow community members, many of whom are among the less fortunate, but the meal is about more than filling bellies.

Joining Suzanne as joint-coordinator of food ministries at the church is Carolyn McLellan. Together they oversee the Community Garden and the Neighbor’s Table programs at All Saints Episcopal Church.

“We all eat together and it’s not a handout,” said Carolyn. “Real plates, real silverware, you eat with your neighbor and you visit with your neighbor.”

The meal is also symbolic of the church’s ministry. “What better way to demonstrate who we follow than by sharing a meal with our neighbors,” said Carolyn.

The church strives for delicious, nutritious, and locally grown food. Those attributes are combined with bracing efficiency. Carolyn said that thanks to generous community donations, the cost per person was $1.34 last year.

Average attendance in 2012 was 200 per month with January and February of 2013 at about 215 per month according to Carolyn. Other churches; New Prospect Baptist, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and Central Presbyterian Church have also come on board to help with Neighbor’s Table.

Carolyn was quick to point out that the meal and the Community Garden are part of a bigger effort to cultivate relationships within the community as well as provide education about nutrition, and self-reliance. These attributes led to the creation of a fourth project involving community and food; the Russellville Community Market.

While hosted by the church, the market is managed by the Arkansas Tech University Anthropology club. Volunteer management from a college club isn’t the only unique aspect of the Russellville Community Market. For starters, it’s a virtual market.

Customers visit a website that features products from local farmers. From this site, customers view products, prices, and place their orders Sunday through Tuesday. The farmers deliver to the church on Thursday afternoon, and customers pick up from 4 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. There is no sales tax, per se, but operating expenses are built into the system. An additional 12 percent is added to the purchase price of farm products. Three percent of that supports the software running the website, three percent helps support Neighbors Table, three percent goes to the Anthropology club for their projects, and three percent for expenses and promotion.

Clearly, this ain’t your daddy’s farmer’s market.

The system seems like a win-win for all parties involved, including the community consumer. Ten bucks for a garden spot with irrigation furnished is tough to beat. The once-thought-mythical free lunch does exist. A farmer’s market that supports local growers bolsters the local economy. The three branches that stemmed from the Food and Faith Fair share many community goals, but the market adds another dynamic. It all comes down to finances from the consumer’s viewpoint.

For some consumers therein lies the rub. Linda Payton of Dover is one of those consumers.

“I’d like to buy all local food,” said Linda. “I think organic is the way to go if for nothing else than to get away from pesticides, but I’m on a budget. Sometime the organic and locally grown options are on the outside of my budget.”

A casual side-by-side price comparison supports Linda’s claim. Even the retail challenged among us knows that $6 for a gallon of local goat’s milk is a good $2 more than the gallon of cow milk sitting in the cooler of a grocery store. Dr. Joshua Lockyer says this expense is largely a matter of perspective though.

“I don’t think the evidence will show that locally grown food is always more expensive than mass produced food,” said Lockyer. Lockyer is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Arkansas Tech University. He is currently principal investigator with the Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative at ATU and secretary of the Advisory Board for Russellville Community Market.

“My food class will be looking at this some later this semester and I’d like to see a full study on this, but am not aware of one,” said Lockyer. “In cases where it is more expensive, it has to do with the ‘economies of scale of mass production’.”

The economies of scale of mass production mean that higher volume reduces costs associated with production, processing, and distribution. The definition of cost is a matter of perception as well according to Lockyer.

“Mass production processes tend to externalize the negative costs to communities, the environment, and people’s health from their cost equations,” said Lockyer. “This enables those who run those processes to do things that local producers, who have more accountability to their local communities, would not normally do. Things like release massive amounts of pesticides or hog manure into the environment or put a lot of local farmers and vendors out of business by flooding the market with cheap goods designed to corner the market rather than complement what other farmers are producing.”

Shannon Jamell of Russellville is a consumer that has weighed the costs of increasing her food budget versus the costs mentioned by Dr. Lockyer. The 2013 Russellville seed swap was her first and this spring will be her first to attempt a garden. Shannon plans to start with a small garden, and any shortcomings will be supplemented only with locally grown food…for the most part.

“I support the local farmers market and I always ask how they grow their produce, what they sprayed on it and stuff,” said Shannon. “And, if I’ve got to buy from the grocery store, I buy organic.”

Shannon’s buying habits are indicative of a small, but growing portion of consumers. The United States Department of Agriculture reports a 9.6 percent increase in farmer’s market listings from 1994 until 2012. The largest percent of increase falls within the years 2007-2012.

The numbers do not show explosive growth. What they do show are specific buying habits gaining momentum.

Every facet of the civic agriculture movement echoes the theme of accountability mentioned by Dr. Lockyer. It involves standards that sometimes run counterintuitive to our traditional idea of profit, but it also offers a different measure of profit. It’s a theme that resonates with a small, but growing number of consumers today.

 

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