Digging dirt in the city

A thing to love about Indianapolis: it is a city surrounded by farmland.

A second thing to love about Indianapolis: it is a city filled with farmland.

Indy is a typical mid-size midwestern city in that it has its share of empty lots. Between relatively flat topography, a location that enabled less-than-dense development, and an economic decline in the last quarter of the 20th century, the city has torn down old structures and left lots bare. What better way to fill those lots than with edible gardens?

We were able to attend two different urban farm events last weekend: a small gathering of folks celebrating the inaugural year of the Butler Campus Farm, and a tour hosted by our chosen CSA this summer: Big City Farms.

At both events, I was struck by the same thought: how beautiful a thing, a farm in the city.

The Butler Campus Farm is located beside the campus intramural fields, and therefore feels less-than-urban — separated from the campus by the canal and a setback of trees, and bordered on one side by a restored prairie, you can walk among the rows of over 100 tomato plants (yowza!) and feel like you’re on a farm in the country. This was the first growing season for the farm — a project of Butler’s Center for Urban Ecology (I’ve got the hots for the director) — and it has been amazing to see all the work and what it has yielded. Kaitlyn Haskins, the student farm manager, organized Saturday’s Summer Harvest Potluck to help celebrate the faculty and community volunteers who have helped make the farm so successful. It was an amazing first growing season: the produce has been sold weekly on campus, and is being sold to both the campus food services and local restaurants — in short, there was plenty to celebrate.

As we arrived, we were met with the sound of the campus bell tower playing ragtime tunes titled with names such as Cabbage Leaf and Beets and Turnips — the selection arranged especially for the evening by a farm volunteer who is also in charge of the bell tower. Eating picnic-style on blankets brought from home, we filled our plates from the makeshift buffet setup under the harvesting porch built that morning. The food could be described as variations on a theme: the theme being tomatoes. But that is what they have, in unabashed abundance, at the farm here in the dog-days of summer — and their many preparations filled our bellies well. For dessert, we could partake of blueberry bread, peach empanadas, or grab a slice of the farm’s first watermelon (the second melon will be auctioned off this weekend — if you’re local and love watermelon, you can send a bid for the second one to farm@butler.edu).

The next evening we had been invited, along with all the other CSA members, to tour the urban farming plots for Big City Farms. Our tour began at the home of Tyler and Laura Henderson; Tyler, along with Matthew Jose, founded BCF, and they are in the middle of their second summer as a CSA (community supported agriculture).

After munching on fresh-cut veggies and sipping some SunKing pale, we began our walk around the Cottage Home historic neighborhood, where within a two block radius lies the majority of the plots for BCF. I was surprised to hear that several of the lots are being used by permission of the owner, if for no other reason than it means the owner doesn’t have to mow the grass. Matthew and Tyler began preparing the lots two years ago — they started by sampling the soils to check for nutrients and possible toxins, and then mulched and planted accordingly. Much of the area we toured was currently planted with cover crops, or “green manure.” These will be tilled back into the soil, and give pH stability that can be harder to obtain when repeatedly using cow manure.

After seeing the places where our vegetables have been growing, and hearing the guys talk about farming, I was left both inspired and overwhelmed by what they do. It inspires me to attempt a larger garden next year, and to prepare for that even this fall after we harvest the last late-summer produce from our meager garden. But it also left me wondering how two guys can do what they are doing; the area they cover, even within a relatively small radius, is a lot of land. They have help, mostly in the form of volunteers who want to learn about gardening — but still. All those plants, and how they need to be picked. And weeded. Not to mention the science behind farming — checking for pH levels, and finding non-pesticide solutions to potential pests. Makes my head spin, just a bit.

Which is just one reason I’m not a farmer. And the reason I’m quite thankful for those folks who do love to farm, and want to do it in the city. I’ve nothing against rural farmland — it’s where most of the goods at our farmer’s market are grown, and also where much of the livestock must reside (you can have chickens within the city limits, but as of now having a pet dairy cow is against the rules). But if we are interested in narrowing the divide between those who choose to eat local, fresh food and those who find it inaccessible, then urban farming is an important step. It is visible to those living in the city, and the stark and lovely contrast between lush edible gardens and a backdrop of skyscrapers and bus stops can be a conversation starter with an array of people of different backgrounds — exactly the people that populate our urban areas.

If you want to be involved in your city, check this site for CSAs in your area — there might be some that are using city lots. If you are in Indy, there are volunteer opportunities with both the farms we toured. Check their websites (links above) for volunteer and contact information.

3 thoughts on “Digging dirt in the city

  1. Wowser! Great story. Needless to say you are aware that dear ole Dad has done his share of home gardening but this is impressive. I just think a beautiful vegetable garden in the middle of the city is awesome. Tell that guy you have the hots for “GREAT JOB”.

    PS: Where did you find that cute model you used in the last pic?

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