Monday, September 21, 2015

G.R.O.W. Harrisburg: Where It's Been and Where It's Going

Since leaving my full-time job, I've tried to come up with ways to help the farm earn its keep.  Because after all, chicken and rabbit feed isn't free.  The chickens forage during the day, and I only feed them at night.  And, I can put together a decent ration of greens and wild weeds for the rabbits most days, but it's not enough to sustain them.  So, one of the ways I earn extra money is to sell eggs, honey, and garden art.  The eggs I sell on our local online farmer's market called Augusta Locally Grown.  One of the aspects of this organization that I love is it's a non-profit, and a portion of the seller's fee I pay goes to various programs in the area devoted to local food advocacy.  Since becoming a selling farmer on this site, I've become more involved in the non-profit side as well by volunteering.  And one program that really speaks to me and pulls me in as a volunteer is the G.R.O.W. Harrisburg initiative.  The Harrisburg neighborhood is a stone's throw from my house, and it is full of a rich and varied history. 
Harrisburg was once a mill village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  But, as the mills closed, the neighborhood fell into decline.  And, in recent years it has been a district riddled with crime, drugs, prostitution, and homelessness.  Drive down its streets, and you won't fail to see a burnt out shell of a house.  Enter a vacant house, and you, more times than not, will find evidence of illegal activity.  Convenience stores and fast food restaurants mark the landscape.  So, one can't help but wonder how the lack of quality healthy food plays a role in this environment.  The U.S.D.A. Economic Research Service considers the Harrisburg-West End Historic District a food desert.  It is considered low income and low access as the annual family income is at or below 200 percent of the Federal poverty threshold for family size and the percentage of residents live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store.  I live not five minutes from Harrisburg, and yet, not five minutes in the other direction is a collection of grocery stores and thriving economic development.  Harrisburg is so close, yet so far.

But, in 2012, some local medical students from the Medical College of Georgia, St. Luke United Methodist Church, and local farmers set about making a change.  That change was the Veggie Truck Farmers Market.  Augusta Locally Grown was brought on-board to coordinate the farmer's market, and since that time, a small farmer's market has grown into a multi-partner initiative called G.R.O.W. Harrisburg.  Its goal is to help residents learn to grow, cook, and eat real food as a community.  

Food is the starting point of the initiative, but one of the backbones is community and how important it is for the health and well-being of its residents.  I look at my neighborhood as an example.  One thing I love about it is my neighbors.  They are all good salt-of-the-earth kind of people, and we help each other out.  We have each other's phone numbers, and when someone is away for a few days, we tell each other.  We watch out for each other.  Many of my neighbors have lived in this neighborhood for 40+ years, and they tell me stories about when someone had a goat or how their family had chickens growing up.  In my case, farming and food are often conversation starters with someone walking down the street.  "You're the house with the chickens, right?  I can hear your roosters crowing, and it reminds me of my grandmother's house."  or "I love your garden in your front yard.  What kind of vegetables are you growing?"  or "My grand kids are visiting next week.  May I bring them over to see your animals?"  So, it's a slippery slope when neighbors no longer know each other and stop taking care of each other.  The community bond is broken and the moral integrity follows suit.  I can see through my own experiences what makes G.R.O.W. Harrisburg so special.  It's the commonality of food and how it is connecting people, and the more neighbor connections you have, the stronger your neighborhood.     

Kim Hines, the Executive Director of Augusta Locally Grown, sees the future of Harrisburg, not as a food desert, but as a food destination, where residents and outsiders come to buy local seasonal food and G.R.O.W. Harrisburg as a starting block for micro-businesses.  Changing the face of Harrisburg from an outsider's point of view without changing its unique identity and the diversity of its residents is paramount.  With the right education and direction, it can happen.  I think of Detroit as an example. With the crash of the car industry, Detroit became a barren wasteland.  But, local residents are taking it back through food.  PBS's Food Forward episode, "Urban Farming," illustrates this brilliantly.

I am so happy to play a small role as a volunteer, and I leave you with a video that perfectly captures the initiative and its programs.   

Grow where you're planted,


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Take That, ---uckers!

I don't think there is a garden pest I hate worse than the squash vine borer.  For years I've battled them, and I've done everything imaginable to beat them.  But apparently the vine borers at my house aren't reading the same literature I'm reading because they seem immune to every trick in the book.  I was determined to win though, so this year I decided to experiment with row covers and hand pollination.  My plan was to use the row covers and at the first sign of eggs, pull all of the summer squash plants to keep the eggs from hatching and feeding.  At the least, I could break the reproduction cycle and possibly start fresh next year.  No one surrounding me had a garden so I felt safe with this approach.  Each morning I marched myself out to the garden, uncovered everything, hand pollinated, and then covered it again. You may think to yourself, "Why go to so much trouble?  It's just squash."  Well, I'm a sore loser and very stubborn.  And, it is so disheartening to see beautifully healthy squash plants die before they can even produce any squash. 

My row covers worked, and I was victorious!  I grew zucchinis organically for the first time ever.  Had I known I would succeed, I would have planted yellow squash as well.  Unfortunately the row cover was a cheap Ikea window panel I had on hand.  Eventually the plants outgrew the area the panel could cover and I managed to rip quite a few holes in it, so I had to discard them after a few months.  And, I saw a few borers on the plants after I removed the covers, so I wasn't 100% successful.  But, I got squash for two months or so and I consider that a win.  I'll have to do something better for next year in terms of a row cover, but I'm encouraged.     

And, not only did I get zucchini, but just last week I noticed these sweet babies interspersed in my butternut squash bed.  It must be a volunteer from last year.  It's a zucchino rampicante, also know as a trombone squash.  It's supposed to be vine borer resistant, but it isn't in my garden.  I'm thinking maybe a seed I planted didn't germinate until now.  Who knows?  I'm hoping to harvest a few of these before it gets too cold, and I think I've passed the vine borer season at this point in the year.

Happy that we were getting squash daily, I was crowing about my victory one day on Facebook.  A friend of mine who produces an Earth-friendly video series for the local magazine asked if he could film a video on my battle.  And, being the introvert I am, I agreed.  I actually am an introvert, so this was incredibly out of character for me.  Regardless, here I am in all of my glory!   

Happy homesteading,


Monday, September 14, 2015

The Unknown Path

For the last five years you've known me as The Weekend Homesteader.  I worked full-time, and projects on my urban farm were completed as time allowed.  But even before I started my blog, I was building a farm on a part-time hobby basis.  Some raised beds were joined by edible landscaping in the forms of fruit trees, berry brambles, and fruit bushes.  Next came just two chicks, which turned into upwards of 25 at one point.  Angora rabbits were transitioned to meat rabbits.  Along came honey bees and ducks.  More and bigger animal housing and a greenhouse made an appearance.  I named my farm Bottle Tree Farm and gave it a logo.  All of this was done part-time while I worked to pay the mortgage.  And, over the years, it changed me and fulfilled me in ways my daytime job could not.

So today, I have a confession to make.  About a year and a half ago, I left my job.  It was the toughest and scariest decision I think I've ever made.  Those who know me personally know of this decision.  Some thought me foolish because I left a wonderful work environment, a steady income, and excellent benefits.  Others thought me courageous because I was stepping off the deep end into the unknown.  And, perhaps I was a little of both.  All I knew was that I just needed a break to explore other options.  I was fortunate enough to have a husband who supported my decision and a bare bones lifestyle that doesn't need six figures to keep it going.  I haven't felt comfortable discussing this publicly until now as this path I'm on is unknown, and it's a path I felt was mine to walk privately for a time so I could feel my way.

I knew I didn't want to walk privately forever though, as I hope my decision will inspire someone out there to take that first step to making a change from a lifestyle that doesn't suit you anymore.  I'm not saying run out and quit your job tomorrow, but put a plan on paper, set some goals, and make some decisions that put you on your unknown path.  You never know where it may lead you.  My path may lead me back into the workforce, and I'm fine with that.  But it may also lead me to places I never imagined. 

With that, I leave you with a favorite poem of mine by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Happy homesteading,