For many people in Newport, Vermont, fresh produce can be hard to come by. That reality may seem incongruous, considering that Vermont as a state is a very green and largely rural place.
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However, unemployment in Newport (population 4,700) is among the highest in the state, and one in four residents of the very remote community are already 65 or older.
"Parts of Newport include food deserts where it is hard for some residents in the more challenging neighborhoods to get nutritious and affordable ingredients for meals," Patricia Sears, a Newport community advocate and economic development specialist, explained to AARP last year. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Access Research Atlas, Newport is an area where a significant number of residents have limited access to a vehicle and are more than 20 miles from the nearest grocery store.
One solution: Help people create the food they need.
"Older adults who grew up on farms are now talking to younger people about that experience, and kids are seriously interested in the stories," adds Sears, who volunteers as state president of AARP Vermont. "While younger people do the manual labor, like the digging and weeding, older people grow the seeds in their homes over the winter and instruct the kids on how to care for the plants. A pride has developed in the neighborhood, and the people are taking care of one another."
Patricia Sears has partnered with Fresh Start Community Farm board member Jennifer Leithead to provide insight into Newport's successful gardening program and share "how to" advice so other communities can do the same. — Melissa Stanton, AARP Livable Communities
Here's How It Was Done
What: Fresh Start Community Farm: An Urban Intergenerational Community Garden
Where: Newport, Vermont
When: We started the garden project in the spring of 2011 after taking a neighborhood survey about the challenges the community faces and what they would like to have in their neighborhood. Since we are iin the far north of Vermont, we're limited to a three-month summer growing season. We have some fundraisers and planning meetings in the winter and plant seedlings indoors in the early spring.
Our first site is what we call the Summer Street site. A landowner allows us to use space that was previously a muddy parking lot and not used for much. It's open space in the middle of a block in a neighborhood that is challenged by poverty. The site is surrounded by houses and doesn’t have any street frontage.
Our second location, which we call the Lake Road site, on the lawn of a local business called Numia Medical. The business is happy to not have to mow the grass, and we provide CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] shares for the employees in exchange for using the land.
The third site in Newport is in Gardner Park, which was already the site of a community garden coordinated by a local garden club. The members asked us to take over the site in 2012. The three sites in Newport amount to a total of 27,800-square-feet.
We also have two sites in Derby, a neighboring community, that total 10,700-square-feet: One is in a trailer park and offers gardening opportunities to the residents; the other is the Derby Community Garden, which is located near the local library and junior high school.
Why And For Whom
While Vermont is a highly agricultural state, the Northeast Kingdom, which is the three-county region in the northeast corner of the state, is different from the rest of the state.
Poverty and unemployment soar here, with corresponding obesity and disease rates. While fresh food is available for people able to access it, many don't have enough money to buy fresh produce and don't have transportation for getting to a grocery store.
Our goal is to offer an alternative. Our gardens work a little differently than most community gardens. Instead of offering individual garden plots, a board and a group of garden managers coordinate all of the sites and choose what to plant based on what will grow best in each of the locations. Volunteers can work at any of the sites and keep a record of their time.
We harvest weekly on Wednesdays, with our food first going to the volunteers who have worked that week. Volunteers receive a bag of vegetables corresponding to their time worked and what is ready at that particular time. Any leftover food is donated to Cornucopia, our local Meals on Wheels and senior meal site, as well as to community food shelves, several schools and an adult day care center adjacent to our Summer Street site.
Because we want people of all ages and abilities to participate in the gardens, we design the garden paths wide enough for wheelchairs use if necessary, and thanks to an AARP Vermont community grant we've been able to add raised planting beds, which enable people to garden without having to bend or get down onto the ground.
We grow anything and everything we possibly can. Most of our seeds are donated, mainly from High Mowing Seeds (a nearby organic seed company), Baker Creek seeds, the Vermont Community Garden Network and a number of other donors. In addition, we often receive large donations of starts in the spring from garden supply stores and farms in the area.
We love to grow heirlooms from the area, and we keep a collection of the Littleton bean, a variation of the Vermont cranberry bean. This year we branched into okra, sweet potatoes, eggplant, melons and horseradish.
All that is on top of the usual items people think of when they think vegetable gardening: tomatoes, string beans, peas, potatoes, zucchini and more. If it exists and can be convinced to grow here, we try it. We also enjoy branching out into unusual varieties of the traditional favorites, such as purple zebra tomatoes, purple peas, Scarlet Runner beans, purple cauliflower, lemon cucumbers, colored carrots and anything else we can get our hands on.
A group of us are particularly enthusiastic about hot peppers, so we've grown everything from mild Anaheims to jalapenos to Thai peppers, habaneros and even the elusive "ghost pepper," the hottest variety yet. We also slowly but surely add to our perennial collections of herbs, blueberries and raspberries. We'd love to someday add fruit trees.
When we were planning the Summer Street site back in the winter of 2011, the planning team went door to door to each of the houses on the neighboring streets to ask residents their thoughts, needs and desires for the community.
Most people were enthusiastic about the garden, but we heard two additional needs the loudest. The community wanted safe places for children to play and seniors to enjoy, and they also wanted a solution to the dog and cat excrement that was littering the streets.
While we weren’t able to do much about the litter specifically, we did set aside a third of the Summer Street garden space for play and leisure activities. The landowner bought a swing set and sandbox and provided a portion of a needed fence. We received two picnic tables as donations, and the local Rotary Club donated $500, which we used to purchase the remainder of the fence.
In the years since, we've added a shed made of old doors and windows, a regular shed that was built with materials donated by a local lumber company, a variety of benches (including some made from used pallets), several beds of perennial flowers, a "what's happening" kiosk and numerous smaller decorative items. Some of our other sites also have tool sheds.
Because the Summer Street site is located in the middle of the neighborhood, we've worked to make it an enjoyable place. The garden space is designed in concentric rings around a central gathering place. (Take another look at the image at the top of page 1.) The main paths are wide enough to be wheelchair accessible, and we work to keep them smooth and debris free.
Once we get past the winter, mud season, the garden prep and planting, we weed and wait. Once the fruits, vegetables and herbs we planted start coming in, we have a weekly harvest.
Different people are responsible for harvesting different gardens. Everyone then meets at the Summer Street site, where we wash, sort and weigh what was picked — and we take a picture! The harvest is then sorted into bags for each volunteer. Any leftovers are sent to the places we donate to.
We have a contest on our Facebook page. Whoever comes closest to guessing the total pounds of each week’s harvest receives a bag for the week and an invitation to join us. We harvested 3,875 pounds in 2014 and 5,435 pounds in 2013. The difference is due to a late spring and early September frost in 2014 which really depleted our numbers.
The Stakeholders (And Skeptics)
The original project was the idea of Newport’s zoning administrator, who applied for and received a Municipal Planning Grant from the state of Vermont. In January 2011 he hired a planning team of three people representing a local farm-to-school organization and a local community action agency. The project was coordinated through the Newport City Renaissance Corporation’s design committee.
At first many people in city leadership and some local business owners were very skeptical of the project, but it didn’t take them long to see its value. After the first year, we formed a leadership board with a mission and vision. When we took over the Newport Community Gardens, we inherited its bank account through the recreation department at the City of Newport, where it has remained. We are now mostly independent, with the city acting as our fiscal agent.
We face challenges, small and large, every day. Small challenges are typically along the lines of needing supplies, coordinating volunteers, controlling insects and diagnosing plant diseases. Fundraising is also always on our minds, from writing grants to coordinating events to asking for donations of supplies or money.
Among our larger challenges: We've learned a lot of lessons about working with volunteers, about having to do damage control when helpers behave inappropriately, don't follow growing instructions or, occasionally, steal from the gardens.
The Power of Partners
For the 2016 planting season, Fresh Start Farm is working with the following groups to grow, says Patricia Sears:
Salvation Farms: "We're becoming part of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, which will give us better networking locally as well as with the rest of the state for gleaning, or gathering the leftovers after a harvest."
North Country Career Center: "Students in the program learn how to start plants in their greenhouse. In previous years, they used the starts for a fundraiser, but this year they'll be donating the plants to us instead. They've also offered to house hot pepper plants for us over the winter."
Boy Scouts: "A local troop has as one of its badge requirements spending 30 days working with a community garden.They've chosen to work with us."
Newport Ciderhouse and Grill: "We'll be working with this local restaurant to provide vegetables during the summer."
When we started, we didn’t have a garden contract or guidelines in place, so we had no recourse or consequences when participants acted in ways contrary to what was best for the program.
By the summer of 2014 we had created a contract of sorts that outlines our expectations for volunteers and asked each person to sign it. We also posted the rules at each of the sites.
Our guidelines spell out liabilities and expectations that volunteers are honest about reporting time worked, behave appropriately (no rudeness, drug or alcohol abuse), adhere to organic growing guidelines, follow directions and supervise their children. The document also outlines consequences, which include being asked by the site manager to stop the behavior, being referred to the board and, if necessary, contacting other authorities, including the police.
Another lesson we learned: During our first year, we allowed people to sign up and take responsibility for specific plots. However, over the course of the summer most of those people stopped coming by to maintain their plots and harvest their food, which made for quite a mess at the end of the season. After that, we opted for the more communal community garden model that is coordinated by a board. The board meets throughout the year.
The Step-By-Step Process
1. In our case, the zoning administrator had an idea and a good partnership with the downtown organization, Newport City Renaissance Corporation, which provided advocacy and matching funds.
2. Once the funding was secured, a potential location was identified and a coordinating team was hired with a stipend covered by the grant.
3. The team went door-to-door asking people about their neighborhood — what they thought, what was needed or wanted and what their thoughts were about a garden.
4. We spoke to the landowner of an unused lot and secured his permission to use the property as a community garden.
5. In the early spring of 2011 we hosted a fair on Summer Street that included booths by various community organizations as well as free vegetable seeds and free food, such as sliders, pizza made from local ingredients, and smoothies made in a blender that was powered by a person pedaling a bike. Due in part to requests from neighborhood seniors, there was an activity booth where people could plant tomatoes in buckets for placing on their porches or in their yards. (See the photo below.) The fair was in mid-May after a very long winter so the garden site was barely tilled at that point, but the community came out en masse in spite of cold drizzle and had a great time.
6. The planning team coordinated compost and manure donations and got the site ready.
7. In June we had another event for planting day and then an official grand opening.
8. At the end of the season, a few dedicated volunteers cleaned up the garden.
The Costs (And Who Pays)
The initial organizing team was paid through the Municipal Planning Grant, which included some matching funds from the city and the Newport City Renaissance Corp. The vast majority of the supplies were donated by community members, local businesses, the Summer Street landowner and the Newport Rotary Club. While we have consistently been able to secure grants for operating funds, we still rely largely on local donors.
Among the grants we received are those from the Green Mountain United Way, Newport Rotary Club, New England Grassroots Environmental Fund and AARP. In-kind contributions for communications and other needs have come from the Newport City Renaissance Corporation and Green Mountain Farm to School. Since the city is our fiscal agent it provides a small amount of staff time to that function. We do not receive other assistance from the city.
Our main coordinator puts a large amount of volunteer time into the gardens, of course, and she uses her personal vehicle to carry supplies and vegetables, so we try to secure funds for mileage for her as part of our grant requests. We hope to acquire a small truck or trailer for the garden to relieve our chief volunteer from needing to use her personal vehicle.
Reviews And Feedback
While we encountered some skepticism at the beginning of the project, many of our critics have become vocal supporters, among them the mayor, the city manager, other city leaders and local business. The local mail carrier is also a big supporter, having walked Newport's streets for years and seen the very visible difference between Summer Street and its neighboring streets.
Almost immediately after we started the Summer Street garden residents in the neighborhood began picking up litter, raking lawns and planting flowers, even if they lived in apartments. The landowner has recognized the value of the garden, which has improved the neighborhood enough that he can be a little more choosy about who he rents his residential properties to. The police have noticed a downturn in the number of calls to the area. While we have a small amount of theft from the garden it has not been overwhelming.
Working with volunteers is very, very different from working in business. Our volunteers are our main strength, and we firmly believe everyone has a part to play and something to add. However, as with any project or organization, people can throw some curve balls. Diplomacy in the leadership is absolutely key.
For example, one piece of advice: Never tell a volunteer "no" for an idea they've had, no matter how terrible it is. It's important to keep that volunteer interested — their passion is very much needed. Learning how to respond to a bad idea is an important lesson.
Instead of saying "No, that’s terrible" say something like, "That's a good idea, but it won’t really work for us because [fill in the blank]. How about [fill in the blank] instead?" Redirecting someone’s passion and energy and working with them goes a long way in keeping volunteers excited.
As noted earlier, we learned the necessity and value of having some rules and guidelines along the way, with clear-cut consequences for behavior that isn't conducive to the well-being of the garden.
We consistently get asked to expand and start more gardens, but we recognize that until we have more reliable volunteers, we can't grow. However, we'll gladly give advice and informational assistance to other groups.
Since the Summer Street garden is in a neighborhood with lots of children and several seniors nearby, including at an adult day care center, we jumped at the chance to connect the two generations by establishing our Adopt a Grandparent Program in which we match a child and older person to work on the garden together.
The program provides opportunities for the older people, who often spent much of their lives gardening and miss it after moving into the city, to share a lifetime of experience with the neighborhood youngsters. (See more about this effort in the PBS Vermont video "Fresh Start Community Garden.")
Learn More About The Fresh Start Community Garden
Learn More About Newport, Vermont
- Read the AARP Livable Communities "5 Questions for ..." Interview With Patricia Sears
- Learn about the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, which Newport joined in 2014
Originally published April 2015. Updated April 2016
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