Situated behind a family housing development in Pawtucket, on a plot of land that was a playground 20 years ago, is an oasis of green. The New Urban Farmers are Bleu Grijalva and Emily Jodka, as well as countless volunteers who have set out to restore and preserve the environments of Pawtucket, Central Falls and surrounding areas by creating sustainable agriculture systems. The Garden of Life at Galego Court is just one of these agriculture systems: a 1.5-acre plot transformed into a fruitful instrument to help low-income individuals, families and at-risk-youth empower their lives.
Bleu takes off a work glove to shake my hand then walks me to the Geodesic Dome Greenhouses, built in the spring of 2011. All three domes are used as indoor grow spaces to start seedlings, mix compost and grow various plants throughout the year. At the moment, the New Urban Farmers (NUF) have about 10,000 seedlings growing within the domes: 50 types of Asian greens, 50 kinds of chili peppers, six types of strawberries, plus a slew more, all just beginning to peek out of their soil.
The geodesic domes also house a media- and a raft-style aquaponics system, both of which are growing food and raising tilapia. Bleu explains a simplified version of aquaponics: the fish produce waste, which is then broken down by microbes and worms and converted to fertilizer for the plants, which hang above the fish. The plants then filter the water that is returned to the fish in the system below. “In everything we do, we try to incorporate that symbiotic relationship,” he says. Aquaponics systems use far less water than traditional farming and aquaculture applications; the New Urban Farmers are using theirs as both an educational tool and an excellent source of food production, growing vegetables, greens and herbs together in a system with fish.
Emily looks up at me from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. She is watering a few of the dome’s 10,000 seedlings, growing in pots on every flat surface in sight. “We want to explain to the kids the life that’s in life,” she says. With the Galego plot being located within a housing community, the relationship the NUF forged with the residents and their children was crucial when first starting in 2009. Their helping hands were invaluable in getting the farm growing. “Kids will start to appear, sometimes we’ll have up to 30 at once. They just show up and want to help.” Working with kids to establish a stronger connection with their food and where it comes from, the NUF have interwoven art and ecology to educate kids’ palates while expanding what they believe is possible. Emily explains that the kids are given seeds, soil and “technical support,” but that they are free to plant and grow how and what they please.
Outside of the opaque, humid world of the geodesic domes, the Garden of Life plot looks a bit like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. A headboard and footboard that once graced a bedroom now frame one community garden bed; a happy scarecrow guards another. Bike wheels jut out of the soil, wooden beehives are lined up on the far end of the plot, and a large, twisted metal sculpture stands amongst it all. To the left of the community garden beds is an oversized camera obscura, built into the plot’s hill in conjunction with RISD’s architecture department to once again marry art and ecology. Everything has been repurposed, collected, donated or recycled in one form or another. “It’s still a work in progress,” says Bleu. “ It always is and it always will be.”
In season, NUF provides about 100 community garden beds on eight properties to residents of Pawtucket, Central Falls and surrounding areas. “We’ve created a closed-loop system. The residents feed the soil and the soil feeds the residents,” says Bleu. Once again, the symbiosis of NUF’s vision for the community is evident.
Self-proclaimed “social architects, planters of seeds and growers of food and minds,” NUF deeply believe that a community that grows together grows together. When asked why NUF and their vision are so important, Emily explains that their significance in the community is two-pronged. “Both the food and population crisis and the health crisis originate with America’s food and where it comes from. Part of our food crisis is that people saw dollar signs instead of full plates and healthy bodies. We need to bring small farms back to America; they’re vital to keeping these crises at bay,” says Emily. “As far as the health crisis goes, kids are dealing with obesity, diabetes and hypertension, all because of a lack of exposure and education. They don’t know the difference between real food and ‘monster food.’ You just can’t eat McDonalds all day, every day.”
Although “monster food” is Emily’s witty way of characterizing junk food, there is considerable truth to the label. The appeal of “monster food” is a contributing factor to why many kids no longer know that carrots grow in the ground, grapes are grown on vines or even what a beet is. The NUF pride themselves on having fostered appreciation in kids for a fresh pear off the vine or a garden bed free of weeds.
While walking the perimeter of the plot, we come upon wooden compost structures where donated shredded paper from the Housing Authority is utilized. The farmers also collect coffee grounds from New Harvest and Excellent Coffee companies, compost from Garden Grille and mash from Hi- Jinx Brewing Company. “The city has been tremendously supportive of us,” says Bleu, “which is fortunate because something like this cannot be done without partners.”
At the top of the Garden of Life’s hill, Japanese Knotweed, a classified invasive species, is growing. The entire plot was once teeming with it, but now only a handful of stalk clusters spot the hill. Bleu approaches a particularly beastly stalk, then notices the way it has broken through the hard soil, cracking the earth in long fingers. Instead of pulling the weed, Bleu envisions filming its rapid growth then time-lapsing the footage, setting it to the soundtrack of Jaws and showing it to the kids. He leaves the stalk where it grows. Everything that can be turned into a learning experience, is, and Bleu is quick to point out that he and Emily are constantly learning as well.
As the NUF embark on their 2012 growing season, they are optimistic about new collaborations and projects in the works. From refurbishing an old Coca-Cola cart as a vehicle for a mobile food market, to creating an urban food lab as an educational resource center in Pawtucket, there is never a lack of visions within the group. As a non-profit organization, volunteers are vital to the perpetuation of their work, so builders, growers and visionaries are constantly welcomed. “Everything we do is about working in unison, realizing that on our own we’re not much,” says Bleu, “but together, in conjunction with each other, we can do something amazing.”