Awareness of community gardening in North America has exploded over the past two decades. Often associated with urban gardening in the food deserts of major cities such as Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, community gardens can be found throughout the US, including rural locations.
And while the concept and practice has gained considerable visibility among Americans, it would be a mistake for those outside of the majority world (what was previously referred to as the developing world) to lay claim to community gardening. Community-based agriculture has long been practiced in many locations where there is non-private land – often referred to as the commons - on which farming/gardening, foraging, fishing and raising livestock takes place.
For example, each year, some communities of rotational (swidden) farmers scattered across the uplands of Southeast Asia will negotiate concerning which tracts of fallowed ground that each local family will farm.
Communal agriculture isn’t just limited to the commons. Another prominent example of shared food production efforts is in Cuba where since the 1990s Special Period of economic deprivation, community gardens have nourished many.
In North America, as opposed to European plantation or household-based agricultural systems, some of the agrarian Native American tribes divided village-controlled land to produce subsistence crops.
After the arrival of Europeans and Africans, forms of community gardening were inserted into oppressive systems. It was not uncommon for plantation owners to allot ground for their slaves to cultivate. Similarly, vegetable plots were made available by coal companies for their low-paid employees to tend so that they could supplement their diets.
Less oppressive were the WWII victory gardens. Many had community elements and were intended to boost self-sufficiency and patriotism while making more food available for the troops. During that same period, members of hundreds of rural American churches collaborated in the Lord’s Acre Movement with the objective of producing congregationally-grown crops to be sold with proceeds shared with the needy. My mother, her parents and siblings are among those in this 1944 photo taken in the Lord’s Acre corn plot of Mt. Hope Baptist Church near Franklin, North Carolina.
It would be difficult to pin down a contemporary definition of community gardening that everyone agrees on. Nor is there a particular approach. At the core, with some degree of collaboration, these endeavors are designed and implemented to meet community needs and expectations related to food production; usually small-scale. A major motivation toward community gardening is improved access to quality local food that matches local preferences. Other desired benefits include opportunities for learning and fellowship.
I would simply define a community garden as a cooperative gardening effort of one or more individuals/households benefiting the growers and possibly other designated recipients. By that definition, a community garden might be as informal as two or more families or friends sharing the same production space. Community gardening could also describe the efforts of an organization, such as a school, neighborhood group, church, business or nonprofit toward cultivating an area that enables collaborators to grow produce for their own consumption as well as to share or sell.
In many cases, a community garden is simply a sub-divided plot of ground where local individuals can rent gardening space or tend plots free of charge. Access to water is usually provided. In these arrangements, gardeners may or may not choose to collaborate further in growing, sharing or distributing food.
In response to the nutritional needs of the Immokalee farmworker community, Cultivate Abundance is committed to increasing access to community-sourced food. Local food production is important as it can better respond to local food preferences. Food produced in the community, and from nearby neighborhoods, also has a smaller footprint with regards to the cost of transportation and storage. As a result, community-sourced food is usually fresher and less processed than farm products that have been grown, packaged and shipped from afar. Food that’s grown locally also means greater opportunity for participation from all stakeholders in the effort; whether in the production or consumption of the food.
A major objective of our community-sourced food program is to decrease the perception of passivity among the beneficiaries (e.g., those who consume the food). It is essential that their input is sought on the types of food that they prefer verses the traditional “you should be grateful for what you get” message of some institutional food charities. As much as possible, food that’s intended to be shared among food insecure groups should match local preferences.
As gardening is a part of Haitian, Guatemalan and Mexican food culture, tiny gardens growing vegetables, herbs and even fruit can already be found in Immokalee. However, wide-scale household gardening is a challenge among Florida’s farmworkers due to lack of time, tenure and resources. Raising vegetables and other crops in the sandy “soil” of southwest Florida is also easier said than done based on seasonal challenges of pests, heat and the humidity of summer as well as occasional frosty weather in the winter. Despite such obstacles, Cultivate Abundance is evaluating the Immokalee way of household container gardening.
To expand local food production, community gardening - whether done by Immokaleeans and their allies inside of the town or in neighborhoods adjacent to Immokalee - is a promising option toward our goal of supplementing farmworker diets with nutritious, community-sourced food. The local climate, despite aforementioned soil challenges, is generally amenable toward the production of various hardy types of fruit and vegetables preferred by the farmworker community.
We must once again point out the irony of community gardening for the benefit of Immokalee’s farmworkers. Their town lies in the heart of Southwest Florida’s production area for wintertime tomatoes and other produce. Despite the massive scale of industrial food production that they participate in, primarily as cheap labor, many in this community experience food insecurity. Affordable, quality food is difficult to access locally due to a variety of reasons including the cost of food and low pay.
But unlike local industrial models, the diverse food preferences of farmworker families are what drive the ever-evolving selection of community garden crops. Their input is sought for every stage of food production in community gardens, whether inside Immokalee or nearby.
Cultivate Abundance is currently involved in two initial community gardening efforts. The first began at the Covenant Presbyterian Together We Grow missional garden in Ft. Myers. Born out of a Sunday school discussion about Immokalee’s food security challenges, the class was offered a jungly section of church property on which to grow food for farmworker households. After Hurricane Irma removed some of the shade, church members began clearing the property with axes, machetes, hoes and a chain saw, painstakingly digging up tree roots and forming planting beds with improved soil.
Based on input regarding Immokalee preferences, the church is growing tropical fruit such as banana, plantain, papaya, mango, carambola and avocado. Root crops, including cassava and malanga, have been planted in addition to pigeon pea bushes. Seminole pumpkin and sweet potato vines fill in spaces between the trees and rows.
The role of Cultivate Abundance has been to source plant material, help with the planning process as well as assist in the development and maintenance of the garden. Besides growing food in solidarity with Immokalee farmworkers, another objective of the Together We Grow effort is a church garden that serves as a demonstration plot for other congregations and organizations.
The second and newest garden is being installed at Misión Peniel in Immokalee. Located in the middle of the farmworker neighborhoods, the site will also be used to train, inspire and feed. To be tended by local gardeners and volunteers, the garden’s components will include crops valued by the resident Haitian, Guatemalan and Mexican communities. Not always at ease with each other due to language and cultural differences, besides food production, we hope and pray that the garden will build bridges of cross-cultural appreciation and cooperation.
I once remarked to Mark Buhlig, a pastor who helped spearhead a church garden at Englewood Baptist Church near Kansas City, that doubts had been expressed whether the Covenant church garden could efficiently produce food compared to purchasing groceries at local wholesale markets for distribution. Mark replied that while buying or seeking wholesale donations might be economically efficient, church and community gardens are superior in cultivating relationships.
During a recent hot and humid workday at the Covenant garden, a visitor observed the dozen or so volunteers who were cooperating to weed and mulch the garden while enjoying each other’s presence. He joked, “Nice job of tricking these folks into forming community.” I responded that the community had already existed. But somehow the garden has managed to multiply its positive effects.
We’re hoping for the same in Immokalee.