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Building Sustainable Urban Farming Capacity and Connections

Lack of accessibility and availability of fresh produce in urban settings is increasing. As large grocery stores move out of urban areas, fresh produce availability has become more challenging. In Gary, Indiana, just four grocery stores sell fresh produce for the 76,424 residents. There are no major chain grocers and the limited food outlets are convenience stores and fast-food chains. Residents travel by personal vehicles or rely on public transit to commute miles outside Gary to purchase groceries. Recently, the Gary Food Council was formed to focus on how the local food supply chain must function sustainably to increase access to fresh food for the city. Although there is demand for fresh fruits and vegetables and seemingly space for urban farming to occur, there are currently fewer than 10 urban farms in the city. There is also a general lack of scientifically based information on the most efficient and effective ways to meet demands. There is a gaping need to train urban farmers in sustainable agriculture practices, form peer-to[1]peer networks to share newly acquired knowledge, and build marketing capacity in urban neighborhoods.

Purdue Extension led a four-year research and Extension project (supported by SARE and extended one year due to the pandemic) on urban farming to increase opportunities for effective and sustainable training, learning, and networking. A leadership team and advisory committee was established to administer the project, host networking events, develop and deliver an urban agriculture certificate program, establish a mentor/intern program, and build a tool share program. The urban agriculture certificate program lasted 10-weeks and included technical assistance from Purdue Extension and local farmers, hands-on experiential learning activities, and field trips to nearby farms to learn about successful practices in action. The program addressed harvesting, food safety, small farm tools and equipment, farm finances, pest control, growing vegetables, harvest day techniques, season extensions, composting, organic weed management, and irrigation. A total of 61 participants across three cohorts completed the certificate program in 2020 and 2021. Cohorts were invited to return to engage with, present to, and connect with newer cohorts. With the pandemic restrictions, this in-person program had to be quickly converted to virtual delivery. Many participants stated they could not have completed the program without this flexible approach. Graduation ceremonies were held to recognize course completion.

A number of networking activities occurred throughout the project. There were field trips to visit urban farming in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, nine farm tours, including the City of Gary, Lands End Farm, and Native Roots Farm, 12 on-farm demonstrations, field days and conferences including the Indiana Small Farm Conference and Purdue’s Small Farm Education Field Day, and additional learning opportunities (introduction to grant writing, virtual beginning farmer program, Grass to Garden workshops, ServSafe training, and online videos).

A program for mentors and interns was created. Experienced local urban farmers participated in Extension’s mentor training about motivation, communication, responsibility, accountability and ethical behavior, professionalism, emotional intelligence, performance, networking and mentoring protocols. Each mentor then trained three interns on their farms. Interns took part in 10 weeks of hands-on experiences at urban farms, learning land preparation, seed selection, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, tools, and marketing of fresh produce. There were three urban farmer mentors and nine interns. Tools were purchased and made available at a local farm to administer a tool sharing program, and a check-out system was set up. 

Following the project completion, a second SARE[1]supported project was secured to extend and provide ongoing mentor/intern programming and networking opportunities. The goal was to create a sustainable program to pay beginning growers to develop skills in urban farming to help build a sustainable and resilient food system. And it provided local urban farms with much-needed onsite help for their farms. Participants who had attended the certificate program were invited to apply for a summer urban farming internship. Interns spent eight hours per week for 10 weeks in on-farm experiences at local urban farms. In addition, interns checked in weekly with assigned urban farm mentors for individual mentoring sessions. There were three mentors and six interns for the summer program.

On certificate program post-surveys, 13 participants from 2020 (59.1% response rate) indicated they received answers about farming (92%), learned new urban agriculture concepts or methods (83%), and knew where to get technical assistance (75%) and financial assistance (50%). Participants reported confidence in their ability to apply what they learned to their own farm or garden (average 9.0/10). As a result of the program, 67% planned to become urban farmers. Participants shared: “This course helped me develop a comprehensive approach to planning, planting, maintaining, and harvesting the produce of my urban farm/garden.” “This course brought a portion of the urban farming / gardening community together. Doing so allowed me and others to see where our local knowledge base is. As an example, I know who my local master gardeners, beekeepers, composters, and chicken farmers are.”

Research results showed statistically significant differences from pre- to post-surveys for all three certificate program cohorts. Average scores from before to after increased for confidence, clarity and understanding. These results suggest the certificate program influenced participant clarity of purpose in developing urban farms/gardens, confidence in beginning or further developing urban farms, and understanding of expenses in the farm/garden. Statistically significant differences were also shown for average score increases in knowledge, accessing new urban farming resources, tool sharing, sharing knowledge, and application of knowledge. Some 33 certificate program participants from 2021 (84.6% response rate) reported on how they used the information they learned:

  • I have used the information that I learned to reevaluate and expand our planning and operations.
  • I have educated others, viewed the websites that were covered, and begun planning my own garden.
  • For the first time I started my own seeds. I used to buy plants from a garden center.
  • I learned new techniques, the advantage of certain tools, how to utilize water in a more conservative, productive way and who to contact when I have questions.
  • I have used the resources that I learned from the course to help me in better planning my garden. I’ve utilized the soil research tools, and [learned] new tools that were presented that’ll make farming much easier.
  • I will be starting a new urban farm in Gary to assist with the food desserts.
  • For the first time, I had a garden to be proud of. My neighbors were jealous and asking for advice, and I regularly shared my harvest. My confidence and success [were] directly related to this class.

These 2021 participants also shared the impact of the certificate program on development of their urban farm or garden.

  • This course has provided exposure, education and encounters with professionals and others who have shared their methodology and knowledge which increases my confidence and ability to execute efficiently.
  • I came to learn how to have a successful personal garden. However I left with a renewed outlook for my community despite the pandemic and ongoing economic crisis. I met wonderful people who have successfully connected our youth, the formerly incarcerated, the elderly, and other disenfranchised groups to farming and healthy eating. The camaraderie, encouragement, and sharing of information was refreshing. Each session was so informative and uplifting.
  • It has empowered me to further develop programs around urban farming.
  • I thought I understood general gardening techniques before I began the class. However, the level of my ignorance was astounding! Now, my confidence has increased, and I am planning my garden plan for this year and future seasons.
  • I have developed knowledge of urban farming. I will be able to start my own community garden. I will be able to write grants and find resources for the garden.
  • Looking forward to applying and designing techniques of farming that can help children develop their skills of entrepreneurship.
  • I learned that there are resources available to start the community garden I wish to start – besides having my own garden at home. I had shied away from purchasing some of the tools but learned that they are essential in making the work manageable, and have already put this knowledge to work. And most of all, I learned about crop rotation, which I had not yet tried.

After two networking events in 2021, 15 respondents reported that as a result of their participation, they know more about community benefits of urban farming, got answers to their questions/concerns about urban farming, and met others at networking/tours who they can continue to communicate with in the future. The average number of new contacts made at networking events was 3.65. On the mentor/intern program post-survey, four interns (44.4% response rate) responded. Three of the four indicated that after completing their internship, they have a good understanding about how to manage pests (i.e., weeds, insects, disease), how to manage soil fertility, bed or field preparation, how to manage direct seeding and transplants, plant care (irrigation and watering), harvest and post-harvest handling of produce, and appropriate farm equipment use.

Due to the pandemic, the tool share program became difficult to implement, along with several complicating factors (staffing issues, location of tools not conducive to participant needs, lack of awareness of tool share program despite attempts to share information, and not having tools most desired). By 2021 some tools were shared, but on a very limited scale. The tools will be given to the Gary Food Council and lent out in the future.

At the conclusion of project activities, past participants organized and administered the 2022 Urban Garden Conference in Gary, a sign of future sustainability for urban farming.

For the second project’s mentor/intern program, five interns (83.3% response rate) completed post-surveys and indicated the most valuable aspects of the summer program. Most (80%) indicated valuable aspects were one-on-one mentoring/advising, ability to learn hands-on, connection with farms close to my area, and connection to markets, and over half (60%) reported connection with farms similar to my own, connection with farms different from my own, connection with farms further from my area, and supporting new farmers. As a result of the internship program, participants planned to adopt practices, including an irrigation rain barrel system, no-till practices, trellising, more efficient use of space, more proactive weed control, better soil health practices, and a more social growing system (e.g., to help enter the wholesale market). All interns and mentors indicated they plan to continue relationships formed during the internships. Participants expressed appreciation for connecting urban and rural farmers, plans to pursue forming a farmer co-op, and plans to continue volunteering at the farms.

Urban farmers across the state, including Gary, Indiana, participants, are featured on a SARE website video. Results of Purdue Extension’s urban agriculture project have contributed to increased participant knowledge, confidence, skills, and aspirations for urban farming, and built connections and networks among experienced and beginning urban farmers.

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